In Baltimore, an effort to turn lives around by planting trees

Living on Earth
Baltimore street with trees

A street in Baltimore has been updated with newly planted trees.

Baltimore Tree Trust

In the predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods of Baltimore, violent crime is all too commonplace along bleak asphalt and concrete streets. But there is now an effort to green these neighborhoods and uplift residents by putting them to work planting trees.

Nonprofits, in particular, are giving former inmates the opportunity to take ownership of their home turf while earning a living wage. Among them is Alex Smith, who spent 15 years in prison. Smith has turned over the proverbial new leaf and now works for the Baltimore Tree Trust.

“My official title is Field Operations and Outreach,” Smith says. “Essentially, I'm a foreman, and I work with fellas and ladies who come from rough backgrounds, and we go out and plant trees all over Baltimore. ... You put trees on a block, and it changes the whole environment. It’s not just concrete and asphalt and brick. And they definitely help our environment. They trap rainwater, and the tree pits and roots help filter out all the bad stuff that otherwise would go right into the Chesapeake Bay. But beautification and how it changes what people see when they look out their window, that's the most important part to me.”

Smith learned horticulture and started working with plants while in prison. Dr. Wayne Yoder of Frostburg University went to the prison to teach about plants, but “it was not like we could put it into practical application,” Smith says. “We were just learning about it. But when we approached the staff about it, this idea started growing that we could actually transform the grounds, and that we could use what we were learning in the classroom inside of the prison.”

When he got out of prison, Smith worked sporadically in construction, while doing landscaping on the side. Someone suggested he buy a pickup and not let his landscaping skills “just sit on the shelf.” He took the advice and began to show people at the Center for Urban Families, where he worked as a volunteer, some of the things he could do.

When Dan Miller, executive director of the Baltimore Tree Trust, came looking for somebody who could work for the organization, Smith’s name came up. Now, Smith recruits others who have had similar experiences and spent time in jail.

“Everywhere I go in Baltimore, I’m asked, ‘Are you hiring?’” Smith says. “So it's pretty easy, when I'm in the Baltimore Tree Trust truck, and I have a vest, and I'm out working, to find people who say they're interested in jobs. But mostly I come to the Center for Urban Families and get people that have come through the STRIVE program.”

STRIVE is an employment readiness program that sharpens or refreshes workers’ skills. The program helps them not only get jobs, but keep jobs, Smith says.

Smith’s work with the Tree Trust has support from the community, he says, and not just from people seeking employment, but from “normal, everyday people who just like to see trees, like to see people working,” Smith says.

Part of Smith’s job is to do outreach in the community, to dispel some of the myths about the trees and to teach people the skills to care for them.

“There are a lot of myths about trees — they bring rats, they strangle pipes. That’s the number one issue that we hear,” Smith explains. “Some people just don't want them because of bugs and mosquitoes. We get all kinds of things. When we are out in the community, we are definitely armed with information, but sometimes, even if you show people, they still don't want the tree.”

The Trust maintains the trees for two years after planting, so people in the neighborhood have a chance to see how Smith and his coworkers do their jobs. “Any chance I can, I'm giving people advice and giving them pointers and tips on how to take care of the tree,” Smith says.

“Some people have actually taken ownership of the trees — ‘That's my tree,’” he adds. “Some of the neighbors even squabble over whose tree it is. We get a pretty good response from people who care about the neighborhood and care about the way the neighborhood looks.”

Working for the Tree Trust has helped Smith turn his life around, and he hopes he is not an anomaly.

“I would hope that eventually this catches on, because every day that I'm out in the street I see opportunity.” he says. “While I'm planting trees, I see the tree pits that aren't being taken care of, I see the trees that have been planted years ago that aren't being cared for, I see the litter that is in the tree pits. All those are [employment] opportunities. If the government and the communities are just a little creative and can see the opportunities that I see while I'm out there in the street, I think it definitely can work out for other people.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.