A Cordial Q&A With Claire Dobson


The Americorps Experience Blog collects stories, interviews, and anecdotes from the Americorps Members working with Our City Forest. Today we talk to Claire Dobson. Claire is the Coordinator of the Trees For All program, providing trees to low-income residents, senior citizens and veterans in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Claire is an Ultimate Frisbee aficionado, aspiring archaeologist and a super cool person. In this interview we talk about her background, upbringing, and what she’s doing with Americorps.

Vincent: Clair, how did you find Americorps?

Claire: I was looking for something after to do I graduated. Originally, I was looking to get into private archaeology in, San Diego but none of those jobs would take someone without a master’s.

So I had a friend tell me about an Americorps program in Orange County. I applied to that.

It would have been working with Disaster Relief with the Red Cross. So after I applied to that I thought “Well I have this Americorps profile, might as well look to see what else I can find.

I found this place in San Jose and I said to myself, “Oh, San Jose, that’s a pretty cool city, and I get to work outside, I get to learn GIS and all the skills that would help me in getting my Master’s later. So I applied and two weeks later I got the email from Leslie.

V: You came out of an archeology program at UC Irvine? What was that like?

C: It was interesting. I did a major in anthropology and a minor in archeology. Anthropology was a lot of learning about whatever cultures my professors studied or the basics of ethnography and working with people. The “minor” part of it was learning about ancient cultures, I did a lot of field work. So it was good I really enjoyed it.

V: What drew you to ancient history?

C: I remember when I was little I was always outside and digging up stuff. For a while I thought I was going to be an Egyptologist. But then as I got older I was like “Why stop at Egypt when I can do all the archeology everywhere?”

 I got really into that in high school and I was really good at history. So when I got out of high school I had some options. I could either be a history teacher or be stuck in a museum somewhere or I could go for archeology and get into fieldwork and cultural studies. Really learn about people.

V: Where would you want to go with this for a career for this? I know that’s a hard question to answer.

C:  I would like to go into, classical archeology, that’s Greek and Roman archeology. But I did my first dig in Israel and was really drawn in. I’ve been told that people start off in Classical Archeology and trickle into Ancient Near-Eastern Studies. So I want to get into Greece but I feel like I’m going to end up in Israel.

V: You’d be researching ancient Semitic kingdoms or Phoenicians…?

C: Yeah it just depends where you go. Sometimes all of that overlaps. We were digging up Egyptian stuff because we were at a port city. We were at the Gate of Ramses the Second. There’s incredible overlap in that area.

V: What city?

C: We were in Jaffa.

V: Oh that’s really cool!

C: Jaffa is near… or it is Old-Town Tel-Aviv.

V: I just lost my normal follow up question for that. My immediate thought was, “Is that the furthest north that the Egyptians conquered?

C: It was actually pretty far north for the Egyptians. They actually got farther north than Jaffa, got pushed back to Jaffa and held it for a while.

V: You’re in charge of the Trees for All program? Can you tell me what that’s like?

C: So being the TFA Coordinator is really rewarding but really stressful at times. I talk to at least 30 residents at a time. It’s really exciting when I get to go and plant trees but it can get really bogged down in the bureaucratic stuff, the permit and application process.

But, I really enjoy it I get to talk to people. I get to go plant trees and “save a neighborhood” for the future. I also get to chat with people who are really grateful for the work we’re doing.  That’s what drives me through all the bureaucracy stuff.

V: Walk me through a day at TFA.

C: I get in and check emails. There’s usually 15 emails from people. I return calls. I get leads for tree-planting cases. I’ll check to see if the person has a permit and then from there I check to see what trees are in stock at the nursery or I figure out when I can plant for them. Basically, anything that the resident needs I’ll take care of. That means lots of talking and lots of emails.

V: As I understand the target demographic for TFA are elderly people, people with disabilities and veterans. How do you source new clients?

C: A lot of it comes from the city itself. A lot of times the city will refer them after they’ve removed a tree. “Check out Our City Forest to replace this tree!” So the city is a big advocate for us. They send us the majority of our applications. Or they’ll have seen us planting a tree, or a past tree we planted and want one.

V: Do you have any interesting stories about people out in the community?

C: We either have really nice people or, like horror stories. People who have had their trees removed or who have had to pay for the sidewalk concrete tend to be a little grumpy.

So far my favorite resident was this one guy who was super awesome. He came to the Silicon Valley for the computer industry. He had done all this research on how to plant a tree properly. So when we got there he was like “So I already dug up the hole and I’ve got this tree-planting soil and here’s this bucket of water I reclaimed from my shower this morning if you wanna use it!”  Really caring guy for the tree, which is something you don’t run into that often.

V: Have you encountered any strangeness while planting trees during the drought?

C: Sometimes residents say things like “I just want the smallest tree you can find, that doesn’t take any water or anything”

V: Yeah those famous waterless trees.

C: Waterless trees! It’s a lot of convincing these tree-scorned people into getting a tree again, a lot of explaining how a drought works.

