Plants of resistance and resilience are Jakara Zellner’s favorites in the Cornell Botanic Gardens: towering fuzzy red castor bean plants in the Robison Herb Garden, but also cotton.
“It’s the first plant we think of related to enslavement, but enslaved people weren’t using that plant just for enslaver’s profit,” said Zellner ’23, explaining that parts of the cotton plant were also used as an abortifacient to induce labor.
Before graduating in May, Zellner co-led the Cornell Botanic Gardens’ Learning by Leading program, an engaged learning initiative launched in 2021 to support a new generation of environmental leaders. The program is supported by the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement.
As co-leader of its Garden Ambassadors team, which creates educational and outreach programs, Zellner and Annika Dahlin ’23 created a series of monthly events to draw students to the gardens while connecting biological and cultural diversity.
“When we talk about biocultural diversity, we’re really talking about stories of people relating to plants,” Dahlin said. “Humans are inseparable from plants.”
In Learning by Leading, students of all backgrounds and disciplines lead teams that develop original projects to care for natural spaces and spread awareness of how the Botanic Gardens achieves its mission, all under the mentorship of professional staff.
In addition to Garden Ambassadors, other Learning by Leading teams are Sustainable Landscapes, which focuses on learning and implementing sustainable landscaping principles and designs, and Horticultural Enterprises, where students learn about plant propagation and cultivation along with sales and marketing, planning and hosting plant sales throughout the year.
“It’s been really fulfilling to learn through my classmates in the most pure, relaxing, non-pretentious way in the Gardens,” said Coco Dawkins ’24, co-lead with Kaitlin Fisher ’23 and Martin Brice ’25 on the Sustainable Landscapes team. “Learning through friends really sticks.”
Roxy Moore ’24 said that her experience working with the Horticultural Enterprises team helped her identify her career path. She began her Cornell career studying fine arts, transferring from Bard College after a gap year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning by Leading gave her the chance to work with plants, as she did while vegetable gardening with her family, along with the knowledge she needed to thrive in horticulture without prior formal training.
“It became more and more clear for me that environment and sustainability is really what I want to do with my life,” she said. “Working at the gardens cemented that even more. This is the path for me.”
With co-leader Jacqueline Venable-Croft ’24, Moore spearheaded gathering plant collections to grow and sell that represented areas of the gardens blooming in season. They also decided to save plant materials that would have otherwise been composted, and instead grew them for plant sales. This spring, the team is cultivating plants featured in “Seeds of Survival and Celebration: Plants and the Black Experience” – a multiyear exhibition showcasing connections between plants and Black communities – that will be for sale on June 17 in conjunction with a garden tour to commemorate Juneteenth.
The ambassadors strive to make the gardens more accessible to marginalized groups and in the 2022-23 academic year hosted a “Queer Botany” tour and brought herbalist Taylor Rae to campus to lead a group of students on an herb garden tour, discuss Black herbal medicine traditions and host a hands-on herbal tea and salve-making workshop.
Kevin Moss, the Garden Ambassador team’s staff mentor, said that the best part of his job is seeing students grow as they gain confidence, develop leadership skills, and learn to work as a fully realized team.
“One of the most valuable tenets of the LxL program is the idea of growth mindset – seeing problems as challenges and opportunities, seeing any missteps or slipups as opportunities to learn and grow, that the process is just as important as the outcome,” Moss said.
Leading by Learning students also transfer their leadership skills to the classroom, to the rest of their Cornell experience and careers.
“It’s been one of the most fulfilling exciting learning experiences in all of Cornell,” Dawkins said. “If anyone asked me what my favorite class was, it’s not a class. My answer would be: ‘Working in the gardens.’”
Jennifer Wholey is marketing writer with Alumni Affairs and Development.