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Students create environmental activism opportunities with Growing Oaks

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Clara Nithiaparan

Staff Writer

Willamette students and professor posing for a photo at Zena Farms while scouting for oaks on Sept. 25. Individuals involved in Growing Oaks and pictured here are Angie Wang '23 (she/her, Project lead), Grace Shiffrin '23 (she/her, Project lead), Blake Carlile '23 (he/him, Media content manager), David Craig (he/him, Faculty Advisor), East Steelman '22 (they/them, Student Consultant), Matt Permut '22 (he/him, Political Actions Leader) and Rachel Levine '25 (she/they, Growing Leader). Photo by Katie Hill.

Stewarding Our Oregon Oaks: A Restoration Project' (otherwise shortened to Growing Oaks) is a Willamette University Community Action Funded for Equity and Sustainability (CAFES) funded grant project run by students, inspired to transform environmental awareness into action. The idea emerged last spring when Angie Wang ‘23 (Project Lead) took a class on biodiversity and climate change by Professor Craig, who asked students if they had any proposals in mind. This led her towards the idea of growing and protecting oak trees. After connecting with Grace Shiffrin ‘23, another project lead, and Sarah Menke ‘24 (Social Outreach Leader), the three began working on creating the grant together. Eventually, the roots spread and the team grew bigger. Now the leadership team, under the guidance of Prof. David Craig, also consists of the following members: Blake Carlile ‘23 (Media Content Creator), East Steelman ‘22 (Student Consultant), Rachel Levine ‘25 (Plant Cultivation Leader), Leila Fischer ‘24 (Plant Cultivation Leader), and Matt Permut ‘22 (Political Actions Leader). Wang, Shiffrin, Steelman, and Levine were contacted to discuss the project’s current direction.

The members of the leadership team were palpably passionate about their respective job roles and projects. As stated on their website, Growing Oaks, “explores the connection between the legacy of the oak savanna and the lasting impacts colonial settlement has had on Salem biodiversity.” Growing Oaks aims to help both its own members, as well as the Salem community, to understand “the significance of the Oregon Oak to the original stewards of the land, the Kalapuya, now represented by the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians.” The project also, “strives to educate the community about the importance of this keystone species [the Oregon Oak].” These goals are undertaken through actions such as “collecting acorns to grow, protecting wild oaks, taking political actions, as well as creating social outreach to the Salem community.”

The Growing Oak project is divided into six main categories: Wild Oak Protection, Oak Planting, Oak Tree Donation, Political Actions, BIPOC Awareness, and Community Outreach. Their first goal for the project is to plant and protect a minimum of 200 Oak trees around Willamette University’s campus, as well as near the houses of local residents and other public spaces in Salem. Growing Oaks uses this ecologically motivated goal of planting trees as an act of reconciliation and acknowledgment of the mistreatment of BIPOC members in the past and present. Their choice of Oak trees has a powerful value. As Wang mentioned, “This tree has benefits of helping us combat climate change. There’s not just historical and cultural significance, there’s ecological significance as well.” The team believes that they and students who help out in this program will be able to learn about and reconnect with many aspects of history, communities and culture in the land of the Kalapuya.

A predecessor in this line of projects is the ‘Oak Salvage Project,’ which started in February 2021 with the ice storm that happened around that time. This was when Shiffrin first connected with the community in Salem that was interested in Oaks. She said, “I was really impacted by the Professors and the community outreach that was happening there and I felt inspired, and I feel like with our project we’re going to work with those Professors and learn from them and be able to utilize a larger community with that project.” Shiffrin, Wang, and Steelman talked about “Legacy Oaks,” which are over 150 years of age. Wang mentioned that “A lot of the oaks that fell [in the storm] were the Legacy Oaks,” with Shiffrin adding that the project also studied the rings of these oaks to better understand the history of the past climate and environmental conditions. On a positive note, Steelman added that many oak trees in the Sparks parking lot are legacy oaks. By collecting their acorns, a new generation of oaks can be created, thus continuing the legacy. “Having that close proximity to Willamette and being able to piece together the land’s history is very significant.”

Growing Oaks hopes to bring the Willamette Community together in united awareness and action. At the current moment, they are focused on connecting with other clubs on campus in order to reach audiences from various backgrounds and academic disciplines. They will be holding a few volunteer events soon, such as acorn collecting this fall, and oak planting next spring. You can reach them at for inquiries.

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