By Alberto Gilman
The Environmental Justice Fellowship [EJF] welcomed their newest members Elio Luna, Gema Vidals Herrera, Kwaija McFarlane, Monserrat Medina, and Thomas Coleman in 2022 and the group looks forward to planting additional trees this coming fall.
EJF was created through the partnership of several City of Newburgh based groups that include Outdoor Promise [OP], the Conservation Advisory Council [CAC] and the Greater Newburgh Parks Conservancy [GNPC]. The focus of EJF is to promote advocacy for street trees, provide education on street tree care for the community and to act as a resource for community members to learn more about trees, tree benefits and to exchange dialogue on other environmental issues. In addition to the three community groups, the Arbor Day Foundation and TD Bank provided monetary support and funding, and the Newburgh City Council, the city manager and city staff also contributed in support and resources for the group.
In EJF’s first year, the program welcomed inaugural members Marichen Montiel Hertling, Heidy Bonilla, Kathryn McKenzie, and Ameesah Cotten, who are all city residents. Over the course of several days, each of the fellows, also all city residents themselves, had the opportunity to share their own experiences on working with EJF, their purpose for joining the group and what the future holds for them once the program concludes.
A lifelong City of Newburgh resident, Thomas Coleman first learned about the program when he attended a tree celebration the previous year and was able to network and meet with other members of the fellowship program to gain a better understanding of the group’s work. In April 2022, applications for EJF opened and Coleman decided to apply. After several interviews, he was accepted into the program.
Coleman was a Boy Scout for many years prior to joining the group, and he has enjoyed spending time in nature, in his own garden and with EJF doing their outreach activities and work here in the city during the course of the year. “I grew up enjoying the outdoors and enjoying nature. The fellowship merges those two passions of mine and allows me to bring nature to the City of Newburgh,” Coleman stated. “We’ve [EJF] been very lucky to have the support of the city council; the city Conservation Advisory Council has been a great proponent as well.”
Within EJF, Coleman’s role is focused on data management and in this role, he has reviewed tree surveys and assists in determining locations for tree planting. Additionally, Coleman has also worked on a separate project for the group, creating a Google map with the planted trees so far in the city. Coleman’s technical background comes from being a student in the NFA P-Tech program and in May 2022, he completed his associates degree in cyber security from the State University of New York [SUNY] Orange.
For several weeks, Coleman has been coming to St. Patrick’s Cemetery to water trees planted by EJF along Prospect St., First St. and Broadway. Coleman explained that planting trees in good locations such as the open area in the cemetery is because they do not interfere with overhead wires, do not upheave the sidewalk and do not intrude in city resident water sources. The bigger question now is how can city residents help in supporting the trees? One idea that Coleman shared is that the fellowship is pursuing rain barrels for residents to help water the trees and water their own gardens and green spaces.
A recent Newburgh Free Academy graduate, future plans for Coleman include his attendance at St. Lawrence University this coming fall, double majoring in government and environmental studies. His goal now is to pursue a career as a Department of Environmental Conservation Officer and enter in the political realm.
After watching several environmental documentaries and videos during his classes in middle school, Elio Luna first became interested in environmental topics and research. A city resident all of his life, Luna shared that he has been a part of several service organizations and groups in the past but was looking for something different that would appeal to his interests. Several years later and through a mutual friend, Luna first learned about the EJF program through an Instagram posting, and he decided to investigate for himself to see what the group was all about.
Like Coleman and the other fellows, Luna applied for EJF and was interviewed before being accepted. As a member of EJF, Luna shared that being a part of this group and this initiative has offered a more face to face opportunity with members of his own community.
“I fell in love with the group and their mission and I applied and luckily I got in,” Luna said. “I always wanted to take some part in making a change. I just want to keep learning more. I feel part of something important, I feel like I have purpose.”
