America ReFramed

City of Trees

Season 04  Episode 12

Since 1990, the nonprofit Washington Parks & People has tried to reduce poverty and violence in Washington, D.C. neighborhoods by improving parks. At the height of the recession, the organization received a stimulus grant to create a “green” job-training program in communities hardest hit, and had two years to help unemployed people find jobs and improve parks in their neighborhoods. But a grant this size can signal a mixed-blessing; the perception of success renders the organization vulnerable to losing other philanthropic gifts and individual donations.

CITY OF TREES raises serious questions about collaboration and communication, but more importantly about the role of nonprofit organizations and its leaders as members of a community and its ecosystem. For Steve Coleman, the president of Washington Parks & People, the grant offers the opportunity to elevate the impact of his organization's work in a community with an entrenched distrust of outsiders. For the primarily lower-income trainees whose lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, the program represents a path to new beginnings. The film introduces us to charismatic men like Michael Samuels for whom the job training is a first step towards re-entry and to James Magruder, a Ward 8 native in his late 50s, who emerges in his new role as a community liaison.

The documentary offers a critical new perspective on the challenges of retraining America’s workforce and rebuilding natural environments in its cities. What sounds like a simple goal — putting people back to work by planting trees in a blighted neighborhood - opens up a complex web of personal and community challenges.