As an African American woman who has worked in public gardens for the past eighteen years, I often experienced firsthand the need for greater diversity. The lack of inclusion in the workspace is not an issue exclusive to public gardens, but it should be noted that many public gardens in the United States were founded by white people and many are primarily staffed by white people, despite being located in communities of color. Like many of my friends and colleagues in other industries, I was often asked to be the representative for all people of color when discussing inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (a set of issues often known as IDEA). Being the “only” in a room was disconcerting, but it also gave me access and opportunity to speak on important matters and empowered me to do my own self-reflection, do my own research, and do my best to connect and engage with as many communities as possible.

Over my years working in gardens, I found myself having conversations with employees at other botanic gardens and arboreta who also served communities not reflected in their boards, staff, and volunteers. I may have been an “only” in my workspace, but I was far from alone to bring forward the need for change. The American Public Gardens Association (APGA) also had conversations with its members and took the call to action to begin a more authentic discussion about the bias, barriers, and baggage in our industry. APGA is the leading professional organization for the field of public horticulture. Members include more than ten thousand individuals at over six hundred institutions, in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and twenty other countries. The organization’s primary goals are to encourage best practices, offer educational opportunities, and advocate for members, so this dialogue was a crucial step toward action for public gardens as a whole.

In 2016, a group of eleven truth-seekers scheduled a phone meeting to talk about diversity and inclusion. This group wasn’t appointed, but we were individuals who had asked questions or nudged the association to “do something.” We represented generational, ethnic, gender, racial, and sexual-orientation diversity and worked in gardens throughout the United States. Only a handful held a high-level leadership position in their respective gardens. This inaugural group spent the first twenty minutes dissecting the definition of diversity. Through that process of discovery, we unearthed the varying degrees of knowledge, the chasm of feelings and opinions, and a quick understanding of just how different we all felt on how to move forward. While at times uncomfortable, we realized that within that uncomfortable space, we could reflect on our own bias. Thus began a year-long exploration of reading diversity articles, untangling historical perspectives steeped in garden history, and having informal chats about our own experiences while serving public gardens. The work was difficult and sometimes frustrating, without a guidebook of boxes to check.

It is important to note that regardless of where gardens and their staff stand in their work towards inclusion and diversity, everyone must start by addressing what they do not know. Starting with a garden’s history, for example, gardens should bring to light what the land was before, and who lived on it and cared for it. One resource that is especially helpful when exploring this issue is a book, edited by Duane Blue Spruce and Tanya Thrasher, titled The Land Has Memory: Indigenous Knowledge, Native Landscapes, and the National Museum of the American Indian. It speaks to the rich history and contribution of indigenous people to the land in the Americas and is a thoughtful representation of how traditional Indigenous ways should be put into practice by cultural institutions.

With a mere five minutes before the session started, we had to request more chairs—the room was already packed.

Increasing individual knowledge in these and other areas is crucial. This work helps combat the collective unawareness that exists when members of a group believe that others in their group hold comparably more or less extreme attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. The term “unawareness” is not meant to disparage the work currently happening in gardens but is a reminder that the work needs to start with recognizing that the struggles of communities of color are not new. Allies must take advantage of resources that include research reports, academic studies, and courageous conversations that bring to light past disparities.

After a year of self and group discovery, the IDEA committee made plans to involve the membership at the APGA conference held in Hamilton, Ontario. Our inaugural session was scheduled for eight in the morning on Saturday, a tough time slot since it was the last day of a weeklong conference and the morning after the traditional evening farewell celebration. We were nervous and truly had no idea how our stories and messages would be received. The agenda was informal: committee members had decided to simply introduce the topic of diversity and share personal experiences. With a mere five minutes before the session started, we had to request more chairs—the room was already packed. What happened next showed us that public gardens were ready and eager for change.

In that crowded room, we had executive directors of large gardens, first-time attendees, educators, gardeners, and outreach coordinators who worked directly in their local communities. We listened, shared personal vulnerabilities, and publicly accepted a challenge to move forward in the work. Many conversations continued in the corridor after the session. We were all so excited, but we all had the question: What in the world needed to happen next?

