CITY OF TREES Film Tells the Story of Greening Efforts in DC

Washington Parks & People Executive Director Steve Coleman speaks with residents of Ward 8 in Oxon Run Park, Washington, DC in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

Washington Parks & People Executive Director Steve Coleman speaks with residents of Ward 8 in DC’s Run Park in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

Editor’s Note: We believe storytelling is a powerful tool for sharing the importance of maintaining, protecting and growing our urban forests. At OpenTreeMap, we’ve seen firsthand how storytelling can be used to recruit volunteers, garner support and secure funding. In addition to helping you manage your trees and green infrastructure, maps can help you tell your organization’s story. This month we wanted to share with you how one new documentary film is also working to share the story of urban trees and the people that plant and care for them. The following post is written by Lance Kramer of Meridian Hill Pictures. 

As documentary storytellers, we use film to share underrepresented perspectives, build empathy for people different from ourselves, and facilitate conversations about the complexities of the human experience. Our latest film CITY OF TREES is a story that challenges audiences to think deeply about the triumphs and struggles in making a long-term social impact within an environmental nonprofit.

CITY OF TREES follows the stories of trainees and staff in a stimulus-funded green job-training program, Washington Parks & People’s DC Green Corps, designed to put unemployed people back to work by planting and caring for trees in underserved communities in Washington, DC. The film follows its central participants navigating difficult issues: attempting to make change within a low-income urban community; fighting institutional poverty with short-term, non-renewable grant resources; creating environmental justice where it has been absent for decades.

In the process, CITY OF TREES thrusts viewers into the inspiring but messy world of job training and the struggles change makers face in urban communities everyday.

DC Green Corps trainee Michael Samuels and his mother Eleanor Barnett share the story of Michael's incarceration in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

DC Green Corps trainee Michael Samuels and his mother Eleanor Barnett share the story of Michael’s incarceration in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

Over the course of the five years we spent making CITY OF TREES, telling this kind of story required all parties — us as the filmmakers, the program staff and trainees, funders, and audiences — to embrace a certain unpredictability and complexity. Because our story centered on real people, we had to accept that any message about the impact of tree plantings or green job training would never be as tightly-crafted as a grant report or fundraising video. The goal of the film was not to solve unemployment or lack of canopy coverage in certain neighborhoods, but instead to explore the complexities that emerge when people with different backgrounds and perspectives work towards a common goal.

Stories that deepen public consciousness and promote productive discourse are increasingly important as cities become bigger and more diverse.

With nearly 50 screenings of CITY OF TREES at film festivals, conferences, nonprofits, universities, and public agencies last year, we saw how the film helped audiences develop a deeper understanding of the issues and possible solutions, and strengthen relationships with other stakeholders. At screenings we found that people have craved stories that seek deeper truths and raise hard questions.

Steve Coleman introduces a new cohort of DC Green Corps trainees in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

Steve Coleman introduces a new cohort of DC Green Corps trainees in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

We hope that when people watch City of Trees they’re able to draw connections to experiences in their own lives and step into the shoes of someone who is different from themselves. We also hope that the courage displayed by the people who shared their stories in CITY OF TREES — particularly the staff and trainees of Washington Parks & People — will help make it easier for others in urban forestry and environmental justice fields to think about the potential to use authentic storytelling in their own work. To help with this effort, we recently released the CITY OF TREES discussion guide which was made with support from the U.S. Forest Service. The guide is designed to help nonprofits facilitate dialogues around the film’s central themes: environmental justice, workforce development, community engagement and returning citizens.

It is more important than ever for people from all backgrounds to come together to confront some of our country’s most pressing issues. We hope through watching the film people can better understand the complex factors facing urban communities and engage in conversations that lead to positive change.

DC Green Corps community liaison James Magruder conducts outreach in DC's Oxon Run Park in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

DC Green Corps community liaison James Magruder conducts outreach in DC’s Oxon Run Park in a scene from CITY OF TREES.

Click here to find out how you can host a screening of CITY OF TREES. The film will also have its encore broadcast on PBS/WORLD Channel‘s America ReFramed on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in a lineup of films focused on the fights for income equality and racial justice.

For more information on accessing the discussion guide and Community Screening Kit, you can contact Lisa Allen at lisa@meridianhillpictures.comLance Kramer is the producer of CITY OF TREES and Executive Director of Meredian Hill Pictures.

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