Earth Day

High School Siblings Tackling Environmental Justice One Tree at a Time

April 21, 2023

Savannah Smalley, center, and her brother Sultan, to her right, work with a team to plant trees at Samuel Fels High School in Philadelphia, PA.

In their hometown of Philadelphia, Sultan and Savannah Smalley noticed a difference. 

When they passed through the wealthier neighborhoods, the leaves and trees were lush. In lower income areas, there were hardly any trees at all. 

The lack of urban tree canopy—the tree leaves, branches, and stems that provide tree coverage of the ground when viewed from above—has a measurable effect on the people living in these neighborhoods. Tree cover provides shade, reduces air conditioning costs, increases property value, and lessens pollution. 

“Neighborhoods that are lower income and have people of color are less green and have worse air quality,” says C&S Fellow Savannah Smalley. “Temperatures are higher compared to other areas” 

“In learning about the potential large-scale consequences of climate change as well as the way redlining has impacted the amount of green space in areas with lower incomes and disproportionate amounts of people of color, we’ve been inspired to do the grassroots work that can hopefully impact and inspire people in the community even if it won’t immediately solve the larger issue,” adds C&S Fellow Sultan Smalley about the affluent community. 

So the pair got to work.  

Savannah, left, and Sultan Smalley.

Savannah and Sultan, who are twins and seniors in high school, located a tree equity map online that they used to identify neighborhoods in Philidelphia with fewer trees. Once they narrowed down the neighborhoods, they started looking for places where they could plant. They prioritized property locations with space to plant like schools, hospitals, and cemeteries. Sultan drafted emails and Savannah sent them. 

This project was one of 28 funded in winter 2023 by the Civic Spring Fellowship. The Fellowship provides funding, coaching, and peer support for young people driving change in their local communities. The 10-week program supports young leaders who are already getting civically involved and helps them further hone their skills. 

“The biggest challenge was trying to put everything together quickly in the timeline of the program, but also trying to make sure my project was still effective and not rushed,” said Savannah. “Planning everything and finding stakeholders was a little stressful as well. I doubted myself a little but then everything pulled through and was successful.” 

On Friday, April 14, the pair planted four trees at Samuel Fels High School in North Philadelphia. 

During the Fellowship period, Savannah and Sultan turned to their Civic Spring Coach Jacqueline Shiff for advice. She coached them through stakeholder mapping—a method for reaching important stakeholders by engaging other stakeholders close to them—and on the power of persistence. 

“Sometimes you’re only several degrees of separation from someone,” said Jacqueline. “We also covered approaches to influence naysayers by trying to understand their perspective in order to create stronger messaging to influence them.” 

Not only did the pair identify and secure the place to plant trees, but they also navigated multiple information sources to get the trees, equipment, and manpower needed. Through the process, Savannah and Sultan got connected with the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, which provided additional resources to inform their project. Parks and Rec directed them to the TreePhilly program, which provides free street and yard trees. TreePhilly partnered with Savannah and Sultan and provided the four trees and equipment for the planting. 

Through their initiative and follow-through on this tree planting project, Savannah and Sultan have provided a great example for other young people looking to make a difference in their community,” said TreePhilly Community Initiatives Specialist Jack Braunstein. “Inspired by their passion for environmental justice, Savannah and Sultan got to work, not only organizing a tree planting, but also making connections across school communities and neighborhood boundaries to bring people together around trees.”

The project has laid the groundwork for both Savannah and Sultan to continue doing this and other work in their community. They are both considering canvassing for the Parks and Rec department to get the word out about the free tree programs and the city’s aggressive plan to increase its urban tree canopy. 

“Their passion and determination inspired all of the partners on this project to play a role in making a positive change on the Fels campus, and laid the groundwork for future community connections and education opportunities to come,” said Mr. Braunstine. “Building a healthy tree canopy is not just about trees, it’s about building community – Savannah and Sultan led by example in bringing us all together for their project.”

“It was a true delight to witness both Sultan and Savannah’s increase in confidence during the Fellowship,” said Jacqueline. “They started off as more timid members of the Fellowship, and by the middle of the experience, both of their leadership voices evolved immensely.” 

Savannah hopes other young people will look to get involved in their communities. “Do not be afraid to reach out to existing programs, the resources are out there,” she said. “I met nice people along the way who were happy to help me. Make sure your ideas are manageable and you can envision a step-by-step guide on how you are going to complete your goals. Give yourself a lot of time and don’t rush into finishing something that will take a long time.” 

“The Civic Spring Fellowship is definitely encouraging me to do more things to stay civically engaged,” said Sultan. “The other day I asked the question at a mayoral forum that my school hosted. It’s encouraging me to continue doing things that keep me engaged with the community.” 

Learn more about the Civic Spring Fellowship

Photos by Hannah Beier 

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