Inclusion and diversity work is often slower than people might hope for. It takes time to develop authentic relationships, actively listen, and recognize that every public garden has different obstacles to overcome. It also takes time to build trust. Patrick Lencioni, author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team, writes about this, describing team-building steps that also work when creating a more inclusive environment. The fear of being vulnerable is often a barrier when speaking on matters of race, diversity, and equity, yet showing vulnerability builds trust in conversation and in relationships. Asking questions that allow people of color a safe space to share their experiences of microaggressions, gaslighting, and other forms of bias are first steps toward changes needed in the workspace and the garden.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak on diversity and inclusion at the Botanic Gardens Conservation International Congress in Warsaw, Poland. During the open time for questions, one attendee expressed his concern when broaching a conversation about race with someone in the workplace. This person was afraid of using the wrong words, saying the wrong thing, or inadvertently offending a colleague. We discussed the need to acknowledge your own bias and privilege, but then I ended by stating that you just need to “step in it.” Not my most eloquent moment, especially since I was attempting to encourage this person to step bravely toward having the conversation rather than becoming immobilized and missing an opportunity to have an authentic exchange. Yet that became my tagline and the start of many meaningful conversations for the duration of the conference. This work is messy, imperfect, wonderful, and needed.

Many public garden leaders have embraced this need for diversity and inclusion and entered into the work with vulnerability and passion. Brian Vogt has built a framework that infuses IDEA throughout every aspect of Denver Botanic Garden’s operation, where he is the chief executive officer. For over ten years, the garden has devoted themselves to IDEA principles with board and staff committees, as well as extensive relationship development resulting in eighty partner organizations. When describing their approach at the garden, Vogt notes how they “emphasize the power, not the pain, of IDEA work.” Today, their visitors reflect the diversity of their community as does the board itself, which is now 40 percent non-white. These changes have resulted in programming that lifts up diverse voices, exhibits, and communications. Vogt further emphasizes, “Don’t get distracted—authentic diversity and inclusion work makes everything better.”

We discussed the need to acknowledge your own bias and privilege, but then I ended by stating that you just need to “step in it.”

Other gardens initially take an external approach and achieve sustainable results. Bruce Harkey, the president and chief executive officer of Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio, led an effort to improve the quality of life in the community by creating neighborhood-based outreach and educational programming. One recent example is the conservatory’s participation in the HeART of the Protest, where the King Arts Complex produced forty-six days of artistic projects to honor the forty-six years of George Floyd’s life. Franklin Park Conservatory hosted performances by dancer Candice Igeleke and musician K. Daniel. These events presented new work that focused on telling the story of Black Americans, from slavery to present day. Franklin Park recently added an internal focus: the board, leadership team, and staff work in unison to honestly assess their diversity, equity, and inclusion status. They then set goals and objectives for measurable improvements.

These and countless other examples show that our gardens are embracing change. After APGA’s initial group session in Hamilton, members expressed a growing interest to hear and do more when it came to IDEA principles and practices. The following year, in 2018, when the IDEA committee presented at the Southern California conference in a capacity-filled ballroom, it became apparent we were more than ready to make inclusion a collective goal. The next year, in Washington, DC, the entire conference theme was Diversity. This resulted in a week-long conference filled with panel discussions, lectures, and facilitated sessions surrounding topics about diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in our gardens and beyond.

One key moment happened during our very first IDEA Café, a keynote luncheon where a group of esteemed panelists talked about their own experiences in public gardens. One of the panelists was in a wheelchair and needed to use the elevator to get backstage. With mere moments before the group was to take center stage in front of an audience of hundreds, the hotel manager received a radio call that the elevator was stuck with our panelist inside! The situation was rectified but we decided to use what happened as a teaching moment. This was an example of how accessibility issues are always present and can impact a person’s experience in significant ways. These shared experiences and conversations inspired us to build systems and best practices for the APGA sustainability index, gather feedback and success stories from gardens, and provide encouragement for those gardens who are just beginning to address these issues.

I smile recalling Brian Vogt’s charge to “embrace the work of diversity and inclusion joyfully.” It is good advice. While our work with inclusion will never be done, the past two years have taught us that collective resilience and embracing change will sustain us along this journey. As I think about the diversity of plants in my garden, which experience stress and environmental adversity year after year, I’m amazed by how they somehow adapt and persevere through it all. They are resilient, and so are we.

MaryLynn Mack is the board president for the American Public Gardens Association and the chief operating officer at South Coast Botanic Garden, in Los Angeles County, California

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