Healing the Past, Growing the Future

By Lea Sloan

Mass. State Senator Nick Collins (navy coat) and Representative Liz Miranda (red coat) joined H.E.R.O. Hope Garden founder Judith Foster (red hat) and the team to install the new garden in Dorchester.
Mass. State Senator Nick Collins (navy coat) and Representative Liz Miranda (red coat) joined H.E.R.O. Hope Garden founder Judith Foster (red hat) and the team to install the new garden in Dorchester. Credit: Speak for the Trees Boston.

THE FOOD FOREST that was planted last fall on a triangle of land in Dorchester is about more than trees in this under-resourced area of Boston. It’s about healing from the past and launching a bright new future for Boston green spaces.

With the support of our corporate partners — Alliance Data and its Epsilon business, American Tower and Bank of America — American Forests is working to fill a critical gap in Boston’s urban forestry capacity. We are helping local partners incubate a new citywide urban forestry nonprofit, Speak for the Trees Boston.

As recommended in the Vibrant Cities Lab’s step-by- step guide to implementing urban forestry, a community must have a strong anchor institution. An anchor organization convenes diverse stakeholders, advocates for sound policy, educates the public about the value of trees, develops tree canopy data, and plants and maintains trees where city agencies cannot. While Boston has many great conservation organizations — including some focused on urban food and trees, such as the Boston Food Forests Coalition — there was not a single group focused solely on tree canopy in Boston, a surprising fact for a city of its size.

One of the first projects of this new organization saw community members come together to create a green space on vacant land for healing, nurturing and health. Shoulder-to-shoulder with a few dozen enthusiastic Epsilon volunteers, we planted fruit trees: Asian pear, persimmon, medlar and hardy kiwi, as well as perennial strawberries and blueberries.

Pivoting on an idea as old as the dawn of agriculture and as primal as growing what you eat and sharing it, the H.E.R.O. Hope Garden (Healing, Empathy, Redemption, Oasis) will be a place for neighbors to talk to neighbors as they plant or pick, finding commonalities that run deeper than diversity, that are about food and about life.

“When you garden and produce food from the seed that you’ve planted, there’s pride in knowing that you created and nurtured this thing that is yours,” said Judith Foster, community founder of the concept of H.E.R.O. Hope Gardens, of which there are now five.

“We want to bring back hope to the community,” said Foster. “You see all the violence that has been going on. There’s a lack of hope, there’s a lack of self-worth, there’s a lack of nurturing, if you will. So, we are hoping to build a spot where people can come and just reflect, get involved, get their hands dirty, plant something and watch it grow, nurture it and repair themselves, as we repaired this spot into something new.”

The mission of the project is on point with American Forests’ core values for urban forests work building a national movement and in cities like Boston, our newest Community ReLeaf city. This effort is bringing the concept of Tree Equity to underserved neighborhoods and building local capacity to grow and manage Boston’s urban tree canopy in the communities that are most lacking in the many social, economic and environmental benefits trees provide.

These values are also shared by Epsilon, an Alliance Data company based in Wakefield, Mass. As noted by Danielle Ricketts, Alliance Data’s senior corporate affairs specialist, “Speak for the Trees’ unique approach in creating a multipurpose space for Dorchester residents is the kind of innovative collaboration that we seek to invest in and encourage others to do the same. We understand how community strength directly empowers our customers and associates, eliminating barriers and creating long-term economic sustainability. We’re eager to see how this transformation emboldens the stability of this and surrounding communities in Boston.”

David Meshoulam, executive director and co-founder of Speak for the Trees Boston, explained, “Members of the community introduced us to this empty plot as a space to transform. It was a foreclosed corner lot filled with grass and rubble where local neighborhood residents were already growing their own food in shallow wooden raised garden beds. But, half of the space was not being utilized. We worked closely with local organizations to bring to fruition their vision of planting fruit trees. The project is an example of how, when organizations come together, local communities become empowered. This is a garden for the community, by the community….with a little help from their friends.”

Lea Sloan writes from Washington, D.C., and is American Forests vice president of communications.