Sarah Anderson on expanding urban tree canopy, building an equitable workforce, and appreciating evergreens

This month, HerChesapeake welcomed Sarah Lillie Anderson to our first quarterly meeting of 2019. Sarah is passionate about expanding urban tree canopy and connecting residents of low-canopy communities with careers in tree care. She started her own environmental consulting company in 2015, and in 2018, began working full-time for American Forests, a longtime client. She is the Senior Manager for Tree Equity Programs.

Sarah Lillie Anderson attends the Chesapeake Bay Program's Diversity Workgroup Meeting at Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore, Md., on Nov. 2, 2016. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Sarah Lillie Anderson attends the Chesapeake Bay Program's Diversity Workgroup Meeting at Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore, Md., on Nov. 2, 2016. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

HerChesapeake: Tell us about yourself. Where are you now, and how did you get there?

Sarah Anderson: I’m from the Pine Barrens in South Jersey, between Philadelphia and the [Jersey] Shore. We have sandy soils and lots of pines, and it’s protected from the development along the I-95 corridor.

I’ve loved nature and trees for my whole existence. I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my undergraduate degree, and was a dual major in urban planning and environmental studies. I love people so much--I’m a textbook extrovert--and I love cities, and I like studying cities. So after some failed internships, I ended up interning with the City of Pittsburgh’s urban forester.

I worked for the Alliance for Community Trees for four years, which helped me set up my network. When they were acquired by the Arbor Day Foundation--and I was asked to reapply for my own job--I decided to start my own business.

At Lillie Leaf, I hustled so I could pay rent while in graduate school at Bowie State University. Last fall, American Forests--a client of mine--brought me on full-time to blend trees and people and make sure trees and people are equitably spread out cities and that everybody is sharing in the benefits trees provide.

How did you know it was time to transition? That you were ready to start a business, and later, that you were ready to end that business?

I started the business because I was getting laid off, and the skills that I was getting in the classes I was taking made me confident I could run a business. I also come from an economically privileged place, so I wasn’t stressed out about, “Oh, if nothing works out then I’m not going to have a place to go home to.” I was broke, but family was not broke, and that’s important to acknowledge because I had that peace of mind. I also knew I had my network. I had been talking to these folks [in this network] for four years, so I knew what kind of pitch would work and what [services] they needed. The best way to learn is by doing. A lot of us think things have to be “just so,” but it’s never going to be that way.

Coming from a place of general economic stability, and knowing what I knew about the market: both of those things let me say, “It’s going to be okay for me to say no to other offers if they don’t seem right.” And in Maryland, it’s less than $400 to incorporate [a business].

I always had faith that I would get the work. There’s more than enough work to do, so much so that I could hire subcontractors to do some of it. But as you grow, more of your time is spent doing administrative work. I finished my degree in 2017; in 2018, I tried to be super healthy and prioritize myself and my wellness. I realized in July [of 2018], I’m exhausted and I’m trying to take care of my body and I miss immersing myself in my work and not having to worry about taxes and healthcare and negotiating contracts. I also knew that for my entire life, I have always been about the word “influence.” Maybe that’s why I’m in D.C., or trying to do national work [now], or am happy when someone calls me with a problem and I can say, “I got you. Here are some best practices.” My favorite thing is to help the people who are my heroes--the people doing on-the-ground work. That’s my purpose. But my role in the world--how I fulfill my purpose--is through connecting people with nature. It became clear to me that [it wasn’t the right time to] move into an administrative position at this particular moment, for my own sustainability as a person, because I have other dreams, like being a wife and being a mother.

What is your favorite tree?

Any evergreen--because of home, because of the pine barrens.

Can you discuss the basics of urban tree canopy and why your work with urban tree canopy is so important?

Forests are ecosystems. Urban forests are also ecosystems, and include shrubs, understory, forest patches, parks, median street trees, and managed vegetation on the side of highways. When you say “urban forests,” you’re including all of the undergrowth; when you say “canopy,” you’re talking about tree cover.

I serve community tree organizations. I’m still sharing best practices, but as opposed to sharing best practices about all things--whether it be managing volunteers, or presenting a case to a city council, or hosting a fundraiser, or facilitating stewardship with youth--now my focus is on doing all of those things--plan, plant, maintain, and reuse--equitably. I’m putting an equity lens on professional development related to urban forestry.

I’m starting at workforce. Over the next five years, [the field of] forestry is going to need 30,000 new people. All of our forests are under threat from climate change--pests, diseases, fires, floods, you name it--and development. We’re starting at workforce because there’s a natural synergy among all sectors to address the workforce shortage. The private sector is hurting for people, and I’m pointing out that [people are] right around the corner, and maybe they need transit support or childcare support or additional training, or awareness that this is even a career they can do without more than a high school diploma. So I focus on pre-employment training programs for black and brown people who are low-income and in cities. We’re going to expand to [support] veterans and women. There are a lot of pre-employment programs that exist, but they’re not where we need them to be to meet the market demand.

We’re developing a toolkit for pre-employment programs. We’ve put together a draft of that toolkit, and are going to pilot two or three elements in incubator cities. Next year, we’ll do an in-depth pilot in Chicago, complete with a feasibility study of what role the city should play.

How do you make these programs sustainable?

You’ve got to have the right leadership and vision at the top. You’re helping people, but you’re helping people because you want to put yourself out of business. The point is not to get grants; the point is to address a crunch in the market in an equitable manner with folks who have been overlooked for a long time because of systemic racism.

Companies also need to have skin in the game to build momentum and get partners in the community on board.