Finding Inspiration in Rosie the Riveter

Why a group of women took the helm of a grassroots effort to green Richmond, CA

One day while Doris Lopez, Kaci Smith and I were busy planting a street tree in Richmond, California, a curious resident from a neighboring house came outside to see what we were doing. After offering us water and asking some questions, he made a comment that surprised me. “This is men’s work,” he said. Without missing a beat, Lopez replied, “Yet, we are the ones out here doing it.”

This little interaction amused me, and it also got me thinking. Is tree planting really men’s work? Then how did a group of women end up creating Richmond Trees, a grassroots organization and project of Earth Island Institute that has planted 600 trees and counting?

photo of fishing boats in Madagascar
In Richmond, CA, women are taking on the hard work of planting trees in an effort to green their community and tackle climate change. Photo courtesy of Richmond Trees.

Born in the ‘70’s and raised by parents who insisted that girls can do anything, the concept of “men’s work” seemed old-fashioned to me. But as I thought about the people who typically work on both municipal and private tree-planting crews, I observed that they were mostly men, and perhaps there was some truth to the neighbor’s statement. Planting trees is hard work that takes a certain amount of physical strength. I have certainly found it challenging.

I began volunteering with the group regularly in 2012. My sister, Kaci Smith, is one of the co-founders and invited me to a tree-planting event. Since my son, four years old at the time, was an early riser, I was happy to have something to do at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. It seemed like a fun, active, outdoor activity that would also improve my community and set an example of civic engagement for my son. I had done plenty of gardening and thought that planting trees would be similar to planting other plants, just with a bigger hole to dig. I actually never questioned whether I would be physically capable of doing it or not.

The night after I used a stake pounder for the first time — a large tool that, as its name suggests, is used to drive tree-supporting stakes into the ground — I woke up with a pain in the middle of my upper back. I fearfully approached the mirror, afraid that I was having a “Black Swan moment” and that there would be wings sprouting from between my shoulder blades. Turns out I had just used some previously undiscovered back muscles, and they were sore. Like any physical activity, it’s difficult the first time you do it, and it gets easier as you do it more often. So, while that one voice told us that we were doing “men’s work,” it did not shake my confidence. I knew that I could do it too.

When Richmond Trees was first formed in 2011, none of the founders imagined that she would be swinging picks, pounding stakes, or lifting trees in and out of trucks. The original idea of the group was simple — spread the word about the City of Richmond’s Adopt-a-Tree program and encourage residents in the neighborhood to adopt trees. This outreach was a success, and the number of tree adoption requests soon overwhelmed the city’s resources and staff. So the Richmond Trees founders offered to help. One thing led to another, and those six women found themselves planting and taking care of trees. It may not have been what they originally planned, but they did not hesitate to get to work, doing the physical labor required to move the group’s vision forward.

Richmond has a rich history of women taking on traditionally male tasks for the good of the community and, indeed, the world. During World War II, women flocked to the shipyards in Richmond where they learned to do jobs that had not been available to them before. They learned skilled trades, working as welders and electricians to build the ships that were so important to the war effort. They were attracted to the good-paying jobs as a way to support their families. Yet their work had greater meaning as well. They had a sense of patriotic duty and wanted to help their country win the war.

Like many Richmond Trees volunteers, I find inspiration in Richmond’s many Rosies and their “We Can Do It” attitude. There are many compelling reasons to plant trees in Richmond. As with the women who took jobs in the shipyards back in the 1940s, some of these reasons are personal. We plant trees because tree-lined streets make our neighborhoods more pleasant places to live. Access to green space is also associated with better physical and mental health. So, by planting trees in the middle of an urban landscape, we are making our city a healthier and happier place for ourselves and our neighbors. We are also planting trees for the current and future children of Richmond. While the presence of young street trees does have an immediate effect on neighborhoods, the full impact will be felt ten to twenty years from now when the trees extend their canopy in full maturity.

Like the Rosies, our work is also about more than improving our own small corner of the world. As trees across the globe quietly sequester carbon, they stand as a kind of silent army against climate change, which is arguably the greatest threat the Earth faces. By planting trees in our city, we are doing something tangible at the local level to combat that global threat.

Every year, people come to Richmond for the Rosie Rally in August, dressing up as the iconic figure and remembering the contributions of those amazing women during the war. Many Richmond Trees volunteers join the fun. We also honor the Rosies’ memory by following in their footsteps, putting on our work boots, and stepping over the glass shards of the ceiling they broke. Like the Rosies, we get dirty and sore, using our bodies for what has traditionally been “men’s work,” and improving the lives of others both near and far.

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