Abra Lee: On Horticulture, Fashion, Leadership and Mentorship
Abra Lee is doing something for the first time - she's freelancing. She starts everyday by writing, waking at 4:00am because she knows she'll be undisturbed until 6:30am. Even when she's not inspired, she still writes at least 3 pages, something she learned from the book The Artist’s Way.
She's been working in the green industry for 18 years, both in the public and private sectors. Before transitioning to her new freelance lifestyle, Abra served as an Extension Agent with the University of Georgia for Fulton County. In a few short months, she'll be in residence at Longwood Gardens, where she's been selected to be part of the 2019-2010 Cohort of Longwood Fellows.
Her excitement and gratitude for this opportunity, and others in her life are easily felt. She radiates enthusiasm, warmth, and the type of kindness you get from an old friend. She's excited about gardening, and loves to get others excited, too. She uses Instagram as a platform to educate and inspire. She uses images of pop culture to get people to see aspects of horticulture through a different lens. In a recent post featuring Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the intent was actually to introduce the garden term, allée, to her followers.
Women in Hort caught up with Abra in the dead of winter to talk about gardens, airports, failures, and fellowships.
WinH: You’ve been selected as a 2019-2020 Longwood Fellow. What do you hope to gain from your experience at Longwood with your cohort?
Abra: What i hope to gain from my experience…so much! At the end of the day, I want to understand what the public wants, what the guests want, and how as a leader you can deliver that to them. I want to understand how to deliver, how to serve people, and know that they're getting something of value out of me. I want to understand the visitor and the direct link between the director and the visitor. The visitor is your boss. I want to know how to serve my boss.
WinH: You were in charge of public horticulture at two huge airports - ATL (Atlanta) and IAH (Houston). I can’t even wrap my brain around what that’s like to coordinate. It sounds like a thankless job that no one really knows about. Can you describe that experience for you and some of the joys that balanced out the considerable challenges?
Abra: Some of the joys were that, overwhelmingly 90% of time, I had employees that I either hired or were assigned to me that had no formal experience with plants. It was finding the commonalities they had to gardens, using the creativity and artistry within them.They would love the Atlanta Botanic Garden but feel that its not a place for them. But as the team learned, they developed their garden eye and became critical about some things they were seeing in gardens. That's important because it meant they were learning and growing.
Another challenge for me was the passengers, dragging their 100 lb luggage through the (garden) beds. And Wildlife. Birds and planes don’t mix. It’s your job to research plants that don’t attract birds or deer. You’ve got to find plants that aren’t going to bear fruit in the fall and attract birds. you’re basically doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.
WinH: From Airport Manager to Extension Agent, tell me about some challenges, achievements, and the daily grind at each.
Abra: A big difference is that airports never close. It’s a 24 hour job, and you can get a call in the middle of the night that a tree fell. Another big difference is that it’s a hyper specific job to create spaces without wildlife.
With the Extension on the other hand, we’d get calls like, ‘I’ve got a bat in my attic’ or ‘What’s ruining my turf?' It’s very much a buffet - it’s some of everything. From working both jobs, I know I am a person that likes the specific. To the Extension’s credit, it makes you become incredibly knowledgeable about everything.
Airports are also political. I remember one time my boss met with one of the airline execs, and learned that his wife really liked daffodils. So, we had to plant daffodils. They are your customers, and it may be something you don’t want to do. You may have to put red mulch in front of an airline building, because the CEO likes red mulch and you just have to. You’ve got to take your personal feelings out. It’s just a business transaction; it’s about serving the passenger and the airline.
WinH: I know you love fashion and culture, and you find wonderful ways to weave it into your writing about plants and horticulture, especially on your Instagram. What are some ways you’ve tricked people into learning about plants via pop-culture things?
Abra: One instance is comparing parterres and knot gardens to cornrows (the hairstyle). They are both artistic expressions. It's about connecting the similarities between the two, and when you do this you unite cultures. In this case, black hair culture with garden culture. People see themselves through these little comparisons. If you can artistically braid cornrows, you can design gardens. Period.
