Promoting Diversity: It’s Not Just Good for the Garden

By Monica Mense, EMGV

Every once in a while, we get an opportunity to examine life on a deeper level. Sure, we enjoy growing our colorful gardens and amazing food, both to better our own lives and the broader environment. But as Master Gardeners we also share our passion for plants and support our community by helping all who ask us for gardening advice. Beginning in January of 2021, a team of Master Gardeners participated in a community-wide interactive journey that gave us the opportunity to learn more about environmental justice in Durham and how we can better serve our community.

The DEEP (Diversity & Equity in Environmental Programs) Collaborative is a local community of organizations who, with the help of Duke university’s educational resources, strives “to build the capacity of environmental organizations to understand the local and global context of environmental injustice in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and ability.”

Our team attended four virtual workshops organized by the DEEP Collaborative over the course of six weeks. The workshops were expertly presented by Duke University’s Dr. Nicolette Cagle and facilitated by Lighthouse Strategy Consulting’s Paul James. We began by learning about racial equity. Simply put, an equitable system would give everyone what they needed to lead a full, healthy life. To promote genuine equity, we must commit to to: understanding diversity (simply expressed as our differences), recognizing and accepting differences, rejecting negative automatic associations and biased behaviors, and combating underlying systemic issues preventing equity. By embracing diversity, we can work better together, in our case to become better environmental stewards.

The second session taught us about the concept of environmental justice. The EPA defines this as, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Environmental injustice happens when people are more negatively affected by environmental abuses because of their differences – the color of their skin, lack of money, and cultural differences to name just a few. Environmental injustice often comes about because those who will be harmed are not included in decision making.  

While we are all aware of practices of discrimination, the third week’s case studies were sobering. The destruction of homes and businesses in the Hayti community to build Hwy 147[1], and the practice of not planting trees in non-white, poor sections of Durham[2], for example.  We inhabitants of Earth have been made increasingly aware of the importance of trees. The Nature Conservancy discovered that 92% of low-income neighborhoods in the U.S. have less tree canopy and hotter than average temperatures than higher income neighborhoods[3]! Decisions have been made for neighborhoods without really understanding the needs of those neighbors that will be most affected.

The final workshop of the series brought it home to all of us. This workshop has inspired us to begin developing strategies to work with community partners to combat environmental injustice in Durham.  Moving forward, how can we practice racial equity in our language and actions in all of our communities, personal and business?  Our awareness has been raised. Now, how to act? We’re excited to share our progress with you as we work through this (admittedly long) process.  

One of the best ways to build a healthy garden is by embracing diversity. As more plants and animals live together there are more types of habitat and organisms can rely on each other. Different plants bloom in different seasons, and pollinators and birds find habitat as they stay a lifetime or just migrate through for a season. We’re excited to build on what we’ve learned about diversity as we find new ways to serve Durham County.  If the opportunity to examine life on a deeper level presents itself to you, jump in and grow!

[1]Bull City 150: Dismantling Hayti

[2]TreesDurham: Durham Tree Research

[3]Mapping Tree Inequality: Why Many People Don’t Benefit from Tree Cover by Rob McDonald