May 24, 2021

113: Lessons from Plants

113: Lessons from Plants

In Episode 113, Quinn asks: What can we learn from plants?

The answer, it turns out, is: A whole heck of a lot.

Our guest is the wonderful and way overqualified Dr. Beronda Montgomery -- PhD, writer, researcher, scholar, and author of “Lessons from Plants.” Dr. Montgomery’s dedicated her work to understanding how individuals are impacted by their environment.

Life as a human is hard. I mean, that’s why we open every episode with the question, “Why are you vital to the survival of the species?” — because it so often feels like that survival is in question.

But imagine, if you will, being a plant — you think being stuck inside the past year sucks? Try being the fiddle leaf fig you one-clicked from Bloomscape in 2019! It NEVER gets to go outside. 

Plants are just out here, stuck in the ground, living entirely at the whim of a constantly changing, and often harsh, environment. Still, they go on and flourish, despite everything. 

Listen in to find out all the incredible lessons we can take away from the plants all around us -- from being a team player, how to persevere through adversity, and even being a better mentor.

Have feedback or questions? Tweet us, or send a message to questions@importantnotimportant.com

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Transcript

Quinn:

Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit. We give you the tools you need to fight for a better future for everyone. The tips and tricks, the context, straight from the smartest and just most amazing people on earth, and the actions steps, of course, that you can take to feel better, to support them, and to fight for a better world for everyone.

Quinn:

Our guests are authors and professors, scientists, journalists, doctors, policy makers, business leaders, CEOs, investors, astronauts, even a reverend. This is your friendly reminder that you can send questions, thoughts, and feedback to us on Twitter @Importantnotimp, or you can email us at questions@importantnotimportant.com. You can also join thousands of other smart folks and subscribe to our free weekly newsletter at importantnotimportant.com.

Quinn:

Folks, this week's episode is asking, hey, what can we learn from plants? Our guest is the tremendous Dr. Beronda Montgomery. She's the author of the new book, Lessons from Plants, from the Harvard University Press. Folks, her book and this conversation were incredible. So thoughtful, so practical, so eye-opening. I'm truly not sure if I will ever look outside my window, down at the ground, at a vegetable, up at a tree, or at the ability to mentor, to share space, or to parent intentionally the same again. So thankful to Dr. Montgomery for taking the time, for writing this book, for all the work she does, and for sharing this stuff with us today. So, please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Beronda Montgomery, author of the new book, Lessons from Plants.

Quinn:

Our guest today is Dr. Beronda Montgomery, and I am asking her, what can we learn from trees? Dr. Montgomery, welcome.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Thank you so much, it's a pleasure to be here.

Quinn:

No, you say that now, give it an hour. Dr. Montgomery, could you tell us real quick who you are and what you do?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes. So, I'm Beronda Montgomery, I'm currently a faculty member at Michigan State University, but I've been a writer since I was about four or five, if we listen to my mother.

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

I'm at Michigan State, I'm a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, also microbiology and molecular genetics. All that to say, I study photosynthetic organisms, plants and some bacteria, and try to understand how they know what's going on around them and translate that to good behavior and productivity.

Quinn:

So, was one biology not enough for you, you had to do like six of them? Is that the deal?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

No, I think I must be a good colleague because I call it the share Beronda plan, I keep getting jointly appointed in multiple departments. So, either I'm a pain in the neck and they all want to keep an eye on me, or I'm a good colleague, or both.

Quinn:

I'm sure it's good colleague, but it's just like boy, sometimes I feel like I have two jobs. You've got 12.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

That's awesome. Well, we really appreciate you joining us. We're going to dig into this thing, find out more about you, why you do what you do, how you do what you do, what we can learn from it, and then sort of our bread and butter is, as we like to say, action steps that folks can take.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Awesome.

Quinn:

To support you, to do the right thing. We try to, in a world where everybody is very busy, there is a 1,000 literally and figuratively fires everywhere and people are being pulled in a million directions. We try to give them really specific action steps that they can take to make themselves feel better but also to build a better world for everybody, not just some folks.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's great, that's great.

Quinn:

So, we'll get in there. But we do like to start with one important question, Dr. Montgomery, to set the tone for this wild ride. Instead of saying tell us your entire life story, I like to ask, Beronda, why are you vital to the survival of the species?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

You know, I like to believe I'm vital to the species because one of my guiding principles is reciprocity. So, I try to be the best I can be as an individual, but I recognize that I'm self as an individual but self in a community. So, I really do try to also contribute to community and see how I can really help in whatever community that is, my family of origin, personal professional, always striving for my best personal self but also to contribute back to the community that I'm in.

Quinn:

Well, that's very thoughtful. Are there days where you would prefer plants over people? Yeah, I figured.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely. It's funny you say that. It's actually how I became a biologist instead of going to med school. So, growing up everybody was like, "You should go to med school." I'm like, "I don't want to deal with people every day. Sometimes I just want to sit in the greenhouse with plants or in the middle of the forest or something." So, there are days where plants are much better companions for me than people.

Quinn:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). I feel that way about my rescue dog. Then sometimes I feel like even he just walks away from me and I'm like, "I got nothing." My kids don't pay attention to me, my dog's not interested.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's how I feel when one of my plants dies. I'm like, "What is this? No."

