Written: March 10, 2021.
This morning I was reading on @decolonisethegarden an Instagram account created by Sui, about callously offensive & divisive remarks steeped in racial bias that were made by a co-chair of the UK Garden Media Guild. I also read the response from the guild, which, in my opinion came off as empty and an easy out from doing real work toward accountability and change.
Early in my career as a garden writer, I joined similar professional organizations here in North America. I wanted to connect, hopefully push my work out a little further, and be a part of the garden world outside of my bubble. But I soon learned that the orgs were at a different place when it came to diversity, environmental issues, and who they took sponsorship money from. The idea of joining with others to put pressure on these orgs felt insurmountable and beyond me at the time. My attitude was that I can do my work outside of these institutions and the gates they keep. That as long as they remain stagnant, inner circle, and back-patting, they will circle with their own rot and eventually die by irrelevancy.
But I think I’ve been wrong because 20 years have passed and so little has changed. If they are not challenged, and without undeniable pressure, they will continue serving as the official, recognized representatives of our professions. They are our forward face to the larger world and what they put forth as award-worthy matters. When they only show particular skin tones in their literature and online presence, and when their chairs and upper level officers casually make statements that reek of racial bias, it serves as a “passive” form of gatekeeping that lets BIPOC garden writers know what they might expect from the organization. When they take money from companies and allow those companies access to their membership, this also plays a role in forming the boundaries of the organization, creating what they are, and placing limits on what they can become.
We either push these organizations to make meaningful change or we create new ones that outcompete them. I often felt lost and alone as a young garden writer. I needed colleagues and the support of a larger professional organization would have been useful in navigating the hurdles of my career. These organizations serve a role in bringing up new people/voices up, but the way they have and continue to function places severe limits on who they serve and who is brought forth. They appear to be so deeply inside themselves, so bounded within their own homogeneity, personal comforts, and samey same worldview, that they can’t even see it. Won’t see it.
I’ve read that when we challenge a person’s worldview, they can experience a physiological response that feels like an attack. I see that playing out again and again in situations like this. But we can’t be responsible for hand-holding institutions and the people who lead them so that they can come to a place of comfort with this. Change is hard, but as the world changes, we adapt. The world is changing fast now because we are living in climate crisis. And since this is all political, affecting everyone in economic, social, & human ways, all inequalities are rising to the surface with it. We either get on board and be a part of affecting change for good, or be a part of letting things slide swiftly to ruin.
What kind of garden do you want to grow? If you have membership within these orgs , I implore you to speak up. Let leadership know what you expect from them and how you expect them to represent you. It’s hard to speak up and be the voice of dissent. It’s also energetically taxing. But if not us, who? And if not now, when?