A Steadfast Path: My Urban Forestry and USDA Forest Service Journey
By Beattra Wilson, Photos Courtesy of the Author
Beattra Wilson began her career with the USDA Forest Service in 2002 in Atlanta as an urban forestry trainee; she is now the Forest Service Assistant Director of Cooperative Forestry and National Lead for Urban and Community Forestry. We asked Beattra to share some of her educational and career trajectory and what excites her about her work. Here she is in her own words.
I grew up surrounded by pine forests in a small town in Louisiana called Oakdale. I was introduced to agriculture education and career opportunities beginning in fourth grade through my involvement with 4-H. I competed at the parish and statewide fairs in the 4-H Sew with Cotton and Public Speaking contests.
Those 4-H experiences helped propel me to hold leadership roles in high school. I also had a pivotal experience at a summer agricultural camp at Southern University and A&M College, a historically black college and university (HBCU) system, where I learned in depth about urban forestry and other agriculture professions. (This summer agriculture institute continues to serve 40-50 students each summer, and the Forest Service is a supporting partner.)
As I was looking into college degree programs, based on my test scores and GPA I was recruited by two colleges for urban forestry and agriculture economics and five colleges for engineering. Ultimately, I chose to study urban forestry because it seemed like a perfect merger of my deep connection to agriculture along with my desire to have a career that afforded me the opportunity to live in a big city.
I decided to do go to Southern University and A&M College to study urban forestry for several reasons. I was interested in a career path into the U.S. Forest Service, which worked with Southern University and A&M College to create the nation’s first bachelor’s degree in urban forestry and continues to partner closely with that institution and program, offering financial, technical, and career development assistance. I could see myself represented in the teaching staff, administration, and student body—and that was very appealing to me, as it gave me a sense of belonging. Plus, Baton Rouge, where Southern University is located, was close to home.
I’m a first-generation college graduate in my family and it was always a priority of mine to go to college on a scholarship so I could graduate without a major financial burden. The U.S. Forest Service partnership with the Southern University Urban Forestry Degree Program meant that I could go to college on scholarship and know that there was a network of support, internships, and the right academics to help me enter the organization upon graduation. So you can imagine how meaningful it is for me to come full circle to be in a position to assist current and future generations of urban forestry students at Southern through the ongoing partnership with the Forest Service.
I’m excited to have landed where I can operationalize my urban forestry credentials but also have the opportunity to lead a program that I have enjoyed being a part of for the past 11 years. This is a moment where leadership is needed to ensure that urban forestry and urban forests serve communities equitably. The pandemic and social justice challenges of 2020 gives us a chance to focus on impact beyond implementation. It calls for us to listen to and learn from vulnerable communities more than ever, and to stretch urban forestry practitioners’ program administration skills and abilities toward measurable impact.
While in college at Southern, I interned every summer for the Forest Service. After graduation I became an urban forestry trainee in the Southern Region office in Atlanta; that was an exciting time! It amounted to everything I wanted to do as an urban forestry professional, from program administration and performance to community engagement. The public service side is where I fit in then and now, ensuring that the Forest Service’s resources are available for communities to improve the conditions of their urban forests.
After two years in that position, I worked out of the Atlanta office as a budget coordinator for State and Private Forestry in the Southern Region. While working in that position, I went to school at night to earn my Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Kennesaw University. Having an undergraduate degree in urban forestry gave me the confidence to work in natural resources, while pursuing the MPA trained me in the budget management and policy side of things. I knew this training would help me as I advanced in my career, especially as I moved into national-level roles managing and implementing a public program.
In the last couple of semesters, my MPA program merged with Kennesaw’s MBA program, which ended up expanding my horizons even further. I got to see the point of view of the for-profit side around conservation, and in that year we were frequently asked to take positions and defend them, which was invaluable training that I’ve used through my career.
