Molecular Plant Sciences

Blog - Jade Bleau introduces Black Botanist Week

Jade Bleau introduces Black Botanist Week (Author: Helen Feord, Editor: Aranza Diaz)

Black Botanist Week: Highlighting incredible black scientists across the world of plant science.

Black Botanist Week builds a network highlighting black botanists around the world. We spoke to Jade Bleau, a final year PhD student in the Spoel group, about this years Black Botanist Week which starts on the 26th July 2021. As part of the organising committee for this campaign, she talks us through the reason it was first organised, the impact that it has had, and what she hopes it will achieve in the future.

Jade Bleau in the lab
Jade Bleau in the lab

Black Botanist Week is a yearly social media campaign which started in July 2020. Black Botanist Week is one of multiple Black in STEM campaigns organised after the emergence of Black Birders Week in May/June 2020. The creation of this week-long event built on connections from Twitter, with members mostly based in North America, two members based in South Africa, and Jade, who is UK-based. The event was promoted by various botanical gardens and other organisations, including a New York-based group called “Plant Love Stories” who collaborated with the organising committee to share participants’ stories about how they became interested in botany.

“The response was very good!” mentions Jade, adding that last year’s Black Botanist Week 2020 was a lot bigger than expected. “There were lots of people from various career stages, and from different career types: it was not just academics, but also included gardeners and botanists. It was quite far reaching”, Jade explains. Coming from a molecular plant science background, she was not sure if she could be considered a botanist. However, “the meaning of botanist has widened to: anyone who loves plants”, so Jade thinks this really highlighted how diverse the community can be and how diverse the plants could be: “It was very welcoming, it was like a big hug”.

Organised during the pandemic in 2020, the campaign happened entirely online, which meant that it was organised quite quickly and allowed for high engagement. “People were spending a lot of time at home, on Twitter and online. In general, it contributed to the engagement with the campaign” explains Jade. She specifies that this was not just about the engagement of the Black Botanist community, people who were not part of that community would scroll past the hashtag and stop and read more tweets. A lecture series, hosted by the Holden Forest and Garden centre in Ohio (USA), followed 2020’s Black Botanist Week, during which each member of the organising committee, including Jade, gave a talk about their research.

In the future post-pandemic world when we go back to in-person conferences, Jade hopes the Black Botanist Week will be present at conferences, raising the campaign’s profile. This year, they have a stall at the virtual conference Botany 2021. For both virtual and in-person conferences, she hopes the group can organise sessions specifically highlighting people of colour. Looking forward, they also hope to raise money to help fund conference fees, society fees, or fieldwork costs for Black botanical researchers. “Meeting the committee in person would also be great!” adds Jade jokingly, reminding us that the committee has created this incredible campaign without ever actually meeting in person.

Jade talks about the impact she hopes Black Botanist Week will have on academia, in particular emphasizing that this progress needs to go beyond EDI committees and diversity ratings. It is not just about encouraging people to apply; it is also about creating environments where everyone can thrive. “I would like to see more activity involved in encouraging people of colour or minority groups to apply for PhDs, and not just to increase diversity numbers”.  She talks about how she hopes this campaign will help researchers reframe how they think about researchers in botany: “Rather than having a stereotype of what you think this person should be like, and the qualifications or the experience they have, maybe broaden your horizons when looking for somebody for a certain position”.

“Diversify your groups” Jade states, unambiguously underlining the change that needs to happen within the building blocks of academia. However, this cannot simply be about inviting people of minority backgrounds to join groups; it is also about taking on the important responsibility of creating welcoming and safe workspaces. For this to happen, there needs to be both a willingness to mediate positive change, and the initiative to find out exactly what actions are actually constructive. “EDI committees should ask people and groups, what their opinions are and what can actually be done to help, rather than just asking them to sit on committees and be the token person of colour”, highlights Jade. She further explains that committees should actively ask for advice and collaborate, instead of just writing a list of actions to carry out without having actually spoken to anyone in the community to see if this is the right thing to do.

Finally, Jade talks about the personal impact of Black Botanist Week. “It has made me feel more settled and a bit more comfortable. Last year when the Black Lives Matter movement started again, being in a predominantly white space, you can feel like the people around you won’t understand your thoughts about it. They can objectively see what is happening, but their feelings towards it will be different. By widening and diversifying the community you interact with on a daily basis, you have different kinds of conversations with people, and you can speak to people who have the same experience as you. Regardless of what it is, you can say ‘This happened to me too, I understand what you are talking about’. I don’t think I realised this until Black Botanist Week”.

Black Botanist week is happening on Twitter from 26th-31th July 2021. Check out the hashtag #BlackBotanistWeek2021, and follow Jade on Twitter @jade_bleau.

IMPS is actively involved in building an inclusive and supportive environment for diverse plant scientists. We encourage people from all walks of life and backgrounds to engage with us, and join us in building our research community.

You can find out more about what the University of Edinburgh School of Biological Sciences is doing to tackle racial inequality in STEM here.