November 17, 2023
By: Makayla Freeman

I Thank the Trees Around Me

I Thank the Trees Around Me - Photo

When I was 14, I got my first job through Step-up.

I remember the person I used to be before that job. I was so shy and scared I never spoke up, didn’t look up or stand tall when I walked. I could barely even order food at a restaurant. Getting my first job was terrifying. My job title was camp counselor. I had no training and no idea what I was supposed to be doing. They threw me right in on the first day. I got in a van with 10 first through fifth graders. 

Quiet, overwhelmed, and scared, I didn’t even know where we were going and what I was supposed to do. Yet I was in charge of this group! Luckily when we got out one of the kids led us to where we needed to go. This was day one of a three week camp. 

Myself, twenty-five kids, and a few adults all sat in the park in a circle on the ground. I’m scared of bugs so I was already uncomfortable. We did some small intros and talked about who knows what. Then an indigenous elder spoke and told a bit about who he was. He then lit some sage and said a thank you and we all passed around this shell with sage, and we waved the smoke from it towards us and our spirit to cleanse and ground ourselves. I had never done it and the smell was really strong. 

He then talked more… I can’t remember it all but I was so immersed in his words. After the gathering circle we all got up to walk around the park. It was so sunny and beautiful that day. The elder walked super slow, we were walking like turtles but he was doing this intentionally. He would look down and brush the grass he was walking on and he said thank you. Not for anyone else just between them. He’d touch the grooves on all the trees’ bark and tell them thank you. He’d look up periodically and thank the sky above us. Anytime a squirrel or bird was around he’d thank them as well.

I have always loved to be outside, but it never occurred to me to thank the environment that has surrounded me my whole life. 

Thanking it for all of the hard work it does and the essential role they play in this world and my life. Everything he did was so new to me.

The way he saw the world and treated it, was so illuminating. This man and how he interacted with the world became so incredibly impactful on the way I see the world now. We continued these practices for the next three weeks of camp, and I’ll never forget him and all he taught us. 

In my life almost six years later, I thank the environment and organisms around me. I love the smell of sage and I’m in many spaces where it is used for the practice of cleansing. I’ve been doing environmental justice work, advocacy, and activism since then. I support my community by being a young organizer through the lens of environmental justice. 

One of my passions is planting trees and caring for them, as well as planting native rain gardens to help the water, air, soil, and pollinators. I can name many more things, as I am a strong, young, confident woman who constantly advocates for environmental justice and community. 

I want my community to not be burdened with injustices and for everyone and the environment to be safe, supported, happy and have what they need to thrive. 

I will continue this work until I am unable to.

Makayla Freeman is an environmental justice and social justice activist and advocate. She is 20 years old and has been doing this work since age 14. Makayla grew up in North Minneapolis, a heavily environmentally impacted community. They have the highest asthma rates in the state, are a heat island, and have the highest concentration of low income black and brown people. She joined Youth N’Power 5 years ago. Since then, she has learned how to do community organizing in her Community, North Minneapolis through the imperative lens of environmental justice. Makayla cares about serving her community and making intentional relationships with others. She continues to learn and grow her personal and collective knowledge around environmental justice, community organizing, and communication. At Metro Blooms, another organization she’s involved with, Makayla does community engagement and focuses on planting trees, rain gardens, and boulevard bioswales to help improve the air quality, water quality and soil quality in North and South Minneapolis.

Makayla is a Climate Generation Window Into COP delegate for COP28. To learn more, we encourage you to meet the full delegation and subscribe to the Window Into COP digest.