Director’s Letter

Matthaei-Nichols Director Tony KolenicMBGNA began its strategic planning process in Summer 2021 in the midst of many interlocking transitions and challenges. Universities, communities, nations, and global systems began inhabiting “new normals” as COVID-19 continued to transform daily life; the murder of George Floyd just a year prior rendered the veil separating urgently needed action from historic and current racial discrimination uniquely thin, further exposing institutional culpubility in systemic violence; and many indicators of climate change reached a tipping point, upending the natural systems and ecological dynamics with which we are all interdependent. 

And while some of these sweeping challenges are relatively new and others are woven into the fabric of American life and global systems, people of color and economically less resourced communities disproportionately bear their repercussions. Each of these serious challenges and the uneven distribution of their consequences require institutions and organizations like MBGNA to be truly self-critical – to step back and ensure the power alignments, assumptions, and values that have arrived us “here” do not persist unquestioned and continue to define our collective future. 

Unique to living collections like botanical gardens and arboreta, for example, is a particularly loaded nexus: control and manipulation of land, water, and diverse species for aesthetic experience and scientific advancement; a history of racial and economic exclusion; and the separation of species from their Indigenous uses and context, contributing to the continued erasure of non-dominant relationships to “nature.” The forces that require institutional self-criticality and decolonial approaches to power are the same forces that necessitate addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and other drivers of ecological crisis we urgently face; environmental justice and social justice are interconnected and cannot exist independently in the on-going climate crisis. 

To meet the demands of our national and global moment, MBGNA has engaged in self-critical reflection around these dynamics and several key questions:

  • Within a university context, where and how can MBGNA yield – not wield – power toward decolonial and co-liberatory action?
  • Based on mutual respect and trust built over the last 20+ years, how can priorities and visions for the future identified by Anishinaabek and other sovereign partners be incorporated into MBGNA plans, and how can MBGNA mobilize resources to partner in those futures’ actualization? 
  • How can MBGNA catalyze ecological and social resilience within the university, in partnership with aligned equity and justice-focused organizations, and with communities in SE Michigan and beyond?
  • How can MBGNA best utilize UM’s commitments and trajectory – University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), the Okanagan Charter, UM Environment, Sustainability, and Carbon Neutrality, and the emergent goals of DEI 2.0 – to navigate the opportunities and barriers to rebuilding power structures from within a leading public research institution? 

Beginning with these self-critical questions, MBGNA’s strategic planning process unfolded over the course of 18 months. Benefitting from the entire MBGNA staff’s participation, the process utilized for this strategic plan was crafted specifically to elevate shared vision. Informed by the diverse literatures and emergent best practices from the many disciplines applied at MBGNA – Museum Studies, DEI, Ecology, Botany, and many more – we began by establishing not a new mission, but a shared lexicon. With it we were able to interrogate critical social and ecological challenges and share common conceptual frames and understanding as we moved forward. 

What emerged were six “pillars” – at once commitments and containers for action. Each of the six pillars was led by a working group composed of MBGNA staff, students, and external members from the broader university, surrounding community, or sovereign Tribes. Each working group developed a current state analysis and a future state analysis, marking where we were relative to that pillar and where we needed to go. 

After an organizational retreat where these future states were interarticulation, MBGNA established a writing committee that, together, drafted a version of the strategic plan from this shared vision and developed specific goals and subgoals to animate the next five years of action. This draft and new mission was sent to Tribal partners, university leaders, student advisory groups, donors, directors at other university botanical gardens and arboreta, and many others for their interrogation and feedback. Informed by their collective insights, the writing committee has crafted the strategic plan contained here. 

MBGNA is committed to catalyzing equity and justice, and will continue to reckon with itself and the history of living collections to do so. This strategic plan is our road map for how that commitment is turned into action; how MBGNA will continue to thoroughly examine and combat its participation in systemic injustices, and how we will co-create new ways forward with historically excluded communities through the years ahead. 

Anthony Kolenic
Director, Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum