May 1, 2023 /
Christina Hester

Interview with a Tree Ambassador: Keith Jones

Here at Casey Trees, it is an integral part of our mission to connect people to trees, through trees – and one of the ways we have expanded our reach is through our Tree Ambassador Program. Tree Ambassadors are residents of Wards 7 or 8, that engage with neighbors and residents about getting free trees planted – not just at homes, but at schools, parks, places of worship, and other areas that are in need of trees!

Tree Ambassadors start the conversation and Casey Trees schedules a time to talk with interested community members about all the details. We train Tree Ambassadors and provide all the materials needed, so that they can learn new skills and gain valuable experience while out in the community.

Recently we spoke to one of our Tree Ambassadors to learn more about him and his experience with the program. Watch below to hear from Keith himself or scroll down to read our interview. If you live in Wards 7 or 8 (or would like to plant at an address in those wards), you can support Casey Trees and our Tree Ambassador program by getting free trees through Keith right here!

Casey Trees (CT): Who are you and how were you introduced to Casey Trees?

Keith Jones (KJ): My name is Keith Jones Jr. I was introduced to Casey Trees through Ward 8 Woods, but I was aware of Casey Trees since about 2009 when I first started working in environmental justice or environmental space.

(CT): What is Ward 8 Woods and what kind of impact does Ward 8 Woods have in the community?

(KJ): Ward 8 Woods is a non-profit that was started in 2018. It’s a branch-off of the Anacostia Coordinating Council that was a committee to restore Shepherd Parkway at the time, and then Nathan Harrington, the Executive Director, founded Ward 8 Woods in 2018. Since then, we’ve removed tons of trash – we have park stewards, who are employed full-time and given a living wage salary, and they work every day to clean up the parks in Ward 8. Nathan also brought on the Community Outreach Coordinator position to reach out to residents to talk about Ward 8 Woods and what we do.

We have several programs. We include our Clean-It Claim-It Program. Our residents can adopt their neighborhoods for free. We provide the tools, the bags, the gloves, the signage, the T-shirts, all the free giveaways so residents can go ahead and clean up a neighborhood. And they’re definitely the eyes on the street for us, the eyes in the neighborhood. They’ll call us if they see illegal dumping, and we’ll come pick it up. And they’re just there as the eyes and voice on behalf of our group. We also do a monthly cleanup that’s done all throughout the year. We’ve had cleanups in below 32-degree weather and we’ve had cleanups when it’s hot, and we get large turnouts. We’re there typically every first and second Saturday of the month. The first Saturday is at Fort Stanton and the second is at Shepherd Parkway.

(CT): What made you interested in the Tree Ambassador Program?

(KJ): The Tree Ambassador program was introduced to me through working Ward 8 Woods. I’m the Community Outreach Coordinator, so most of my work involves talking to residents, getting their interest about our programs we have to offer and also our volunteer programs. So, it was brought up that I’m already out there doing the work, and then I thought about it, do have the time for it? And I said, okay, it’s part of the job – I’m already doing, so why not? And it’s for a good cause – so that’s kind of how I learned about the Tree Ambassador program and my involvement in it.

(CT): What’s your relationship with trees and the outdoors?

(KJ): So, my relationship with trees and the outdoors started when I was a kid. I’m a late eighties baby, so I won’t tell my age, but think I was the last of the kids that have video games and go outside, so as an adult, however, it kind of grew when the pandemic hit again. When the gyms closed, and the Rec centers closed. So, the outdoors was open, so I had a bike, fixed it up and went outside and started riding my bike at Anacostia Park.

I discovered a trail that goes all the way up to Lake Artemesia. I think it is in Maryland out by College Park. It’s about a 20-mile trip and I did it round trip a lot during the pandemic. And I enjoyed it. It was peaceful. It was well-paved. You know, it was just a wonderful experience to get outdoors and just enjoy nature. I really loved it. My outdoor love grew again, basically from that.

(CT): Why do you love your community?

(KJ): My origins of working in communities started when I was in high school. I interned for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton in 2003 and four, and then after my time at Morehouse College, I came. I taught for a summer, summer teaching fellowship in Brooklyn, New York. And then I came back to DC and from there I got involved in the mayor’s office of the Clean City, which falls under community affairs.

That office taught about keeping the city clean. We ran the Adopt a Block program similar to our Clean-It Claim-It program as well as the Clean City Assessment. I was able to visit every neighborhood, cover streets and alleys from Ward 1 to Ward 8 – four times a year, assessing the city for cleanliness. Just to have my eyes and my feet on the ground across the city and talking to residents and adoptees really expanded my love for DC and its residents and, you know, people really do care about our city and its environment.

(CT):Why is protection of forested space so essential to Ward 8 community?

Ward 8 is blessed to have over 500 acres of tree afforded space; however, it has been heavily neglected and underutilized. Rock Creek Park, for example, up in Uptown DC, there’s beautiful trails and I enjoy it myself, but I live in Ward 8, and I want to be able to walk down the street and go to a trail in my neighborhood or hike, or whatever the case may be. And it’s unfortunate that it’s been neglected for so many years. I’m blessed to say that Ward 8 Woods and so many organizations are really starting to step up and hold people accountable for this, you know, the illegal dumping, the overgrown vegetation, it needs to be addressed. I’m happy that Ward 8 Woods and other groups have finally started to put, you know, action into words.

(CT): What do you hope to achieve as a Tree Ambassador, for yourself and/or your community?

(KJ): What I’m hoping to achieve, really nothing for myself, There’s no personal gain in this to me, it’s really for all of us. I mean, any park, any tree that’s planted benefits the entire planet honestly. Personal gain – I want people to get more educated about the need for trees, the need to have environmentally friendly areas and places to play and work. And I hope that the community will see that we do need that.

I know that Ward 8 has a lot of other issues that we come across and it plagues us and we all try to address. At the same time, if we don’t have trees, you know, we’re subject to heat exposure in Ward 8, for example, the tree foliage and coverage helps reduce temperature. Without it, it exposes us to health issues, to asthma, which are real issues and harms the black community. And we need to have that tree foliage there. It helps us all, helps us breathe. Imagine a planet without trees. What would we do? We couldn’t even live here. Unlivable and some communities in Ward 8 are close to that. So, we need these trees planted for basic survival of life.

(CT): What’s your favorite tree? Why?

(KJ): My favorite tree actually is the Willow Oak. I recently learned something about the whole “knock on wood” reference comes from Willow. But you see the willow oak trees along the Anacostia, you know, I think along the Tidal Basin as well. They’re my favorite, I like the way they dangle in the wind. I believe they symbolize flexibility, and that’s kind of who I am as a person.

I’m very flexible when I try to do things. I’m working my full-time job, to working with Ward 8 Woods, to doing what needs to be done for my family and for my community. So, it kind of reminds me of myself.