UW News

September 15, 2022

New direction for UW Botanic Gardens focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion

Orange flowers on a tree branch

The New Directions in Public Gardens speaker series started in May and will conclude with the final speaker on Sept. 20.University of Washington

Botanical gardens historically are exclusive spaces, but the University of Washington is working to change that.

Many gardens originated as private spaces for predominantly white and wealthy individuals, said UW Botanic Gardens director Christina Owen. The collections were often curated through a process of stealing and renaming before the gardens were gifted as land to cities and universities.

“There’s a history of colonialism in many botanic gardens,” said Owen. “That is the bedrock on which we’re standing. Plants and collections that exist throughout the world were collected in ways that did not honor the people and did not honor the plants themselves. They’re driven by the colonial age. That’s a history that all gardens must grapple with.”

That’s the challenge for the UW Botanic Gardens, which includes both the Washington Park Arboretum and the Center for Urban Horticulture. When Owen was hired in July 2021, UWBG already had an Equity and Justice Committee and was organizing an ongoing speaker series, New Directions in Public Gardens, which explores how public gardens can evolve to meet the needs of local communities.

Owen is shifting the focus from bottom-up initiatives to work that is supported with and through leadership.

“Part of what we’re looking at is having regular updates with our leadership team,” Owen said, “and having the leadership team get more engaged in equity and social justice work and developing better onboarding. One of my big long-term goals is to see an increase in the diversity of staff. I think that starts with us and making sure that our culture is supportive for candidates of color and for employees of color.”

That is a major barrier for public gardens, according to a national needs assessment recently published by the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) Center for Public Gardens, an initiative housed at Denver Botanic Gardens that helps public gardens become more accessible spaces. The upcoming report found that lack of institutional diversification could be addressed through adjustments to hiring processes and procedures.

“The other piece is the need for training and professional development,” said Mae Lin Plummer, director of the IDEA Center and a speaker in UWBG’s New Directions series. “The way to support intuitional diversification is through training. The other part is organizational culture and leadership — the awareness that there needs to be an internal culture shift as a key step.

“There’s a lot of fear, a lack of buy-in or resistance to change. You can do all the training and all the changes you want, but it’s basically superficial unless there’s a culture change.”

A new direction

The New Directions speaker series started in May, with past guests addressing topics like engaging with local Indigenous populations, youth leadership development, job training programs and opportunities for public land to support urban food systems and engage with BIPOC communities.

New Directions in Public Gardens is a free speaker series held over Zoom. RSVP to hear the final speaker, Sean M. Watts, on Sept. 20 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Recordings of past speakers are also available. The New Directions in Public Gardens Town Hall: Breaking New Ground will be held in-person at Washington Park Arboretum on Sept. 21. Register to attend the free event.

Sean M. Watts, principal of SM Watts Consulting and co-founder of Community Land Conservancy, will give the final talk on Sept. 20. Watts’ lecture will explore how public gardens can support the work to drive environmental and land use policy and help white-led organizations act on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I think we’re learning a lot about the priorities of the communities that we want to connect with,” said Jessica Farmer adult education supervisor for UWBG. “I’m realizing that if we’re going to build relationships, we need to be addressing the priorities of those communities.”

Plummer suggested ending the speaker series with a town hall, which is now scheduled for Sept. 21. The half-day, co-creative workshop will help create an action plan to address community challenges.

“We invite people from within the region,” said Plummer, who plans to use the town hall as a prototype, “and we start by saying, ‘What were some of the big things that really resonated from the lecture series? What do we want to change? Can we set some actions?’”

UWBG’s outreach will continue on October with the Urban Forest Symposium. This year’s event will focus on bridging the gap between tribal practices and local government. The Coast Salish people have been included in the planning.

“We’re going to be looking at Indigenous people’s access to and role in the management of the local urban forests,” Farmer said. “We’re looking at an identity shift for our organization, but we need to hear from others in the community and not have it be an insular conversation.”

Growing gardens

UWBG has collections from around the world. In the Pacific Connections Garden alone, visitors can view plants from Cascadia, Australia, China, Chile and New Zealand.

“It’s important to be intentional and thoughtful about these plants and places, how they’re collected and grown and the meaning to the people that are from there,” Owen said.

The history of how corrected were curated has factored into the explicit and implicit exclusion from botanical gardens, said Farmer. UWBG is working to undo a perception of exclusivity by hosting programs like the speaker series and holding a summer camp that offers scholarships and is otherwise filled through a lottery system.

UWBG also launched Conversations with Staff. Each meeting is centered around a single topic — examples include the colonial past of botanical gardens, segregation in Seattle and problematic plant names — and Equity and Justice Committee members distribute resources and materials for staff to view before attending the discussion.

“It’s really helped establish some common goals and common identity around this work,” Farmer said. “Previously, some on our staff felt like diversity, equity and inclusion work was the role of our education and outreach team but didn’t see how it fit into their work with facilities or horticulture. It’s really helped the gardeners see how much of an ambassador they are to the public when they’re out on the grounds.”

For more information, contact Owen at crowen@uw.edu or Farmer at jsfarmer@uw.edu.