Duke Grant Leads to a More Inclusive Story Circle
by Amal Dadi
I’m Amal Dadi, and I’m a graduate student obtaining my master’s degree in bioethics and science policy. I’ve also worked with the education department at Duke Gardens since fall 2021. My role here is primarily as a garden guide, helping visiting school groups learn and showing them all the incredible sights, sounds and smells that make the Gardens so magical.
It’s been a joy working with such a range of students, spanning all ages and backgrounds. However, the diversity of visitors to the Gardens is not reflected in its staff or volunteer cohort. This isn’t a problem unique to Duke Gardens; outdoor spaces in general can be very White and don’t always feel safe for everyone. I wanted to help make Duke Gardens a more inclusive and welcoming place for all.
Last year, as part of my Kenan Fellowship, I developed a plan and obtained funding to do a racial justice project at the Gardens. My goals were to increase representation and welcome families with historically marginalized identities, to celebrate many forms of knowledge about plants, and to build and strengthen relationships with diverse community members and organizations. I am a biologist, so I also envisioned this as a science communication project highlighting intersections between art, literature, diverse representations and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
I’ve led this project for the last nine months, but it’s taken a village to create the brand new Story Circle space. It features a colorful “home” for the Black Lit Library, a project by Victoria Scott-Miller’s Liberation Station Bookstore that features a rotating collection of children’s books with diverse characters and perspectives.
Hanging above the Story Circle is a painting by artist and Duke alumna Claire Alexandre, whose work incorporates themes of plants, nature, race and gender. She chose to create a portrait featuring Stormie Daie, a local educator, science communicator and drag legend.
The alluring stonework in the circle was designed by stone mason Brooks Burleson in collaboration with curator Jason Holmes and his Doris Duke Center Gardens team. The space also features a new stone table with adaptive, nature-themed play materials and educational activities incorporating self-reflection, self-portraits and affirmations. The goal of all this is to ensure that visitors to the space feel seen, welcomed, celebrated, cherished and loved for who they are.
Leading up to the public opening of the new Story Circle space, we held a series of events designed to probe into dominant narratives relating to who belongs in a garden. Claire Alexandre facilitated a “Critical Conversations” papermaking workshop, where we transformed gardening books with outdated or offensive language into art—paper that also incorporates flowers, leaves and other items gathered from the Gardens by staff, as well as leaves and oatstraw Claire gathered from Good Soil Gardens and Earthseed Land Collective. “Black in the Garden” podcast host Colah B. Tawkin held a Zoom event highlighting Black brilliance and trailblazers in botanical history.
In October, I moderated an artist talk where Stormie Daie and Claire Alexandre discussed their process and inspiration for making the Story Circle portrait. We unveiled the new Story Circle at a free Harvest Festival that drew a diverse, all-ages crowd of more than 700 people!
Leading this effort has been challenging but so rewarding, and I’ve been endlessly grateful for the Gardens staff and community members who have lent their ideas, skills, time, enthusiasm and artistry to this effort. I hope you enjoy seeing the process unfold in the slideshow below. And I especially hope you will have an opportunity to visit the Story Circle for yourself, and that it makes you feel welcomed, included and seen.
“This was just an incredible experience—two people that I’m in community with, being able to see them contribute to Duke Gardens in this way. I feel like really connected to North Carolina, and kind of a lot of Stormie’s background and story resonates with me. And so seeing that come to life here feels really special, and especially this idea of being able to be in nature and be fine—sacred, safe spaces in nature. And the intent for this to help capture some of that is really like a powerful experience to be a part of and to witness.”
Curator Jason Holmes designed the bookshelf, facilities maintenance specialist Nick Schwab built it and Discovery Garden horticulturist Megan Botzenhart painted it and chose the doorknobs.
friendship, kindness and community.
Photos from top: Amal Dadi (left) and Quisha Mallette, both photographed by Cathi Bodine. Photo of portrait session with Claire Alexandre in the foreground with photographer Cathi Bodine, and Stormie Daie posing. Photo by Amal Dadi. Photos in the slideshow are by Braeden Black (G’23), Cathi Bodine, Amal Dadi (G’22), Jason Holmes and Orla Swift (G’06).