Justine Richardson interviewed by Taylor Howard
So I did a little bit of digging and looked at your LinkedIn and saw that you became the director shortly before the pandemic started, your official title is the Director of The Arboretum?
And what falls under that as your list of responsibilities?
So as director of The Arboretum, I help support our amazing staff and connect with community members, other leaders, faculty members, and students to promote the mission of The Arboretum which is the conservation of biodiversity and connection to nature through research, teaching and outreach. That of course contains so many different things, so we run education programs, we have some small but amazing horticulture staff that maintains the grounds and conducts our plant research and we have a small office staff that manages our bookings and activities here so there’s really a range of things.
With what I said before, because you became the director so close to when Covid started, how did you land your position of being director? What was your path to now working in this space?
Yea so those first two questions definitely go together. I started in February of 2020 so really the pandemic had started, we just hadn’t realized it yet. We had 6 good weeks with staff and then the pandemic came along and nobody knew what to do. I mean it was a challenge for everyone to figure out what you do during a pandemic.
Were there any difficulties when looking at the work that would have to be done in the arboretum when the pandemic first hit? Could you explain what any of those were?
Absolutely yes, so we have a public-facing role, we have events, and we are caring for living collections some of which, it was march when things really shut down and some things have to happen at certain times of the year in March so we actually had some aspect or another of our operations that were affected in each way. All our events were cancelled which is a significant source of revenue to support our work on the grounds. Our education team had to go online and you know, nature education is about bringing people into nature and to experience it and have that experiential learning so that’s been a real learning curve and challenge. Our education team came up with some amazing adjustments with some virtual programs that now we’re going to continue even though the pandemic restrictions aren’t there anymore. There still is an opportunity for people to sign up for these virtual programs, or do these virtual programs from far away if they aren’t able to be here which is a positive. The horticulture team as I said who have living collections they needed to care for could do that separated and safely as it was largely outside, so we separated and had all those impacts. In addition, the trails themselves, were the one place on campus that was open when Doug Ford said on March 26th nature areas closed except trails for walk through acces. And so we ended up being a spot where people could come and be outside, meet while being safe and distanced, walk, get exercise and even just the mental health of needing to get away from peoples computer and that kind of thing. A lot of people found The Arboretum and found that walking here was very important during that time so we had a really vital role as it turned out.
That was one of the reasons why I gravitated to interview you in first place because I remember hearing about over the pandemic how people would go for their Covid walks or go outside and whatever else and I wondered, how much more use did people find in The Arboretum over Covid, and one of the questions I had was did you notice that there was more traffic over Covid than what there normally would be over a typical year?
Yea there was a lot of on the ground traffic for sure.
Do you know if there was any highlights or specific areas that people would gravitate towards to or if you have a specific place in the Arboretum that you like to hangout in or walk through?
People always ask that and its so hard to pick a favourite spot. There’s spots that are beautiful and meaningful at different times of year, the boardwalk was finished in that first year of Covid which was good because it enabled that walk through access come spring, and the trillium and the Victoria Woods are really beautiful on that understory floor which is one of the reasons why its so important for people to stay on the trail. Its one of those things that people don’t really understand is that “oh I want to walk around the forest” but the ephemeral plants and flowers along that forest floor are a really important reason to stay on trails and protect the plants that are in the forest.
That is a great point about trails, people do need to be more careful. Now I have some more personal questions. How was the initial shutdown for you and what were any issues you had with your job specifically with having to transition to work remotely if you did work remotely?
I did. Especially for a while at first. I had worked remotely before, in the early 2000s for a number of years with a digital library project and so I was comfortable working remotely personally if the question was personally like what kind of worked for me,
Yes, that’s what I meant,
It was really challenging though because I was just meeting everyone on the team and just getting to know working relationships and that was difficult for sure. There was definitely that aspect of switching to teams online meetings and then we had team members on the horticulture team staff specifically who were here and working and that was challenging because they were here and working but they were kind of isolated. Then there were things that happened that just had to be handled, so I have an office and there’s a number of offices here where the door can stay closed and I have significant separation so once it was possible I tried to move back in as quickly as possible to be here.
Right, because I’m sure being able to work in this environment is probably a lot more preferred that being at home, unless you have a similar environment at home?
Oh yeah absolutely.
