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Guest Post: Weeding with a Racial Equity Lens

I am deeply grateful and honored to be able to share this blog post by Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh. It continues to speak to me every time I read it, and I find so much joy and wisdom in the insights and beauty Suprotik shares. I hope it sparks the same joy, perseverance and enlightenment for you as it does for me.

Picture of shoulders and head of Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh in front of a sidewalk and plants
Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh

Over the past few years, I have come to love weeding. In part, I think it is the act of using my hands when I spend most of my days using my head, and increasingly my heart and body, working to confront systemic racism in philanthropy and the social sector. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and was usually outside only to play sports. So, being in the garden is still new to me as part of my adult life.

One of the joys of weeding is getting at the roots. For several years now, a significant part of my life has been focused on identifying the root causes of challenges facing communities and organizations. I have spent 10 years now entirely focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues because I believe they are at the root of inequities we see in our communities and organizations. To dig, search, feel for, pull and tear a root is deeply satisfying. It is thrilling to feel the root unlocking. It is joyful to hear the sound of a root detach, and detach and lift out of the ground. I love the mystery and discovery of weeding. It is nourishment to solve the problem of a weed at the root.

Over the past few years, I have observed how the process of weeding provides useful lessons I can take from the garden to the work of addressing systemic racism. I consider everything below as equally applicable for weeding and racial equity work.

1. I have to be patient to get at the root.

Weeding effectively requires me to slow down. To weed well, I know I need to be calm enough to approach each weed individually. In order to weed well, I actually have to respect the weed enough to understand its individual shape, where it comes from and how I can best approach it in order to identify and pull at its roots. I have come to really enjoy the calmness that accompanies weeding, in part because I have to slow down from my normal pace.

In weeding, it becomes easy to notice when I am not patient enough because I start to pull just what’s at the surface instead of the root. At that moment, I have a choice—do I pause, acknowledge the error of my pace, in which my desire for speed, efficiency, or simple daydreaming led me to lose focus and separate the plant from its root? Or, do I choose to just move on to the next weed, knowing the weed will return later this year or next?

The scale of the job affects my level of patience. This year, I had one day to do all of the garden beds. As a result, there were numerous occasions when I was pulling tops, not weeding out the roots. When I caught myself, I would slow back down, breathe, and start weeding again. Because of the scale of the job, I accepted mistakes and moved on to the next weed.

Pink and purple flowers being pollinated by a bee
Pink and purple flowers being pollinated by a bee

While accepting my mistakes felt like a necessary step because of the scale of the job, I realized it also reflected an overall approach I was taking to the garden, which could be summarized as “do more good than bad.” That is, I accept I will make some mistakes, some weeds will return, I may even pull a flower or two in the act of weeding. I could, but do not take a medical, or “do no harm” approach to weeding. My “do more good than bad” approach serves as an underlying value that actually guides and enables me to keep moving forward after each “good” or “bad” action I take in the garden.

How much patience do you have when you engage in discussions about race or explore the systemic racism in your organization, or community? How is the scope and scale of the work affecting your patience? Do you have an approach that informs what you do when you make mistakes?

2. I have to be willing to disrupt the garden and deal with the mess.

When I begin weeding a new bed, the ground is smooth, flat, and pretty. Despite the weeds, the garden bed looks the way it is supposed to look. The act of weeding requires me to disrupt and make a mess of something beautiful. When I pull a weed well, I follow it wherever it leads, breaking through everything in its path. By the time I’m done with a bed, it looks like an animal tore through it, soil turned up, mounds of dirt and wood chips strewn together. Unkempt. I too am a mess, covered in a mix of dirt and sweat. When I pause to stretch or get something to drink, I sometimes have to remind myself the mess is part of the process of making the garden prettier. There will be time to put the garden back and myself back together, but that stage is later.

How much disruption do you tolerate while doing racial equity work? How deep and dirty are you willing to go to get at the roots of inequity in your organization or community?

3. Weeding is discovery work, and I am continually surprised at what I find.

Part of the joy of weeding for me is the exploration and surprising discoveries I make. I have found I can’t assume what I will find beneath the surface. What looks like it might have deep roots are often shallow. Some small weeds have deep roots. It takes direct intervention to know what the roots look like. And, even when I become familiar with a root structure, I still don’t know how and where the roots have attached in the soil. A weed lives above and below the surface. I start with what I see and follow as precisely as possible into the unknown, underground. I know what I see is only part of the story and something entirely different, though connected, lives underground.

Young eggplant hanging from its plant with pink flowers
Young eggplant hanging from its plant with pink flowers

I still consider myself young, new to weeding. So, each time I weed I make new discoveries about what lives under ground. This year, I cut my finger on something with thorns. Last year, I remember discovering what my son now calls the “bloody finger,” a slender yellowish mushroom with a reddish top. While everything is natural, I’ve found it takes a certain bravery to keep digging after getting hurt or finding something really gross. I never know what I’ll find, but weeding requires me to keep digging, keep exploring, and remain open to all the discoveries.

Do you approach racial equity work with openness and a sense of discovery? How much curiosity do you bring to understand the history behind what you are able to see? How well do you recover and go back into the work after being surprised or hurt?

It makes sense to me that weeding would serve as a useful metaphor for racial equity work because we exist in living systems, not machines. Our organizations and communities are living, breathing systems. The systemic racism that perpetuates in philanthropy and across the social sector is a garden, seeded and cared for over generations, producing a harvest of inequity. We cannot dismantle living systems. But, with patience, curiosity, and a willingness to disrupt and get dirty, we can make a mess of and uproot the patterns of racial inequity that seek to isolate, divide and dehumanize our organizations and communities.

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