While working in EJF, Luna’s work and focus has been on education materials that can be made accessible for the community. The EJF group the previous year released an online tree care course that was available to the public in both English and Spanish. Working on education materials, Luna collaborated with and learned more about trees and tree care with EJF supporter and colleague Thomas Ching, who previously worked for the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and was a lead figure of the Million Trees NYC initiative. Ching is a current Newburgh resident.
“I knew about our need for trees but not too much in depth about it,” Luna said. “Just joining the group and especially meeting with Thomas Ching, he’s taught us [EJF] a lot about the specific reasons why we need trees, how to take care of the trees, the trees that we grow and how to engage the community.”
As a current fellow, Luna looks to continue to promote more educational materials for the community and plans to return to help with the new group of fellows once his time has concluded with the program. Luna is currently pursuing certification as a Medical Assistant and will be attending SUNY New Paltz majoring in biology. The hopeful goal for Luna is that he plans to further his education by attending medical school in the future.
Prior to even joining the EJF program, Medina first became interested in the group’s mission and the work that they were doing when reading about it online. Now in the fellowship, Medina serves as the social media coordinator/manager. “I really wanted to have a group where it really helps the environment, and when I read about it, it sounded, like, perfect for me,” Medina said.
Medina shared that working with social media and having an online presence, EJF and their affiliates have gained followings from city residents and other outside supporters but while the online presence has been a rewarding experience, it was completely different when it came to being out physically in the community and door knocking in the city. For Medina, it was a mixture of emotions.
During her door knocking experiences. Medina said that some city residents were open-minded to the idea of tree planting and conservation while others showed disinterest entirely to the concept.
“It’s harder to change someone’s mind. Maybe they just don’t care about the environment,” Medina said. “I still think it’s, like, good to hear what they’re saying.”
Even despite the setbacks, Medina has leaned on the former fellows for advice and has learned tips on tree maintenance and community engagement.
“We learn from one another. I still want to keep talking to people. Keep having conversations with people. I feel like I need to do more,” said Medina. “Even if we think we’re done learning, I think we’re always going to be learning no matter the age, or how much we think we know. There’s always something new to learn and experience. And I think it’s important to try new things every day or as much as we can. Like, I definitely never saw myself going down and planting the tree. But I’m so happy I did it.”
A Newburgh native and NFA graduate, Monserrat Medina currently attends SUNY Ulster studying fashion design. As a fashion design major, her interest in her studies originated from her realization of the importance of sustainability, even more now when it comes to the fashion industry.
Gema Vidals Herrera
A lifelong Newburgh resident and NFA alumna, fellow Gema Vidals Herrera joined the EJF group ultimately when her sister pushed her to join. Vidals Herrera’s sister, a current member of Our Core in the City of Newburgh, helps with community engagement and food sustainability. Seeing her sister’s work within Our Core, Vidals Herrera wanted to pursue her own service/volunteer group to become more engaged in her community. “I’ve always wanted to help my community in my own way,” said Vidals Herrera. “When the opportunity presented itself, I decided to join [EJF].”
While being here in EJF, Vidals Herrera shared that it has been a learning process and experience for her; and as a bilingual fellow, she has been able to cater to the Spanish speaking community of the city, to help them become more familiar and hopefully interested in the fellowship’s work throughout the city. This was another reason as to why she joined EJF.
While her fellow fellows have their own connections to nature and the environment, Vidals Herrera’s connection began in her own backyard with gardening, planting and growing her own produce that she could enjoy at her table. Even during the COVID lockdown, she turned to nature to help her through that time by taking hikes and going to the park with her family.
In the beginning, Vidals Herrera admittedly shared that she was not familiar with the term environmental justice or even the importance of trees. Even while growing up and walking to and from school, she shared that she had never noticed not seeing trees while walking home until many years later. “I’ve honestly never had the mindset of, you know what can trees do for a community until I joined the fellowship,” Vidals Herrera said.
Now as a fellow, she hopes to bring trees back to her neighborhood and to her city as she recognizes the importance of trees in an urban setting.
