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This is the second installment of our series, First Person, featuring Black leaders in environmental organizations and advocacy in our region.

Melissa Burnett grew up in Pittsburgh and one thing she noticed early on was that some neighborhoods in the city had big healthy trees and others had very little tree canopy. Now, as a community forestry fellow, she’s helping change that. 

Burnett was placed with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by PULSE Pittsburgh, which matches 20-something-year-olds with local non-profits for a year of community service. She’s working on efforts like the Pittsburgh Redbud Project and TreeVitalize Pittsburgh

“Our main goal is to plant trees and also bring educational and volunteer opportunities to the community regarding urban forestry,” she said. “I’ve been working at River Avenue along the North Shore trail. We’ve cleared out invasive species and planted large trees for landscaping and aesthetic purposes, and smaller trees to give diversity to the area and bring back the natural environment.”

LISTEN: Melissa Burnett, Community Forestry Fellow

 

Burnett’s fellowship began soon after the coronavirus shut everything down, so she hasn’t been able to host a lot of community events. Instead, she’s been spending her days outside planting trees all over the city. She said her work has reintroduced her to Pittsburgh. 

“I’m seeing Schenley Park, Emerald View Park, and Point State Park in a new lens now that I have planted trees there,” she explained. “I feel like it gives me this new connection to the city.” 

AN INDOOR KID FALLS IN LOVE WITH THE OUTDOORS 

Melissa graduated from Allegheny College in May and was a founding member of the Green Students of Color Society. She says she was more of an indoor kid growing up, playing video games with her brothers. When she got to college, she planned to study physics. But then she started taking earth science classes that changed her trajectory. 

“I developed this huge connection to the outside world. I love stargazing — that’s what really drew me back outside,” she said. “And then I took a forestry class and a class on birds and on plant identification. I was around a community of people who liked to go hiking and also liked to stargaze. And it’s just the world that I wanted to be a part of.”

Melissa Burnett’s favorite tree is the yellow popular. She says it was the first tree she learned to identify, “so it holds a special place in my heart.” Photo: Melissa Burnett

Burnett credits Neil deGrasse Tyson with sparking her interest in science. Hearing him speak about planetary science inspired Burnett to take astronomy classes, which led to more earth science classes which ultimately led her to forestry. 

“He was the first Black person I saw in science who was popular, and he explained it in a way that was really moving to me and relatable and interesting,” she said.

But the lack of representation of people of color in science and the environmental community was something Burnett noticed early on. She said it continues to be a challenge.

“Sometimes I look around and just feel like I almost don’t fit in in a way,” she said. “I don’t really see that many Black people in science. And sometimes I can get in my own head and be like, ‘oh, maybe I’m not like them,’ you know?

MORE EQUITABLE TREE CANOPIES 

Since 2008, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has planted approximately 37,000 trees in neighborhoods, business districts, parks, and public spaces across Allegheny County and surrounding towns.

It’s all part of an effort to increase and sustain healthy urban forests. Burnett said she’s proud to work for an organization that prioritizes getting more trees into underserved communities that lack developed tree canopies.  

“Not many people know how to get trees into their neighborhoods,” she explained. “As a result, we have certain communities that are more green than others. A lot of Black communities don’t really have time or the money to prioritize getting trees. And then other communities have an abundance of trees and they’re large and big and healthy. I feel like there could be some links to racism there.”

Melissa Burnett has been spending a lot of her year of service planting trees along River Avenue on the Northside. She likes working there because she can see her high school, CAPA, from there and she is often visited by a colony of cats. Photo: Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

One of the aspects of her job that Burnett really enjoys is being able to teach people about caring for trees and what all goes into it.

“There’s a lot that you have to know, like whether your tree is big enough or how far away the trees need to be [from each other] to grow healthily, or even where to get the funding to get the tree,” she explained. “There’s so much research that goes into it and a lot of people just don’t have access to that.”

Melissa Burnett’s year of service as a Pulse Pittsburgh fellow continues until the end of July and then she’s hoping to either continue working for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy or go back to school for an advanced degree, perhaps in forestry.

In the meantime, she’s looking forward to spending the spring outside planting trees and teaching people how to get more trees in their neighborhoods.