I had a lady call in asking about her tree in the drought. “I don’t know what I should do with it or how to water it, sometimes it seems too dry. You know, back in the 70s when we had these trees here I didn’t water them and didn’t see anybody watering them.” I had to explain that 2015 was part of a historic drought in California.

V: Do you feel like you’re making a difference here?

C: That’s a hard question. I deal with a lot of cases one on one. When I’m putting trees in the ground I feel like I’m making a difference but when the process is moving slowly it’s hard. Overall I’d say that I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m doing something positive. I’m not sitting around doing nothing. I’m slowly helping out, one tree at a time.

V: What have you been learning from this experience?

C: People skills, for one because I’m dealing with people all the time. I’ve been learning a lot about how sturdy trees are. I see how we handle them and I feel like we’re abusing them but they grow fine. I’m learning a little bit about tree health and tree species. It’s really exciting to be able to nerd out when you’re walking around.

V: I find that I often take too many things on and have to pare my tasks down to get things done. I imagine you, who has a constant flow of things has to do a lot of that.

C: Oh yeah. In the beginning I used to avoid my email because if I looked at it I’d get nothing else done. I’d have to focus on one thing at a time in order to get things done. Now that I’m familiar with the process I can do more but I still have to pick what’s more important. That means not answering the phone or not answering an email until I absolutely have time.

V: Americorps, at least our program, asks for 11 months of service. How do you feel now that we’re 4.5 months through?

C: Each month has been different from the last. It’s never the same. I can go planting one day and be back at the office. It’s been challenging some days but overall I’ve been enjoying it. I definitely wouldn’t be having this much fun if I were in the real world with a “real job”.

V: One of the hardest things about Americorps is managing the stipend, especially where we live (San Jose). How would you say that’s been affecting you?

C: It’s put a damper on my activities. Its choosing between seeing a doctor or buying a ticket for a show. I guess that’s just being an adult too. But it’s definitely crunchy. It makes it easier being surrounded by people who are living off the same stipend you are.

It’s hardest when you see friends who have high-paying jobs. I was in Tahoe with some friends of mine, engineers  with high-paying jobs. And then there’s me. I had to say “I won’t go snowboarding or skiing because I don’t have the money to pay for the lift ticket or rent the gear. It’s just living within your means though.

V: Are you from California originally?

C: No I was born in Pen and then moved to Wis and lived there for 10 years. And I spent the last 11-12 years in California.

V: What was it like growing up in Wisconsin?  

C: Wisconsin is great. I’m really glad I’m from there and not from California. Although at times it got really boring because we lived in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles south of Green Bay in a tiny town called Greenville. I grew up in a neighborhood with a total of three neighbors. And only one of those neighbors had kids my age.

V: Literally 3 neighbors?

C: Literally three neighbors. Three houses around me and te other house was a cornfield. That’s where my love of the outdoors came from. I was either inside or exploring outside. Running in the cornfield. Really fun. You come back home covered in little cuts.

V: So what brought you out to California?

C: My mom worked for Jansport and she got another position with Vans Shoe Company in Orange County so we moved out here.

V: What was that change like?

C: Oh god it was such a culture shock. We went from those three houses around us to living in a suburb. The junior high was right next to us and down the further was the elementary school. I think I blocked out the first few years. None of us were happy in that house. It wasn’t until high school, so like 5 years living in California that I started to adjust. Definitely a cultural shock going from 8 people to like millions.

V: So what your family like?

C: They’re crazy, like all families are. It’s mainly my sister, my mom, my dad and I and my dad’s family. Then we moved again to where we aren’t near any family. The four of us are really close. I gotta say that my sister is one of my best friends. She was always there growing up. My parents are interesting. They’re travelling the US in an enormous motor home. So it’s my parents, 2 dogs and a cat travelling around. They’re just full of stories.

V: Two years on the road though that’s a lot.

C: Yeah I don’t really have a home base. Once their lease was up in Orange County they just packed and moved. We have land out in Wisconsin. Eventually we’ll build a house. For right now the closes thing to a “center” is my sister’s apartment.

V: Which keeps in touch with the roving command center, complete, I hope, with a giant satellite dish.

C: Oh my god there’s so much stuff on their roof. My dad has told me many times what all that stuff is like “This is for this and we get reception with this” and I’m like, ok cool dad, thank you.

V: To finish off these interviews I like to ask strange questions. If you could produce one mythical creature in a lab what would it be?

C: Ooh. Hm. I could have sworn I’ve thought about this before.

V:  Laugh

C: I think maybe a griffin or Pegasus? Something that can fly me around but is also a super badass animal. I think griffins are mysterious, they pop up in legends as this super badass animal that nobody really knows about. It’s also easy to build. You can mix it out of other animal life.

V: I actually don’t remember what you need to mix up a griffin. I’m pretty sure we’ll hear about it in the comments. If you know what animals are in a griffin...

C: Comment below.

C and V together: Like comment and subscribe!

V: Well thank you for agreeing to sit with me for this. You were super awesome.

C: Definitely, I had a good time. 

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