The Heritage Garden Plants the Seed for UIC Environmental Sustainability

Picture of Heritage Garden workers giving a garden tour

Walk around the quad on the east side of the UIC campus and you might find long stretches of garden between the cemented buildings. Full of life and colors—at least during the springtime—these gardens add a pleasant view as students hurry to class. Try, however, to stop and take a closer look at these beautiful gardens. Among the different types of plants and flowers, you’ll find the work of student artists. Look down, and you will see plaques detailing not only the names of each plant, but also its significance. These gardens, much like a museum, are curated with the utmost care to represent UIC’s surrounding landscape and the heritage of its students and larger community.  

The Heritage Garden Internship Program is an effort of the Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change (CCUSC) with infrastructure provided by the Latino Cultural Center (LCC) and funding by the Sustainability Fee. Since its inception in 2013, it has built the capacity of student interns to serve as leaders and help the LCC run the program. The Heritage Garden consists of eight satellite gardens on UIC’s East campus that connect students, faculty, staff, and the broader community to learn about environmental sustainability through diverse cultural knowledges and a social justice lens. The Monarch Habitat satellite in front of the LCC exemplifies the connection between migration and environmental conservation.

The internship program runs throughout the year with students from different backgrounds and experiences, as well as academic interests. The students in the internship program participate in activities such as collecting family recipes with culturally specific meaning and usage of plants, leading garden tours, facilitating discussions on environmental and cultural topics, and learning about gardening practices. After a semester as a Heritage Garden intern, students have the opportunity to apply as student leaders within the internship program and help the upcoming students as peers and leaders. As Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, educator at the Heritage Garden, explains:

“The heritage garden does this beautiful job of showcasing in very tangible ways the way diversity among plants and among humans really help things to thrive. They talk about connecting cultural diversity and horticulture to social justice to climate justice. And I think that when you see something that you recognize as part of your culture—because we do plant from several cultures—particularly from the students that have gone through the program so we have ten different types of basil that are used in different countries. We have these plants that people can connect to and are able to think through their relationship with the plants, the relationship with each other, their relationship with diversity.”

Everyone is welcome to take a guided garden tour with a Heritage Garden intern. They take place during the summer and fall, and can sometimes accommodate requests during other seasons. During the 50-minute tour, your guide or guides will lead you to the various gardens and explain what the sites mean ecologically, in terms of sustainability, and also their heritage significance. The tour guides will also tell you stories, some of which are beautiful extended metaphors that will inspire you to think differently about the purpose and meaning of different plants and flowers.

People can connect to these plants and use that relationship to understand how they relate to others and how diversity enriches their lives.

Ireri Unzueta Carrasco  |  Educator at the Heritage Garden

This insight about the importance of the Heritage Garden is seen in the experience of Zuleyma Morales, a current intern at the Heritage Garden and a pre-med student. Morales explains that she is an intern because of her interest in learning how to better care for people, and she enjoys meeting people from other areas of study who also share her background. Tran Huynh, a student leader at the Heritage Garden, notes that they have learned a lot about the myths behind each plant and the diversity in culinary practices. Huynh also highlights the cultural diversity of the internship program and the importance of social justice. Sarah Gabriella Hernandez, another student leader, adds that engaging with all the Cultural Centers at UIC has created a group of students with different perspectives, backgrounds, and histories who work together to promote “environmental sustainability, cultural diversity, and social justice.” Both Morales and Hernandez emphasize the importance of communication in the program, saying that it teaches interns to feel confident and share their knowledge.

Due to the diversity of the internship program, the Heritage Garden focuses on engagement across difference. Alex Smith, a student intern, adds that the diversity of the participants is what makes the internship program unique. “Everybody has a different approach to what we do,” Smith says. “Why are they gardening? What is the connection between gardening and their culture? What we do is collect and share stories, not only from interns and leaders but also from the people who come on the tours, or come to events.”

This involvement and engagement with the community is very important to the Heritage Garden. They host events such as the Fall Harvest Fest and the Spring Seed Swap, when gardeners meet to exchange their excess seeds. Through an event like this, the interns connect with local garden enthusiasts, share stories, and swap seeds. Another activity is taking their mobile library, which is a cabinet-like suitcase that showcases their seeds, to the various cultural center events. Educator Unzueta Carrasco further emphasizes that the continuing collaboration with the cultural centers is very important, as is their collaboration with the Jane Addams’ Hull House where the Seed Library originated. Over the years, the  Heritage Garden interns have held a Spring Seed Swap event at the Hull House, which is well attended by gardeners all over the city. Sarah Hernandez expands on the sentiment of collaboration:

“Working with the Heritage Garden, and by extension, the Cultural Centers, provides a very unique way to learn about political topics that seems so broad and so incomprehensible. Linking these large topics to our group and our community in Chicago is a very empowering process to learn about topics like gentrification and social justice, or about colonialism and capitalism.  Understanding how that works and how these things affect us in multiple levels is something that I think is very important. The process and the dialogue are what makes this a very enriching experience.”

The process and the dialogue are what makes this a very enriching experience.

Sarah Hernandez  |  Student Leader at the Heritage Garden

The Heritage Garden promotes students’ active engagement with global issues affecting their  local communities in particular ways as they work towards the sustainability of land and culture. This focus on creating a culture of sustainability, collaboration, and social justice is a big part of UIC’s overall sustainability efforts, which earned the University the designation of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School  in 2018. This national recognition stems from the University’s efforts to reduce its environmental footprint through different initiatives and programs throughout campus, which we hope will only continue to flourish and grow.