WinH: My mom has got two things that I don’t - she’s got years of experience on her side, and she’s just a better gardener. Abra, you also come from a lineage of women gardeners - your mom, grandma, aunts - how do your gardening styles differ? Since you’re the professional in the family, do they use you as a resource, or is it the other way around?
Abra: It’s the other way around. When I came out of school, I always knew they were so good at what they did. Their style is so organic and natural and not influenced by some formal training. My mom, who is by far a better gardener, put me in my place one time when we went down to our friends' farm in Montezuma, GA. They gave my mom some peanut and cotton seeds. I told her, 'That’s too bad you can’t do anything with those in our Atlanta summer.' Later that summer, my mom said to me, 'I wanna show you something.' She had grown the peanut sprouts and cotton in containers in her driveway! That was my mom’s way of showing me that she was Queen Bee of the landscape, but in a quiet way. It was humbling for me.
WinH: Let’s talk about diversity in public horticulture. My experience has been that it’s a pretty homogeneous field up here in the North. Since most of your work has been in the South (like Georgia and Texas), what do the demographics look like? Do you think it’s changing at all? What ways, if any, are young people of color encouraged to enter horticulture? What improvements to access and inclusion have you seen so far?
Abra: Commercial Horticulture in the South is a good ole boys' network - very white, male, and closed. Labor is overwhelmingly Latino. "Leadership" is overwhelming white and male. I think leaders should ask themselves why Latinos and other people of color (POC) can't move up beyond labor. What makes them think these men and women are incapable of leading?
The change is slow. I try to encourage as many people of color as I can (young or old) to enter this field. Inclusion for me, at a leadership level, has only happened when there was another person of color in the room willing to take the chance to hire me. People are comfortable with people that look like themselves. Even with all the schooling, credentials, etc., it is very hard to get a break without having someone see themselves in you, and speak up for you in this space. When we get to the day where we don’t have to talk about it (race), that’s when we’ve done it right. But that’s a long way off.
POC may see themselves reflected in farming, but they don’t see themselves reflected at Kew, Longwood, Atlanta Botanical Garden, etc. Public horticulture is so much about relationship building. We need to do more outreach to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and meet people where they are. I didn’t know I could grow up to be a horticulturist. It’s an education thing. I didn’t know there was a word for it or a major. I don’t think a lot of children of color even know about it as a career. That's not their fault; it is the industry's fault.
WinH: Who was a mentor to you? Or a strong influence?
Abra: Yeah, several! The first thing that’s important - your mentor doesn’t have to be in horticulture, or even alive. Two people in the world of Horticulture that come to mind are Tara Dillard (who's always been in my corner), and the late great Ryan Gainey, who taught me a lot about self expression and knowing my garden history.
I also look outside of the industry to people that reflect my culture, like the writer Luvvie Ajayi. I can look to her as a writer and as a black woman being her full self. From her, I learned that I don’t have to shrink myself, even in gardening. I can write like I talk to my homegirls, because no one is writing to them at all. My mentors gave me courage to be myself. You start finding your legs and find yourself. Once I leaned into who I was - my background, my culture - I excelled very far, very quick.
One time, I listened to a "garden expert" lady talk about how 'It’s a "garden," not a yard.’ Well, that's not everyone's truth. Many times I say ‘yard’ (instead of garden). When we’re formally trained, we tend to "correct" people that don't need correcting. We should not do that because it turns people off. When you devalue a person’s language, you devalue their culture. We need to embrace a more casual language for the audiences we want to attract. It doesn't always have to be so scientific. We don’t have to correct them when they say 'dirt.' It’s not that serious; it’s not that deep. We do have to make it more accessible to more people, and a lot of that is the language. This is something I learned from Luvvie.
WinH: Is there a piece of advice you'd want to share with your younger self?
Abra: Yeah, and I want to continue to share it with my older self - Be ok with failure. It's not your set back; it’s your get back! I failed out of Auburn, and returned to earn my Horticulture degree. I've gotten fired from a job; it happens. But I also got the (Longwood) Fellowship. You can be open and honest about those things that the world tries to shame you for, and end up in better positions personally and professionally. Own it, recover, and move along.
Follow Abra Lee on Instagram at @conquerthesoil