In 2007, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work as an analyst in fire and aviation management for the Forest Service, coordinating Government Accountability Office audits and national fire reviews. That was a step out of urban forestry, but very worthwhile, as the Forest Service is highly respected for its work on fire and aviation, among many other areas. I was able to travel quite a bit to see the agency’s work on wildfire preparation and response and on aviation training and safety—including aviation for fighting wildfires—which I found fascinating. It provided me with a more advanced lens onto the Forest Service’s abilities and highly respected role in the conservation community.
Some New York urban forestry professionals met me at the Municipal Forestry Institute (MFI) in 2019 and 2020, themed as Diversity in MFI. I led visioning and requested funding for those two iterations of this pilot project, in collaboration with the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA)—who had expressed interest in creating more diversity within MFI—and with Southern University and A&M College. The effort provided scholarships to urban forestry professionals who consider themselves part of a minority population in our industry.
Diversity in MFI was one way I have been able to utilize the space and access I’ve had in managing a national program to explore the gaps in delivering urban forestry services equitably and meeting the needs of communities that have been traditionally underserved. One of those needs is around workforce development and retention.
The opportunity was there for us to think through not just the recruitment potential for future urban forestry professionals through internships, student assistantships, and hiring initiatives. It was a chance for us to pause and consider the existing pool of talented, credentialed professionals who wanted urban forestry leadership training but had not yet received the opportunity. I had observed dozens of graduates of the urban forestry program at Southern that I attended—those who came before or after me, or were my classmates—leave the field of urban forestry for lack of training and advancement possibilities.
Diversity in MFI was a 50-50 partnership of SMA and Southern University that placed participants into what our urban forestry industry upholds as a premier municipal forestry leadership development institute to serve two purposes. The first was to respond to the false assumption that there isn’t diverse talent to tap into for municipal forestry leadership, and the second was to re-engage those who may have left the field and show them that there is space for them in this industry. Partnership with Southern made total sense because it has the most diverse alumni roster of urban national resource professionals in the country. The application process allowed us to identify additional degree programs and pipelines of urban forestry and urban natural resources professionals.
The Forest Service has long partnered with SMA to ensure that the MFI curriculum, cohort, and cadres are ready for the next generation of urban foresters. Diversity in MFI was a highly successful two-year pilot program that trained participants with leadership skills but as importantly, established and expanded networks that will directly aid in career advancement and a critical sense of belonging in the field of urban forestry. I believe that with those networks in place, MFI will organically be more diverse going forward and a model for other forestry leadership development programs.
At a time when innovation and inclusion are seen as one and the same—that is to say, that when all lived experiences are brought to the table, the level of innovation will be higher—Diversity in MFI fulfilled an important role, and the communities these leaders serve will benefit.
You asked me what my biggest hope is for the Forest Service’s role in urban forestry in the U.S. My hope is that urban and community forestry services will be delivered equitably, that we stretch our resources and authorities to help communities meet the most basic and human-felt needs to live healthy lives. In 2020, the pandemic and climate change impacts have amplified disparities in urban heat islands and in canopy cover and showed how those gaps have over time increased the vulnerability of everyone, but in some communities more than others. As any good leader in 2020 would, I want to see an emphasis on access and equity.
When I started my federal career, my ultimate goal was to one day work at the White House. Nineteen years later, I’ve completed two rotations—Council of Environmental Quality (2016) and Office of Management and Budget (2020). I don’t know what’s next for me, but I know how I want to show up in this new, elevated platform of service.
In the meantime, I am also a mother of two—a kindergartner and a fourth grader who are doing virtual learning 100% of the time; I’m working from home 100% of the time; and sometimes a nerf ball flies through my office. One day I was on a video call with partners and my daughter yelled down the hall that she couldn’t find the Zoom passcode to get into virtual P.E. class. I believe we are all doing our best and it’s good to be transparent about the challenges of juggling these new, global realities at home. For me, home is in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with my family.
Before signing off, I want to recognize the amazing team of urban forestry professionals who I’ve worked with for several years now. I have the honor and privilege of moving into a different role but we still function as a team. Together, we are, as I’ve said in past presentations, “making shift happen.”?