10 years after graduating, Dorian Torres Casillas went back to her high school … to plant trees

What comes to mind when you think of the benefits of tree planting? Maybe you think of CO2 emissions, the climate emergency or food production? If you’re in Arizona in the middle of summer, chances are the first thing you’ll think about is shade. “When I was in school, I was constantly dehydrated”, remembers 28-year-old Arizonan Dorian Torres Casillas.

We are having heatwaves all around the world and Arizona is an area where people are dying of heat exhaustion. I found that really really disheartening and said: ‘I need to do something about this’. Trees are also so important for our mental health. I hike a lot, and trees just make you feel so secure and relaxed. Now we are so urbanized and people are missing that connection with nature and I think that causes so much stress.

Dorian’s journey to start doing something about this problem started with research about environmental solutions and projects she could get involved in in her community in Phoenix, Arizona.

I looked for organizations I could join. I went to a gardening project at Phoenix College pollinator garden group, and I took a tour at a self-sustaining farm. But I didn’t find anything I could really get behind.  It is quite hard if you want to volunteer for something here. You have to go through a whole application process just to help with a website.
Dorian was looking for something that she could take ownership of and organize her way. So she spent months talking to people about her ideas, making connections and researching all that was going on in the area.
There weren’t many people coming together for that one cause I was actually excited about, to plant trees.
A year went by before she finally found an opportunity to get her own project off the ground, through the Arizona Sustainability Challenge. When the ad about getting seed-funding for starting your own community tree planting project with Urban Forestry popped up on her instagram page, Dorian was ready to go. She applied for the grant provided by Microsoft and things changed for her:

I went through the application process and within a week I had a short phone interview with someone from ChangeX. From that point on I was really ecstatic. Now I knew there was something I actually could do. Up until that point I felt kind of hopeless. Getting funded for my own project was so empowering. It made my life a lot more meaningful.

Getting the group together to complete the first few steps of the 30-Day-Challenge wasn’t a big challenge at all for Dorian at this point. She had already done the networking.

The first step of the Urban Forestry guide advises people to check an Interactive Shade Map from the Department of Forestry and Fire management to find the best areas for a tree-planting project. That’s when Dorian started to find the best spots for her tree planting.

The map was very helpful. It showed me right away that there was no coverage where I live compared to lots of other areas around me.

Interactive Shade Map for Arizona - Department of Forestry and Fire Managment

For her tree planting, Dorian ended up going back to her own high school.
It felt like a chance to give something back to the high school I went to. When I was there it was always too hot. Since then, they have more tree coverage now inside, but outside, waiting for buses or parents to pick them up, everyone is crowded up by the auditorium or the classrooms in between the building. That’s not the healthiest environment for kids.
Dorian built a small team and they got together every Thursday to plan a tree planting event. They bought trees from a local nursery, gathered advice from an arborist, created Facebook and Instagram pages to promote the event and printed flyers.
It felt good because this was really my own project. I got to sit back and share what inspired me with others. I gave my group a voting decision and we came to the table and discussed anything we didn’t agree on. I did everything in the most organized way possible. To me it was a more purposeful set-up than the projects I had joined before, working with people who believed in me and who I believed in.
In October 2019, the team got together with 20 people and planted 15 Sizu trees in just an hour. Unfortunately, on the day, the arborist that Dorian had recruited to help with the planting canceled.
That made me a little nervous but we ended up having two people there who had their own landscaping businesses. The power of community building was remarkable, this is an extremely powerful tool. I found this practice of stewardship so enriching and therapeutic.

For Dorian, there is no excuses to stay passive and leave all the changemaking to politicians.

You have to go out and find the problems in your own community and think about how you can help to address them. I think we don’t have the right focus a lot of the time. We always want to complain and we feel powerless, but it’s the exact opposite. The resources, the information and the technology – it’s all out there. We can be aware of what’s happening around us and we’re the ones who have to create the change from within, from the bottom up.

Dorian has had a few wake-up calls that made her look at her life this way, wondering what would make her satisfied with what she had done. She calls herself a “believer in love, giving back and not expecting.”

She is not only doing the tree planting project, but is also working for a community organization in Sun City, 20 minutes from Phoenix, where she is currently planning to set up a community garden with older people. One of her biggest inspirations for doing this work, she explains, was her grandpa.

My grandpa was a big support for me. He would always say the right things to me to make me unfearful. I used to be afraid of heights. One time he told me: ‘Just climb this tree.’ I didn’t want to because I was scared. But he said: ‘Just do it, I’m right here.’ He was always there for me and helped me conquer a lot of my fears. Having him was a big inspiration for me. 

Dorian’s grandpa passed away this summer, aged 85, when Dorian was in the middle of fearlessly planning her first tree planting. And now she is taking her chance to pass that inspiration on to others around her. 

I have a few friends who, after this project, were inspired to opening up to their communities with what they do. One is a Yoga instructor, another one is a teacher. And everyone is asking when we’ll plant more trees. 

Dorian is still looking for the best location for her next tree planting. She could plant a tree anywhere, she says, but she wants it to have as much impact as possible. Meanwhile, she is working on creating an official legal entity for her Tree Planter group.

I’m just trying to give my best to everybody while I’m here.

 


Dorian started Urban Forestry as part of the Arizona Sustainability Challenge, supported by the Microsoft Datacenter Community Development team. 

Microsoft is supporting more community projects through ChangeX with the Microsoft Community Challenge in Cheyenne, San Antonio, and Grant County right now. You can apply to get between $500 and $5000. 

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