Did you find the transition coming back full time difficult at all or was it pretty smooth for you considering you said that you worked remotely before?
I’d say it was pretty smooth, i mean i think that going back and forth with the events over the past couple of years was really challenging because there was lots of times where they were completely closed down for a period of time and then they started allowing things to open, so there was constant changes of what the rules were and trying to be on-top of those. Then the university had their research event that was allowed and there was just lots and lots of changing rules and changing regulations. These then affected what we had to do if people were going to come here and there was rules about whether people were vaccinated or not. So it was a lot of work once we started having in person events again to try to keep these going to meet the needs of people, the desire of people, and also keep people safe while following the rules, the regulations, etc. and that was constantly moving and changing. We have an amazing events coordinator who really stayed on-top of it and we had to work very closely together sort of as each change happened.
Do you think that being able to be outside and have more outdoor space available for events helped The Arboretum to be able to actually have people come back and host certain things?
We did, there was a certain phase where only outdoor events were allowed, and so we had some very small, outdoor wedding ceremonies for example, and you could have food, so it was those kinds of things that shifted over time but definitely being an outdoor space; I met a family that some of them lived in Toronto, and some of them lived in London, and this was their meeting point where they could be outside and see each other and that ended up being really meaningful for people.
For you personally, it doesn't have to be just about work, did you find any main struggles over the pandemic, it can be whether you had to stay home or anything like that, if it is work related that’s alright but any thing that you struggled with over the pandemic?
Yeah you know I think my struggles were similar to other folks as being far away from family, and I couldn’t visit them so that was challenging. I had two children in high school at the time and you know that was especially challenging for them in a phase of life when your supposed to be a fledgling and pushing boundaries and to be hemmed inside the house with our family was challenging for all of us. But there were some positives too I mean, I know usually I work all day long but it was nice for that period of time when we were all home to have lunch together which was nice. It had a "specialness" to it too.
I can relate to that for sure. I’d say everyone by the time we eased out of restrictions everyone was set in their ways of being at home, but now it’s almost weird to not be around family all the time.
Yea it is nice, and reflecting later, both of our children now are in university so the house feels very empty.
Were there any aspects of Covid that might have affected any friends or family you know more so than just being in lockdown? Did they have anything they struggled with at all?
Yea, I had very early in the pandemic, my aunt died from Covid and that initial wave and that was a real eye opener when it hit that close to home that quickly in April of 2020. So it made us sad, and on my husband’s side of the family we had two people who passed away later, and one of them was vaccinated and one them wasn’t so it was interesting to see how individual biology played out with Covid. The virus evolved and changed and it targeted individual biology in the particular ways that different people got and get sick in different ways from it so I feel like we were all really living through the science of it, which is challenging too because what we learned about; first we thought we had to sanitize everything, and then we found out that it’s airborne. So that learning, in the most hopeful way, we can see how science evolves and how we learn from experiences.
That is a great point, we did learn with the growth of pandemic. Looking back, would you say the pandemic changed your life? The question is pretty general but it definitely changed your work by the sounds of it, so were there any aspects of your life that it has changed personally for you?
I think the biggest thing for me is having taken for granted the very fact of being in a space with other people, right? And all of a sudden you can’t do it and it’s like “Oh wow it is so important” that contact with people in person and what we value about it and to not take it for granted each day that we have really.
Yea that is a great point, that goes for everything, working, seeing family, educating. I know for a lot of people it was hard to only have that screen to look at and especially with family that don’t live close to you like you said before, it can be really hard to visit them or see them around holidays.
It happened around the holidays twice right, then with Omicron last year, its very hard. It’s also one of those things for you know, a history lesson, is that even now, we’re in February 2023, and it’s hard to remember that now things are pretty open, most people aren’t wearing masks. Some still are and that’s fine, and you don’t know why; if someone’s been exposed or any of those things there’s a sort of tolerance now which is nice. But its hard to remember now, just even a year ago, what it was like with Omicron. So last January, was almost the hardest lockdown, even though people were vaccinated, but the Omicron variant was coming through, and we didn't know what it was going to do. We were locked down really hard last January but even just a year ago it's hard to remember, and we are just so present as humans so its hard to remember and reflect on that event.
Now I know you just came to visit our class a week or two ago to talk about the petition for The Arboretum, and even afterwards, our class was talking and lots of us signed it. Do you have an update on the petition, and did you get all the signatures?
