The Americorps Experience Blog collects stories, interviews, and anecdotes from the Americorps Members working with Our City Forest. Today we talk to Robert Castañeda. Robert is a Planting Coordinator with Our City Forest. He organizes, arranges and executes large-scale community planting projects in the Silicon Valley. At plantings Robert can often be found with a pickaxe in his hand and a big smile on his face during planting demos. Robert is a gamer, a night owl IT guy, and bro-nerd who totally knows what Chemical X does. In this interview we talk about what it takes to conduct a planting, reinventing yourself and the people make us want to leave the world a better place.
Vincent: So how did you get here to Our City Forest?
Robert: I drove.
V: [laughing] You drove, from where?
R: [laughing] From my house down the street.
V: But what brought you to Our City Forest and Americorps?
R: It started when I applied to three colleges, San Diego State, San Jose State and Cal Poly SLO. I was very lazy and forgot to send my SAT scores to San Diego and SLO so technically I onlyapplied to SJSU. The other applications were incomplete. So I was very lucky I got into San Jose State. I had to take it. I wasn’t super enthused but now I love San Jose.
V: What was it like falling in love with San Jose?
R: I grew up in suburbia in the Santa Clarita Valley. It’s the last valley before you hit LA. It’s cookie cutter houses, they all look the same. My school was nice enough but it was very boring. The town was like “The American Dream”, little white picket fence, a tree in the yard and everybody was so polite to each other.
You come here (San Jose) and the streets have character. Down the block there’s a purple house and you can paint your house pink if you want to. Down there the HOAs fine you because you’re off the approved pallet. San Jose has a diverse set of people, cool houses and SJSU is a big commuter/state school which attracts people from all over the state.
Where I grew up you know the same people, you always meet the same people, you go to elementary, middle and high school with the same people. You live down the street from them your whole life.
It was very cool to move away where I didn’t know anybody. To start fresh.
V: So you got to carve your own identity, experiment up here. What would you say is the biggest experiment you took?
R: The biggest experiment was the social experiment. In high school I had 5 friends that I hung out with every day. When moved to San Jose State I told myself over and over again, “I’m going to be more social, be more social, be more social”. I really tried to put myself out there.
I made some of my best friends by just walking up to people in the cafeteria and going “Sup my name’s Robert”. In my home town I didn’t have to. I knew everyone. I really put myself out there. It was fun I found that people really liked me a lot. I was surprised at that.
V: Well, as someone who knows you now I’m not super surprised that they liked you, Rob. What were you studying there at SJSU?
R: I went in as an “Environmental Studies” major with a concentration in conservation and stuck with it all the way through. So I studied the environment, conservation and resource management. I can tell you why I got into that.
V: Yeah I was about to ask.
R: So it started with this forestry class I took in high school. We had this ROP (Regional Occupational Program) that provided job training for high school students. You have ROP vets, ROP dentistry, things that give marketable skills to high school students. They took groups of high school students and gave them jobs and you got paid.
The one that stood out to me was ROP Forestry. They taught you about forestry practices and sustainability in the classroom. A couple days a week they would take us out in the mountains with picks and shovels to build trails. It was backbreaking work but I loved it. You hike miles in, build these trails for people to enjoy. It was cool and I learned a lot.
That class really influenced me. It gave me this passion for multigenerational projects. Those trails would be enjoyed for a long time. So when I applied to college I knew that I liked working outdoors and doing stuff like that. I was scrolling through the dropdown list and saw environmental studies, “Oh that seems cool”. I didn’t even research it. I just clicked it off the dropdown list.
V: That’s a very lucky dropdown list.
R: Yeah I don’t really research things. I dive right in to things, as you can tell from my college applications.
V: Did you have anybody at SJSU who was really inspiring? Or was it all the internal drive from that high school experience?
R: It was all internal drive. Nobody knew my history. Nobody knew me as that shy guy. I didn’t have to deal with my history so I could actually be my best. Ever since then I’ve gotten lazier and lazier about being social.
V: I wouldn’t call you lazy. You’re working two jobs. So you’ve completed this environmental program and reinvented yourself as a social butterfly. So why did you choose Americorps and a year of public service.
