Leadership Profile: Kesha Braunskill – Making Black History Now in 2019

American Forests is pleased to highlight those who have made lasting contributions in the field of urban forestry. One of those leaders is Kesha Braunskill of the Delaware Urban and Community Forestry Program.

Kesha Braunskill has had a fascination and appreciation of the natural world as far back as she can remember. As a girl, she dreamt of being a veterinarian, so went to college to study animal science at the University of Maryland. Her interests in plant and animal interactions led her to subsequently earn a Masters Degree in Ecology from Delaware State University, researching seed dispersal mechanisms of the wild horses on Assateague Island in Virginia. Kesha later completed all but her dissertation of a Ph.D. program focused on seed dispersal out of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Throughout her Ph.D. study, life happened for Kesha. In quick succession, she experienced a marriage, having a baby, and getting divorced. She learned that academia is not designed for those who have full-time caregiver responsibilities, but, despite her difficulties she persevered, meeting all of the program’s research and teaching requirements before deciding to move back east for familial support. She reflected, “You just put one foot in front of the other, and you don’t think about it.” This move would end up shifting the trajectory of her career, transitioning Kesha from ecology in academia to urban forestry.

Upon her relocation back to the east coast, Kesha got right back out into the field and secured a seasonal position working in forestry on behalf of the state of Delaware’s Forest Service. Though it was not her first choice of jobs, the role only lasted a year, and at the end of it, she landed a full-time position becoming Delaware’s State Urban Forestry Outreach and Partnership Coordinator. “I found my way here nontraditionally like many folks. I’m an introverted person, but what has clicked with me is the social aspect of the work. The difference we can make in this program for the community makes a difference. We go into a community and plant trees, and it makes a difference. I’m able to make a difference in real time, and over the long haul.”

For the last three years, Kesha has served the state of Delaware as the head of its Urban and Community Forestry Program. She has put her educational background to use and has worked tirelessly to build trust and a culture of collaboration between the state forestry program, local municipal forestry programs, and communities.

Kesha noted, “Urban Forestry is ecology; I can bring in the plant and animal interactions that I’m passionate about. I’m African American and Native American; I feel deeply tied to the earth, and to giving honor to everything- plants, animals, the ground, the air, the water. Urban forestry is the perfect place to remind people they can connect with those things even in an urban setting.”

Her work to build the capacity of local partners on the ground like churches, libraries, and other grassroots groups has yielded a more equipped volunteer network, ensuring a ready base for planting and upkeep throughout the year.

Over her tenure, Kesha instituted new accountability measures through regular check-ins and follow-up activities with planting and maintenance partners, including keeping a detailed inventory with maintenance data on the newly-planted trees. Her data-driven ethos, patience, and holistic approach to the work have been lauded as excellent by her peers in the region.

Now, newly re-married and professionally positioned to maximize her impact, Kesha and her team will be taking on new projects in 2019, including launching a new tree stewards program in partnership with the state forestry agencies in neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania, supported by a grant from the USDA Forest Service. They will also be planting in communities of color with low tree canopy coverage in cities like Dover, DE this spring and in the fall. Delaware’s Urban and Community Forestry Program is also convening its peers from states in the region, hosting a spring meeting for all of the Northeastern region urban forestry coordinators.

“I don’t know that I’d be able to make as much of a difference in another career path; I think that is the perfect fit.” American Forests agrees, and we thank Kesha Braunskill for her contributions in Delaware, and for being an inspiration to all of us involved in urban forestry.