Seven Considerations for Budding Urban Foresters
By David Moore, Senior Tree Supervisor, City of Oakland, California
Photos Courtesy David Moore
NYSUFC Past President (2015-2017) David Moore, 34, is the recipient of the 2019 Arbor Day Foundation Trailblazer Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in arboriculture and/or urban forestry by professionals under 35. After working for ten years in New York City for New York Restoration Project and then for NYC Parks, David is now the Senior Tree Supervisor for Oakland, CA in their Public Works Department. Within his first year there, David secured a million-dollar grant for a citywide tree inventory and 50-year urban forestry master plan for Oakland. Receiving the Trailblazer Award sparked in David a period of reflection about his career and mentors thus far. Here, he offers seven pieces of counsel for young or new city forester colleagues.
Find or develop your niche by putting yourself at the intersection of two different specialties.
This is advice from Georgetown Professor James Allen Smith, who was one of my mentors when I was in graduate school there, studying environmental and regulatory public policy. The conversation came about one day when I asked him for career advice over a cup of tea. He explained to me that in today’s job market, there are a growing number of competitors in any one field of expertise, so if you can combine two different complementary specializations that are unique to your interests and abilities, you will carve your own niche at the intersection of those two fields.
Dr. Smith knew this from experience, as he combined his passion for history with his passion for philanthropy, becoming one of the world’s leading experts on the history of American philanthropy. In my career, my forestry background equips me with technical and scientific knowledge of trees, while my public policy background gives me the perspective and skills needed to operate effectively within a government bureaucracy. This combination of skills really comes in handy for someone who works with trees every day within a municipal government, which, by the way, I find to be an exciting and rewarding career path!
Government programs for public services are based on scientific facts, research, and statistics. I can best achieve the goals of our local government by being the mouthpiece of that scientific information, using language that policymakers can understand, as well as strategizing the everyday operations of an urban forestry program with the city government’s overarching programs and goals. “Speaking the language” helped me secure the CAL FIRE urban forestry management grant for Oakland. In 2018, I applied for—and the City was awarded—just under a million dollars to fund Oakland’s first-ever citywide tree inventory and 50-year urban forestry master plan. Estimated date of completion for the grant is March, 2022.
Pursue small, achievable goals to build team confidence.
When I began serving as board member and then president of the NYSUFC, it was apparent that reaching consensus within a big group (34+ folks) on complicated topics was daunting, and we struggled with inertia. For monumental tasks, like updating our five-year strategic plan, it helped to break down each process into several small, more manageable tasks, and we celebrated the completion of each incremental task at board meetings.
Concurrently, we used a series of anonymous online surveys and voting to measure where the majority stood on each topic. The online voting gave even the most soft-spoken board members an equal say, which kept the process fully democratic. As a result, the board members felt more of a sense of ownership and vision. With votes counted and priorities quantified into numbers, it was very clear how to move forward, and we were able to keep the process going.
When it came to actually implementing the five-year strategic plan, we started with the easy wins, completing them one at a time and building enthusiasm within the group. That helped us build our team’s momentum and led to incrementally bigger goals and accomplishments. Within two years, we had completed or made significant progress on more than 60% of our updated strategic plan tasks.
It can be tempting to tackle complex problems right out of the gate, but this is a common pitfall for individuals and teams that can lead to stress, failures, and eventually, inertia and surrender. You’ll likely make better progress by setting small, incremental, and achievable goals. When you look back years from now, you’ll see that you’ve built a reputation of wins for yourself and your team.
Find your path to mastery by being a lifelong apprentice.
Often, the best learning opportunities and experiences do not pay money, but they give you a shot at learning the ropes in a role you can be paid to do in the future. This could mean volunteering to lead a working group at your workplace or becoming an active board member of a professional or trade organization, like I did with the NYSUFC. My time with NYSUFC connected me to urban forestry dynamos from all over New York State, grew my leadership skills, and provided anecdotes and perspective that have helped me be successful in my career.
When asked to do something that’s slightly out of your comfort zone, don’t hesitate to say “yes.” Being uncomfortable is a sign of growth—and we should always be trying to grow the boundaries of our comfort zone. In 2008, I was hired by New York Restoration Project (NYRP) two months before I finished my degree at Georgetown. The day after I turned in my last paper, I moved to NYC to begin work in the brand-new position of NYRP Forestry Manager.
I was the first full-time person they hired to manage the organization’s MillionTreesNYC effort, including the planting of over 3000 trees that same spring. That meant working early mornings and late nights in all types of weather while my grad school classmates were attending parties and backpacking Europe. When I look back, this was more than slightly out of my comfort zone! But urban forestry veterans really showed up for me with advice and connections, I learned a ton in that position, and came out of it with solid confidence in my professional abilities. That said, I do wish I had taken more time to cultivate professional networks while I was still in school. I would have been starting at second base instead of first, in terms of knowing whom to contact about what.
Another part of lifelong apprenticeship is staying curious and asking questions, even if it’s embarrassing to let people know you don’t know something. People generally like to help and teach, and curiosity and wonder are valuable qualities that will lead you to more rapid growth as well as many rich and meaningful new experiences.
Advocate for your profession to shape our larger world.
To shape society according to your generations needs’ and values, you’ll need to proactively participate and contribute to it. Be a role model to the peers of your generation by supporting advocacy efforts that reflect your values and the values of your profession. Write your elected officials, vote, march, volunteer, and show up on a regular basis. Find a small but meaningful ongoing advocacy activity and perform it consistently over a long period of time. Become a board member of a professional group, volunteer to manage the registration desk at your local conference, or find your own unique way to contribute to society (beyond your regular job) in a meaningful way.