R: I wanted to do something in my field. I had never done internships like a lot of my peers had. They were all working for water districts or open space preserves, making moves on their futures. They were set to jump into the field. I’d been working in IT for four years during school so I had no work experience in my field. I felt that Our City Forest would be the perfect spot for me to learn some skills. You’re in this middle point where you’re preparing to bound into your future and I felt this would be the perfect thing for that.
V: Yeah Americorps is interesting because it’s a hybrid between a learning experience and a work experience. What would you say you’ve been learning most out here?
R: I think my favorite thing I’m learning is volunteer management. It’s very fun when I have to lead groups of them on the planting team.
V: Tell me about what goes into a planting.
R: We do a lot of scheduling plantings, logistics like planning and getting site maps, filing tree orders, talking to residents and clients. And the day of, besides all the office work we do coaching at the planting event. As a planting coach you’re assigned a tree and a group of volunteers, you have to really expand your “working with volunteer” skill.
V: Walk me through a typical planting.
R: So a neighborhood planting is where we go out on Saturday morning to a group of residents in a neighborhood and plant trees for them. Like Willow Glen we did a couple months ago. We need a minimum of ten trees to make a large planting worth the time so the first step is to get ten residents who want trees. That’s outreach. We go door-knocking in the neighborhood to ask people, ask their friends, ask their neighbors to get these people interested in trees.
Second step is a site visit. One of our arborists, (Kevin) will go out and survey the site and recommend a tree species or confirm that tree will work for a location. This requires constant communication between you and the resident. “Hey are you cool with this species?” You have to get the tree permits from the city or if they have one already. You’ve got to make sure you have the right species. After that you start making maps, gathering tools, recruiting volunteers through your volunteer coordinator.
V: And then there’s the day of the planting!
R: Day of the planting you have to load up all the tools and trees you need into the trucks. You get to the site and make sure everyone knows where they’re going, unload the stuff, coordinate your team to work where needed. If you’re the project lead you act as the liaison between the residents, the volunteers and the planters. You’re just leading the charge the whole day.
V: On the day of the planting what’s your favorite thing to do?
R: If I’m not the project lead I like to run the demo. Our City Forest has pretty specific standards for planting; it’s why our trees have a 90% survival rate. We need to show the volunteers how to plant to our standards. So we always have a planting demonstration
We gather the volunteers around and show them the basics of planting a tree, like how to dig a hole. We don’t just show them what to do but we explain why we do these things. I get really passionate about it. I get excited talking about why we build the mound or why we score the sides of the hole. The demo is involved education.
V: is that what you expected
R: No I didn’t think I’d be dealing with volunteers, demos or site maps. I had no idea what to expect at Our City Forest. I did have a friend, Tanner, who did this before me who told me it would look great on my resume but, I didn’t know how much work went into a planting.
V: Would you say it’s a happy surprise?
R: I really enjoy it. I’m digging my time on the planting team and I love doing demos.
V: What is the most challenging part of doing a stint in Americorps, working for Our City Forest?
R: Motivation sometimes. Living the nonprofit lifestyle, it’s very hard to be motivated sometimes when I know there’s not upward mobility.
V: The transient nature of an Americorps position can make it hard to engage the entire time. How do you push past that?
R: You’ve got to remind yourself you’re here for a good reason. It’s very easy to remind yourself that when you’re planting trees. Especially Sis (single instance plantings), you’re planting for a resident and they get really happy, really excited about their tree. It helps remind yourself why you did it (Joined Americorps).
V: So it’s the human factor that keeps you going.
R: That’s what keeps me going.
V: So you mentioned your family in Southern California. What are they like?
R: They’re a typical, loud Mexican family. I’m actually first generation. My parents were born in this small ranching village. It’s a little town with a population of 2000 people very secluded in the rural mountains of Mexico. The village is Atolinga out in Zacatecas. Very proud people from Zacatecas.
I love going there. We used to go every year. My parents both came here when they were young. They met over here actually. They’re both from the same little village, and their families knew each other. My dad’s family is really big in that town, very prominent family. Mom’s not so much but still, a big portion of the town bears their last names.
