The Founder Of #BlackBotanistsWeek On The Importance Of Diversity In The Plant World
This Monday, when Tanisha Williams, Ph.D., launched #BlackBotanistsWeek—a social media campaign to give Black botanists (which she defines as anyone who loves plants) a space to connect with one another and share stories—she expected the week would draw in a couple of scientists and maybe a few hundred posts. But by the end of that day, the hashtag had already been used nearly 3,000 times.
"Before this week, I only knew a couple of Black botanists," Williams, a postdoctoral fellow in botany at Bucknell University who is currently studying the evolution of nightshades, says on a call with mbg. "It's been phenomenal to see all the Black people who are doing this great work. In the past, there hasn't been a platform where we could connect—and that's what we've created this week."
#BlackBotanistsWeek is the latest in a string of viral campaigns that have gathered and amplified the voices of Black environmentalists. (The first was #BlackBirdersWeek, which ran from May 31 to June 5 in response to a white woman calling the police on an innocent Black man who was birding in Central Park, and it was followed shortly after by #BlackHikersWeek.)
In addition to carving space for connection, Williams hopes the campaign will continue to start more conversations about the reasons more Black people aren't seen in STEM or environmental fields in the first place: because the outdoors don't always feel safe or welcoming to them. "I've had really good experiences of being outside in nature, but I also have to always remember that one, I'm Black and two, I'm a female," she says. "A lot of the work I've done thus far has been alone in remote places, so I always have to safeguard myself... I can't zone out and enjoy the beauty—I have to be very careful."
While the racial inequality in the environmental research field is ingrained and multilayered, Williams says the space becomes more equitable when non-BIPOC people educate themselves on anti-racism and act in allyship with BIPOC people in their life.
After #BlackBotanistsWeek draws to a close this weekend, Williams hopes the conversations it starts will continue. "We don't just want the hashtag to fade," she says. "The more we talk to each other, the more we're going to understand each other and the more we're going to move past this racial inequality that we have now." She's currently collecting a list of white and BIPOC plant lovers interested in donating time and skills to promoting diversity in the botanical research world (which you can sign up for here, if interested) and planning to start a fund for young BIPOC botanists to help them pay for things like hand lenses and field guides.
When I asked Williams about her favorite post from the week so far, she said it came from a young woman who wrote that seeing Black botanists researching in the field made her feel like she could do the same one day. Clearly, representation matters. And the more of it that exists, the more our human world can start to reflect the diverse and harmonious natural one that sits outside our windows.
It turns out, the plant realm is rich with lessons about support, balance, and resilience. As Williams said while looking out at a couple of maple trees as our call wrapped up, "They've been cut down; they've been hacked away—but they're still beautiful."