Yes! So we got the signatures Monday night and they are with Central Student Association (CSA) which is doing a verification process. The next steps are the CSA verifies them and brings them to their board and then we’ll know exactly what the next steps there will be. There will be a campaign phase starting February 27th for a week, and then a voting phase from March 6th-10th, which you as a first year student you haven't been through this; the Central Student Association also holds its elections and there will be some other things so we’re waiting to hear, and we’ll have a meeting with the Chief Reporting Officer about exactly how the election is going to work. Then we’ll communicate with everybody about that, so stay tuned on social media. The next step will be to get out the vote that week.
That’s awesome. Would you be able to reiterate what the petition is for just for people who haven’t heard about it already?
For sure. So we have been working with students for over a year, and it actually came out of class, it was a Lang business school class that was looking at businesses sustainability and ecology and structures of how ecological systems work, and then how those theories can apply to business ecosystems and sustainability. They spent a lot of time in The Arboretum and one of the things they did was an analysis of student engagement in The Arboretum and how to increase student engagement and they came up with two things. One was awareness, as some students like you now and during the O-week activities that we did was part of that increasing awareness so that students earlier in their career will find out about The Arboretum. So they can come there and it can be a regular part of just walks when people get stressed out or to keep them from getting stressed out, but also plant ID and landscape architecture, and history courses, arts courses, music, photography, there's just everything, even engineering students have had design competitions for a geothermal system so its really one of the things I say; The Arboretum has a role to play in every major issue of our day and I believe that crosses all the colleges and disciplines at the university too. So that awareness was one piece, and looking at our staffing structure, we have a very small staff for this space that we have, and they do an absolutely amazing job. To increase students engagement we needed to increase capacity, and the so the business class started looking at fees, and realized that we don’t have a student fee that goes to the Arboretum. So while working over the past year with them and other students such as those from the Roots & Shoots club, we ended up working with them to do a proposal to do what is called a joint fee. That is where the funds are managed by a university unit, and their is a community of half students, half staff that advise on the use of those funds and its specifically going to help us hire a student engagement coordinator which will expand our capacity to engage students across a range of types of activities.
I’m all for it, I think it’s great what you’re doing.
Yes thank you for supporting it, it really has seemed to resonate well with people, and it’s not a lot of money by any means for $2.50. That was one of the great debates the business students had, was what amount to ask for and what would the benefit be and they seemed to think that $2.50 was a good price point.
Well, that's less than a nice cup of coffee that people get every day so it’d be hard to say no to that.
Right? Skip one coffee and support the trees.
Do you have any events coming up that you want to talk about at all if there’s anything in the works at The Arboretum?
Well we’re planning for the year soon, but we have a number or annual events. We have a research studio in the spring, that we just started last spring but will continue because there is a range of research that happens out of The Arboretum. From student projects like this interview, to graduate students, faculty members, and also Arboretum staff. Then there’s also community organizations, so as a green space in urban areas there are various kinds of non-profit government organizations that are doing different types of research that use the grounds. That is part of why we’re accredited at level 4 internationally which is the highest level you can achieve because of the amount of research that happens here. So we’ll have that research studio and then in the fall, the first Friday of the semester, we have our Arboretum expo and plant sale so that’ll be happening then which will be good. There will be more information about that closer to the fall.
I heard about the plant sale online, is it just outdoor perennials that are being sold?
And is it things grown from The Arboretum? Is that kind of its appeal?
Largely yes, so we have a real focus on Ontario woody plant species. We have gene banks of various rare and endangered species that are archived in seed orchards or gene banks on our grounds so we have that niche that’s particular to The Arboretum that’s special here.
That’s great, and I think you answered everything that I was looking to ask! But as a last note today, is there anything that you would recommend to maybe a first year student or someone who hasn’t been to the Arboretum… is there any place in particular that’d you’d recommend they come and visit during O-week?
I would say explore the trails. I think the trails are the right place to start, and if you explore down each of the trails then it’ll take you to the different areas. Through the forested natural areas that are old growth forest that have never been clear cut which is neat. But I would definitely say trails, boardwalk trail, and then through the different areas and then you can come back and find a different spot.
Well thank you, I think that’s just about our time for today.