So they got married, typical thing, had kids. They got their citizenships. Mom went to college, she went to Cal State Northridge.
V: What does she do now?
R: She’s a school teacher, has been for 25 years. She’s been teaching 2nd grade in this low-income neighborhood in Puebla, in the San Fernando Valley. 95% of her students are Spanish-only speakers.
V: It sounds like that element of “doing good” runs in your family.
R: Yeah, lately she’s really ignited this passion for teaching (in me). That’s something I’ve definitely considered continuing later. Just not right now.
My dad is my hero. He’s the hardest worker I know. Growing up I used to think he was being cheap but, he just really believes in himself because he can fix anything. If something breaks he’s like “I’ll repair it, there’s no need to replace it”. He’s been a custodian for 25 years too; it’s one of the most selfless jobs. He does it to support his family, himself, to support us.
I remember when I was younger he used to work nights. My mom worked mornings because she was a teacher. He would wake up and make breakfast and walk us to school and, he made us a hot lunch every single day. When I was a kid I resented that because all my friends were buying lunch from the cafeteria but I wasn’t. I would be waiting for my dad to drop off lunch at the front gates of the school. I didn’t appreciate that until later
Now I appreciate it. If I could be half the father my dad was to me, my kids are going to turn out great. He worked nights so that he could be there for us in the morning. My mom worked days so she could take care of us at night. My dad gave up seeing my mom during the week so that he could do that for us kids.
My dad is my hero. Ever since my little sister started college he’s picked up working Saturdays with my uncles. Seeing my dad work makes me so that I don’t want any of the money he makes anymore go to supporting me. I want to support myself. That’s why I have a second job. I don’t want to see his hands worked to the bone for me.
So my parents are my heroes. I don’t show it sometimes because I screw up a lot.
V: It’s ok. Kids are supposed to screw up. Do you have any siblings?
R: My brother graduated high school and joined the Marine Corps as a reservist.
V: A different kind of Corps then.
R: (laughing) Yeah. He did six years as a reservist in the artillery. He’s just finishing his time, thinking about college. It’s hard because I’m the middle child and I finished school before my brother.
My younger sister is going to be a star. She graduated high school with a 4.2. She’s going to Cal Poly SLO. It’s a really good school one of the top technical schools in the state. She was on the NCAA swim team for a while. She’s really smart, going to graduate in 3.5 years this fall. She’s going into her teacher’s credential program pretty soon. She’s making moves.
V: What’s your next move Rob?
R: I don’t know what I want to do. I want to get into education but I also want to live a solitary life somewhere. I want go live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere or be a park ranger and educate people.
V: A park ranger sounds a lot like that multi-generational, selfless good project that hooked you before.
R: That’s like something my dad would tell me. Leave things better than the way you found them. We were going to this neighborhood space for my sister’s quniceanera. It was filthy when we got there, trash on the floor. We had to spend an hour cleaning it.
When the party was over my dad was like “well we’re cleaning it up now” I was like “why, it was a mess when we found it” and he told me “You have to leave things better than when you found them”. It really stuck with me. That’s what makes a man. It’s selfless, I think. That’s my view on the world. I want to leave it cleaner than the way I found it. I feel like planting trees are the start of it.
V: They definitely are, they clean the air long after you’re gone.
R: Being a teacher is that too, because you have this impact on children’s minds.
V: We’re about ready to wrap up. So here’s your weird question. Dinner with any historical figure, what restaurant would you take them to and who would it be?
V: Really? Why?
V: So where are you taking Stalin for dinner?
R: Olive Garden.
V: Why Olive Garden?
R: The endless salad and breadsticks. Stalin ruled a country where he starved his people and I want to show him what it’s like to have endless breadsticks here in America! You got owned Stalin! America is a great provider! Look at these endless breadsticks on our table! And if you do that he just might change his mind about America.
That’s a question I’ve been asked multiple times.
V: You just had the answer in your back pocket? That’s great, and it’s been great to talk to you.
R: For sure. Happy to do it.