“In the City of Newburgh, most people get to work by foot or by [public] transportation so you know trees are really needed, especially nowadays where temperatures are rising. People can succumb to heat exhaustion, dehydration,” Vidals Herrera said. “We want the support of the people. We [EJF] want to bring in residents to help our cause. It’s a lifelong venture. As a Newburgh resident I want to see my community change for the better. I’m hoping Newburgh residents contribute in some way or you know spread the word and you know have the mindset that they want to see a change in their community.”
Vidals Herrera, who currently attends Mount Saint Mary College [MSMC], is working with the college to help with tree planting and to gain more support from the college community as a whole in EJF efforts. She is currently studying human services and is a member of the class of 2023.
A Newburgh native and NFA graduate, Kwaija McFarlane joined the fellowship in 2022 and is in charge of public relations for the group, coordinating the fellows for events and creating and providing public materials.
As one who is concerned about the environment, McFarlane first learned about the fellowship program from a friend who shared an Instagram link to the program and immediately applied to the fellowship.
“One thing that really piqued my interest was the idea that I was able to take Newburgh into my own hands and help create something with other local community members that no one can just extinguish,” McFarlane said.
As the oldest of three, McFarlane hopes to create a better and healthier environment for her two younger sisters and hopes that they will be inspired by her work and pursue similar advocacy work in the future.
While McFarlane has met some challenges with doorknocking, she continues to conduct outreach and programming with her group in hopes to see more trees come to the city. She emphasizes to the homeowners that the trees in front of their property are going to be a part of their life as they take care of it while for renters, wherever they go in the city, if they see a tree, they can continue the work of the fellowship and take care of the tree there.
For McFarlane, she shares that as long as the environment is present in her life, she will continue to work and advocate for it and she hopes others will join in her commitment to environmental stewardship.
“We [humanity]genuinely should be prioritizing the environment in some way. We [EJF] want to see Newburgh be healthier. I think that we need to prioritize more as a community, our environment, because it is something that is so fragile,” McFarlane said. “I really hope when people see us out there and it’s 100 degrees outside and we’re [EJF] going door to door bothering them, I hope they don’t see us as a nuisance. I hope they see us as like people who are just trying. We’re trying to make a difference. And we’re not giving up yet. The trees truly are our legacy,”
As a collective, many of the fellows who mostly all graduated from NFA hope to see the work of the fellowship program presented to the students of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District [NECSD] and other institutions such MSMC and SUNY Orange through programming and events and to encourage more residents and students to become involved in environmental stewardship.
On Saturday, August 13, EJF hosted Branch Out Day where the group provided tree care education, several raffles, and cool refreshments for residents and visitors of the city. In attendance for the event were the fellows and Kathy Lawrence, founder and chair of the GNPC and co-creator of the EJF Program and Ronald Zorrilla, co-founder and CEO of OP.
During the course of the afternoon, Lawrence shared briefly that over the course of this year, she has been grateful for the new group of fellows and is proud for their work and dedication to this program.
“I just love working with this new group. They [the fellows] are so eager to give back to their community, so eager to make a difference,” Lawrence said.
With a recorded 4,000 empty tree pits in the city alone, the fellowship has already planted 32/33 trees last year and 13 this year. Lawrence hopes to plant 40 trees by the end of the year and to find a water vehicle that can transport and help in tree watering efforts later on for next year. Lawrence also wanted to mention that a new partnership with Scenic Hudson has been formed, and now McKenzie, a past fellow, has joined the GNPC Board of Directors which will help in environmental efforts.
Zorrilla concurred with Lawrence’s thoughts on the group and their work so far. “Seeing this new batch of fellows gets me excited because they really are the future of our city, of our country, of our world,” Zorrilla said.
This coming September, the fellowship is going to be hosting online webinars speaking on environmental issues, will be planting trees and concludes with a celebration in October.