Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tale from the Field: Celebrating Black History, Rooted in Plants: Putting Community at the Center of the Design Process

From Arvolyn Hill, Coordinator of Family Programs at the Children’s Everett Museum at the New York Botanical Garden.

I am the coordinator of family programs at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden where we focus on science and the environment. Every day that the garden is open we have drop-in programs for families, and I come up with those family programs. The activities are seasonal and rotate throughout the year.

Our director, Pattie Hulse, said it would be exciting to do something for Black History Month and Women’s History Month and to try changing up the curriculum. I really wanted to highlight the unknown stories and influence of the African diaspora on the plant world. I majored in Pan-African Studies. I went to herbalism school after that, so it was bringing two things I love together. To develop the program, I started doing lots of research, talking to herbalists, and reading about plants native to Africa. The challenge was teaching about Black history without it feeling too lecture-y, making sure that it was hands-on and focused on sensory learning. We wanted the activities to be engaging for the visitors and would also teach them something new about Black people in the plant world.

There are five activities. The first one is on indigo dyeing. A lot of people attribute that to Japanese culture, but indigo is a plant that grows in Africa, and indigo dyeing is a rich culture in West Africa, especially for Yoruba people in Nigeria. There are these amazing dyes. Nigerians are known for bundling the fabric in specific ways to get specific designs. I looked at the dyes online and went to the African market in Harlem. You can see the patterns there. And, jeans are dyed with indigo, so it relates to what kids know, and I wanted to highlight something they connected to almost every day. In this station, students get to tie up a little pouch and dye it with indigo, and they also get to see examples of textiles that people in Nigeria have made.

Another one is called “Seeds of Africa,” and that activity is focused on thinking about the different ways seeds travel. There are many plants that are well known in America but are indigenous to Africa. In the activity, kids get cardstock showing the African continent and have five different seeds: black-eyed peas, okra, millet, tamarind, and coffee. Kids get to glue each seed to the card in different regions the seeds are indigenous to. And then the question is How did those get to America? The simple answer is the slave trade, and the educators have to feel out and decide how much to share in the moment. I’ve observed 2- and 3-year-olds do the activity, and they really enjoy touching the seeds and the sensory experience, then placing them on the different areas, and touching them, and seeing the seed on the card. It’s like seed art, and it’s a geographical picture of seeds. If the visitors want to take the seeds and plant them, they are welcome to.

The third activity is making plantain oil. This originates from a man named Caesar who is the first Black man to have his medical findings put into print. He used plantain (the herbaceous plant leaves, not the fruit) as a cure for snake bites and poisons. He made a remedy and sold it in 1750 in exchange for his freedom. In this activity, we ask kids, “What do you do when you get a bug bite?” and open up the topic around herbs and medicinal plants. We also have an aloe plant nearby because kids know the plant and how the leaves help with sunburns. We talk about Caesar and how he worked with plants, found out about remedies, and was able to get his freedom as a result. We also share about how slaves couldn’t go to the hospital, so herbs were really important for health. The kids get a jar and put oil and plantain in it, and they learn about how it has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. We send them home with instructions on how to use it.

The next station is “adopt a tree,” which is focused on Wangari Maathai. We ask kids why trees are important and have a conversation about that. We share about Wangari, how she was the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, how she dedicated her life to trees, how she started the grassroots greenbelt movement, and how she planted 40 million trees across Kenyan Indigenous forests. During her life, she was beaten many times for planting trees—this was a radical act during a time when deforestation was so profitable. Kids get an observational sheet where they choose one tree in the Botanical Garden or in their community or neighborhood. Then they use I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of to observe the tree and how the tree looks in different seasons. They write their names on the cards, and then they bring it in and we laminate it, and it becomes their official tree adoption card. It has a picture of Wangari, and we hope it gets kids excited to protect trees and realize their importance.

I haven’t been able to observe all the programs to see much reaction firsthand. But what others are sharing is that people get really excited at the seeds of Africa. Seeing tamarind, especially for kids who are familiar with it from their communities, kids get really excited. They have an instant connection to the plant, but they might not know it’s from Africa. It’s cool to see those cross-cultural connections. With the indigo dye, everyone knows tie-dyeing, but people might not know about how the color of clothing comes from plants! Some are surprised by the rich culture of dying in Africa and don’t always connect it to the African experience. I wanted people to realize they are connected to that every day. It’s also awesome to highlight Wangari Maathai. We didn’t want George Washington Carver to be the only person highlighted. He is an important part of this history, and we also wanted to acknowledge others who have contributed to this world. We are finding that people really like the experience, and we had people coming back who wanted to do it a second time around. We also have a children’s library, and we curated a section of books featuring ones about Black people, plants, and farming to connect to this after the experience.

The last station is on making a zine-like George Washington Carver. He would write bulletins that were free publications, sharing information he felt was useful. There were some about how to compost, recipes for meals, and how to do crop rotation. He published around 45 or more in his life. In this station, kids get a little book template that we make. We also offer them magazines so they can cut out images they are inspired by or that connect to what they learned that day. We ask them, “Can you use images to show how you are rooted in plants?” I’ve prioritized offering magazines with photographs of Black people and of plants. They can keep it for themselves or give it to somebody. This is a way for kids to pull their ideas together, and it also connects to the radical act of making a small publication to share yourself—it shows them they don’t have to have a publisher to share their ideas.

I definitely want this thread in all of our activities, no matter what season or anytime. It should be a year-long thing, not just a one-month thing. Last summer, our programming was all about Brazil, which is an African-influenced culture. There are always ways to weave it through. It’s just a matter of finding the stories and weaving them through. It was hard researching this, because there just wasn’t anyone doing anything about the African diaspora connected to plants with kids. So I’m grateful for the people who helped with the project, like my colleagues, my friend Sade Musa from the organization Roots of Resistance, my community, and my parents, who all pulled ideas together. I would love to have these topics be in the discussion every day, especially because we’re in the Bronx, which is predominantly a community of color, and we want our programming to reflect the community we serve.

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