Widening a Garden's Welcome

Karime Gutierrez '20 is working on an Innovations Challenge project aimed at making the Botanic Garden more welcoming to students of color.

Before coming to Smith, Karime Gutierrez ’20 had never spent time in a botanic garden. But over the past two years, the college’s Botanic Garden “has become part of my identity,” she says.

This summer, Gutierrez is working on a research project designed to draw more students of color to Smith’s renowned plant collection.

“Coded Gardens: Exploring Barriers to Access Through Dialogue”—one of this year’s Innovations Challenge projects—is built around a series of listening sessions that aim to help the Botanic Garden ensure its resources are being used by the full campus community.

“This project is an opportunity to make change,” says Gutierrez, who helped develop the Innovations Challenge proposal and is working on the project as a summer intern. “We want students of color to feel welcome at the Botanic Garden.”

Seeds for the project were planted by Gaby Immerman, a Smith landscape and education specialist, who began offering a horticulture workshop two years ago to students in the Bridge Preorientation Program as a way to reach more of “the diversity of the student body at Smith.”

The need for such outreach was underscored by a recent internal assessment showing the majority of students participating in horticulture classes and internships at the Botanic Garden over the past 10 years have been white, says Tim Johnson, director of the Botanic Garden.

“I believe we have an opportunity and an obligation to make sure that all Smithies have the same opportunity to discover a passion for plants,” Johnson says. “We are missing out on many important and insightful conversations and opportunities to learn if we are not engaging with our entire community.”

Last fall, Gutierrez and Temar France ’18 helped develop the structure of the Coded Gardens project in conversations with leaders of the Botanic Garden, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Science Center Committee on Diversity.

The first listening sessions were held in the spring with members of the college’s Black Students’ Alliance and the Latin American Students’ Organization.

The sessions included hands-on activities, such as lip balm- and terrarium-making workshops, designed to spotlight the resources of the Botanic Garden and create an atmosphere of fun. Additional sessions will be held next semester with other Unity groups for students of color.

Gutierrez says a clear message from students who participated in the spring sessions was “they want targeted outreach from the Botanic Garden—invitations that focus on them as students of color.”

Such communication could help the Botanic Garden build a stronger sense of community at Smith, she adds. “For international students, we could invite them by saying, ‘We have plants here from your country,’” Gutierrez says. “A lot of students don’t realize the whole campus is a Botanic Garden.”

A Texas native, Gutierrez discovered the Botanic Garden in the Bridge program workshop during her first days on campus. Her love for learning about plants led her to enroll in horticulture classes and take on research projects at Lyman Plant House.

Sporting a pair of garden shears on her hip, Gutierrez—who is majoring in biological sciences—says she just enjoys being around Smith’s extensive plant collection. She frequently is sought out as a trusted “plant sitter” for traveling housemates. After Smith, she can imagine herself studying for a graduate degree or joining the staff of a botanic garden—perhaps even Smith’s.

In addition to transcribing the initial listening sessions, Gutierrez will be reaching out this summer to other campus offices—and other botanic gardens—about strategies they use to draw more diverse audiences and staff.

Ultimately, she hopes Smith’s Botanic Garden will find new ways to “tell the stories of the plant collection”—narratives that acknowledge and engage more students of color.

“We can bring people together if we take the time,” Gutierrez says.