When I was working for NYC Parks, I attended, on my own time, community engagement meetings in my neighborhood, Greenpoint (Brooklyn), around how oil-spill restitution dollars could be used to the community’s benefit. I and my colleagues, like James Kaechele and Sophie Plitt, advocated for the money to go towards tree planting, and millions of dollars eventually did. Our [volunteer] presence there really mattered and was well worth the time we invested. As a bonus, I met other like-minded leaders in my community and received many other invitations and opportunities for local activism efforts.
Joining your state urban forest council, the Society of Municipal Arborists, and other professional trade groups are great ways to connect to advocacy efforts. Also consider attending the Municipal Forestry Institute (MFI), a weeklong leadership training that includes curriculum about advocating for our profession. I attended MFI in 2010 and it inspired and prepared me to take on more responsibility at work as well as with the NYSUFC. I call it the “Jedi School” because it taught me ways to effectively catalyze change and overcome obstacles despite the constraints and conditions of everyday life and work situations (limited resources, interpersonal challenges, etc). Both Jedis and urban foresters can overcome incredible obstacles and achieve great things by aligning their hearts and minds and seeking the right training and tools to achieve their intentions.
Tend your reputation like a garden.
At the beginning of your career, your reputation is mostly a blank slate. Do you have an overall intention or moral code that guides your decisions? Now is a good time to take that into consideration. Operating according to a system of values defines your character, makes decisions easier, and leads to building respectful relationships with other professionals.
Sometimes that means putting yourself in a difficult situation to stand up for what’s right. As you can imagine, it’s touchy for me to detail situations I’ve found myself in, but suffice it to say, I’ve needed to refuse colleagues who wanted me to carry their baggage. That was uncomfortable, to say the least, but I stayed true to a value system I’d established for myself, one in which I could respect myself and others.
I’ve observed that the more influence or power someone has, the more opportunity they have to sabotage themselves. It takes fortitude not to fall into that trap. It can be tempting to have conditional values and decision-making around people you don’t like so much—or conversely, with work friends, but if you’ve established a value system and behaviors of fairness, you’re more likely to stay consistent and therefore create a stronger and higher-achieving team.
Everyone who ever works with you will remember the good and bad experiences of that relationship. We all make mistakes, and it’s important to own up to them and be accountable for fixing them when they are made. Relationships are like gardens that require our regular maintenance and care—when weeds grow, if at all possible, just get in there and clean them out.
Receive and give mentorship in equal measure.
Take notice of people in your professional life who carry themselves and handle their business in a way that you admire. How did they learn those moves? What path did they take to get to where they are now? Ask them out for a cup of coffee to seek their professional advice; if you’re asking the right type of person, they’ll say yes and gladly open up to you.
Davey Resource Group Western NY Area Manager and NYSUFC Board member Lori Brockelbank went out of her way to help me when I was new to my profession. She offered me tips on where to buy high quality trees, and gave me leads on other professionals who could potentially provide best management practices relevant to my needs. When I first started at NYC Parks, my peer Ian Jack trained me during my first planting season; he played a big role in helping me get oriented to my new work environment. At NYC Parks, I also befriended Forester (now Director of Street Tree Planting) Navé Strauss, who would take the time to show me the ropes, extend his knowledge, go on lunch breaks together, or do Qijong together in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. There are so many other people who have mentored me because they saw we were both working towards the same goal of a healthier planet.
Once you’ve made progress on your own path, look around for those junior colleagues who may benefit from your help—and lend them your time and support. It’s time to pay it forward! You will see the world through their fresh eyes for a moment and find some new inspiration, and you may forge lasting professional friendships. I graduated from SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in 2006, and by 2010 I reached out to former professors to see how I could be of service.
I guest lectured for Drs. Doug Morrison and Chuck Maynard, and eventually grew to working more with Drs. Eric Greenfield and David Nowak until 2017. Eric would help me set up time to talk with students one-on-one who were interested in learning more about urban forestry careers in NYC. Some of those students later became my colleagues. I found this SUNY-ESF relationship really rewarding, and it didn’t require a lot of time on my part.
Live a three-dimensional life that balances work with physical, mental, and spiritual health.
At 34 years old, I foresee working at least another 30 years. If I’m going to get through this career healthy and happy, I’m going to need to take care of myself. It’s much easier to start good habits when we’re young than to try to correct bad ones when we’re older, so now is a good time to develop the courage to start making choices that sustain our well-being.
I find that getting some exercise on my lunch break can bring me more vigor and clarity in my afternoon work hours. When I feel overwhelmed by deadlines, interruptions, and having 20 tabs open on my web browser, I take a 10-minute break to meditate to help restore my concentration and confidence. I try to stay in shape so I can enjoy the great outdoors and play with my one-year-old son, Shepard, without pulling a muscle or hurting my back. I also spend a lot of my free time listening to, creating, and learning about music because it is an activity I can always continue exploring and reaching new ground without any real pressure or specific goal in mind, which is a nice contrast from work commitments and everyday life pressures.
As I write this, I’m on paternity leave and enjoying extra time with my wife and our young son. We take Shepard to the Berkeley Forest School Forest Explorers program, where he is “forest bathing” with us and other families. We also walk a couple of hours a day around Oakland’s residential streets. This time is precious and having it makes me feel really good about my career with the City.