Arborist and author Jean Zimmerman. Photo by Maud Reavill

Council Member and SavATree Arborist Jean Zimmerman recently attended the 2020 Municipal Forestry Institute (MFI) with partial assistance from a Council scholarship. With this MFI class, more than 750 urban forestry and affiliated professionals have completed the weeklong leadership training. Jean’s account of her experience is literary in nature because in addition to being an arborist, she is a published author.

Sugar white sands. Crashing waves. The occasional parabolic arc of a dolphin off shore. We gathered along Alabama’s famously gorgeous Gulf Coast, sixty-five pilgrims from all over the country and abroad. We had come to sharpen our leadership skills at the Municipal Forestry Institute (MFI), a long-running (since 2006) continuing education symposium that is celebrated as one of the best in the world. I remember arriving at the Gulf Shores Hilton, being unsure of whether I could fit in.

My fellow MFIers came from varied backgrounds. Some were urban foresters at municipalities of varying size, from New York City to Denton, Texas. Others hailed from not-for-profits, such as TreePhilly in Philadelphia. One participant, a champion tree-climber, represented the happiest place in the world, Disneyland. Another traveled from Sweden. There were representatives of PlanIT Geo and Davey Tree. I came to Gulf Shores from SavATree, the third largest tree care company in the United States, where I work as a commercial and consulting arborist.

Before my work in arboriculture, I had spent most of my career as an author, writing fiction and nonfiction, focusing on history and specifically the history of women in America. I was a communicator by background. In that capacity I had the chance to speak on television, on radio, and in front of diverse audiences all over the country.

All that was great, but midway through my life’s journey (as Dante famously wrote), I felt that I needed a change. Six years before I came to MFI, I became a certified arborist and began working for a small company, monitoring trees on construction sites. I grew up in the leafy precincts of Westchester County, attended college in Manhattan, and had always considered New York to be my home town.

Surprisingly for an urban girl (or perhaps precisely because I was one), I had always loved trees, wilderness, and the outdoors. Being able to contribute to the care of the urban forest in the vast conurbation of the five boroughs left me feeling extremely satisfied. I went on to work as a business developer for Davey Resource Group and then moved on to become a commercial and consulting arborist for SavATree, which saw fit to send me to MFI, with the generous help of a scholarship from the New York State Urban Forestry Council (NYSUFC).

Still, I felt my background made me an outlier among such experienced and knowledgeable group at MFI. I possessed no forestry degree. I was happy to be there, psyched to attend the conference, but a little concerned about being “me” among all the assembled tree ninjas. Was I a dolphin out of water?

I needn’t have worried. I discovered that among the assemblage of urban foresters, many had careers as varied as mine. I was welcomed as a person with her own skills and talents, encouraged to contribute at every turn. A teaching cadre of urban forestry and leadership experts administered the coursework. The teachers came with distinguished credentials, including Owen Croy and Cecil Konijnendijk from the University of British Columbia, Paul Ries from Oregon State University, and Andy Hillman, past president of both the Society of Municipal Arborists and NYSUFC. Such dynamic presenters led the group members to consider their responsibilities as leaders in the tree industry.

MFI 2020 graduating class in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

One early assignment was an organizational personality test that explored leadership traits, four categories of which were “controller,” “persuader,” “analyzer,” and “stabilizer.” Discovering that I fell into the “controller-persuader” category represented an “a-ha” moment for me. Sessions included ones about leading by managing change; leading strategically with people, succession planning and mentoring; working effectively with volunteers and partnerships; turning plans into policy; and using the i-Tree suite of tools.

We had breakout sessions with small groups, exploring different ideas and then presenting our conclusions to our fellow MFI members. Delivering our findings was in and of itself character building. Not everyone there was a natural speaker, and some had to strive to deliver their group’s message. Concepts from reading done before MFI— such as assembling a “bus” that would move your urban forestry efforts forward, and making sure the right people were on the bus and in the right seats—were crucial. One amusing project was a skit put on by the teaching cadre that showed an ineffectual town tree board in action, after which student groups had to make recommendations in front of a faux city council about how to remedy the situation.

One aspect of MFI that encouraged me was an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. In addition to diversity among the attendees, coursework focused attention on the issue. A brainstorming session in a small group, for example, focused on diversity, inclusivity, and implicit bias in urban forestry. With a group that was itself diverse, we explored issues of race and gender orientation, probing the importance of having differing voices and ideas at all levels. We discussed the relationship between low canopy and low income, seeking ways to increase the personal connections to trees among residents. We discussed the topical importance of pronouns in the work we do today, exploring how the use of “they/them” could make an employee more productive. How could we personally move from mere good intentions to offer structural paths that would make our field more inclusive? What made this exercise effective was the requirement that group members come up with a plan to teach the topic to other groups.

MFI opened my eyes to issues of leadership within the world of urban forestry. We did get an opportunity to explore the Gulf’s sugar white sands, but more important was the opportunity to explore the possibilities of our chosen profession. I’ll never look at a bus the same way again! I would like to thank SavATree and my manager/mentor Mike Galvin for supporting me in pursuing this goal, the NYSUFC for making it possible for me to attend MFI, and the MFI teaching cadre for pouring so much heart into the education of our class of 2020.