Quinn:

Right, right, right. You're all I've got. Well, thank you for that thoughtful response. I really appreciate it. So, I want to dig in and try to answer this question, which you have already answered a number of times throughout this book and throughout all of your work and being a part of seven different departments.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

What can we learn from plants? And not just in some theoretical way, but in a really applicable way, because as we talked about, people, they're confused a lot these days.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

They're also more activated than they've ever been. They feel pulled in a lot of different directions. When you're doomscrolling or you're trying to figure out what to do with your life, or whether to have kids, or how to raise your kids, or where to live, or which of these problems to do, or whose GoFundMe you need to contribute to because the medical system is broken. It's easy, very easy, and understandable to just flail essentially.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

And we all do it, but you have taken great strides to emphasize living a life, a very specific constrained life with purpose, and you managed to translate those examples in such a wonderful way. So, I'm excited to dig in. I've basically dog eared, I mean, every other page in your book.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Oh wow, thanks.

Quinn:

It's the best. I just sit there reading like, "What? That's crazy."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

But I want to talk about your first sentence, because it is such a fascinating but it's also crystal clear thesis for the rest of the book, which is imagine a life in which ones entire existence must be tuned and tailored to the changing and at times harsh environment. Then the clincher is, a life in which there is no potential for escape. Because, and it seems pretty easy to look past this sometimes, plants can't just pick up and move. Everything they do, everything we take for granted or just don't even notice within their constraints is so unbelievable. I wonder if you can explain to folks to start what you mean by developmental plasticity and why it's so vital.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes. So, the best and probably most common example of developmental plasticity, most of us have noticed in our home, and that's when we have a plant that's growing and you notice that it's bending towards the window. So, that really developmental plasticity is a change in your growth pattern based on what's going on around you. I love to use that one because many of us have seen that, and we'll just rotate the plant and not think much of it, but that's really the plant responding to bending towards the light. So, light is everything for plants because they use that for photosynthesis to make sugars, and sugars are their currency, like our dollars. So, they use those sugar as their monthly energy budget to drive their growth, to drive their communication, to drive all aspects of what they're doing. So, they will change their growth patterns. We move, but they can change their growth patterns to make sure that they are able to get what they need.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, that's the most common example, but in the book and other places there are so many different examples of developmental plasticity. I think that's one of the first things that fascinated me by plants, and really it's really grounded in my life. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and every summer I begged my parents for us to move somewhere else. It was hot and humid and just unbearable. Now I live in Michigan and I look at the plants in the winter, and it really was that fascination with I can't even stand this temperature range for a few seconds, but the plants are living there and making the most of it. Really being driven to understand how they were doing that.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

But yeah, that developmental plasticity is fascinating to me about plants because we as animals don't do anything as visible as they do in terms of changing their development.

Quinn:

We really don't, or again, we complain about it but don't realize how good we have it. Of course, some people have it much more difficult.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

It's funny, I live in ... I was born and raised in Virginia and I've spent the past 20 years bouncing around, but the past 12 years in Los Angeles with my wife and kids, where everything is on fire. But now we're back in Virginia for now, and I always describe it to folks as if you come and visit during the summer it is hot and it is sticky, but it's not Arkansas.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

And if you come in the winter it's cold, but it's not Rochester.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

In both the depth and the length of it, and it's nice. We get all these four seasons, and that's you really take it for granted, and I thought about this part in your book where you talked about, and again, we just notice these things on such a superficial level, and especially with kids where you talked about the way the leaves turn colors and then they fall off the trees, and that's not for fun, it's because, again, and please correct me where I'm wrong but it's because, to use a Game of Thrones phrase, winter is coming, and they're only going to get so much energy because they can't go anywhere, unlike birds or us.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely.

Quinn:

So, they can't just put a bunch of energy into these leaves. They have to preserve, is that correct?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It's absolutely correct. So, I always think about fall as a preparation period. Every time I see the leaves falling, the plants have sensed that winter is coming and they're preparing for winter. You're right, so in winter the days are shorter, there's less light available for photosynthesis, but it's also super cold. So most of the times of metabolic activities that they would have going on slow down. So, they have to minimize all the parts that they need to maintain over winter. So, by dropping the leaves there's less energy needed to maintain those parts and they go into a period of rest.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I love the four seasons, I grew up with them, but then I was out in California for a while and other places. But now living in a place where there are four seasons, it really is a reminder of how plants pace their life with the seasons. I always say humans, we don't do that. We just act like we're in summer all the time. We have the longest days, all the energy, we go full out, but plants have these seasons, and when fall is coming they start to slow down and prepare for winter, and then winter is a period of rest. What we see with humans is, like now with the pandemic, we have to be forced into rest, whereas plants pace their life with the seasons.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I try to draw from that and anticipate a need for rest instead of always being forced into it from exhaustion or whatever falls on us. Yeah.

Quinn:

Sure, sure, sure. No, and it's funny because it's so easy when you've got little kids or you've got animals in your house but also plants to sort of throw these personalities onto them.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

I also imagine the other way, which is I've always thought that one of my rescue dogs is really close to talking. I keep thinking like, "God, he's got to be so annoyed that he's so close and yet so far." But then I think like, "What would he say? How would he judge me? What would he think?" I imagine the plants in Michigan would feel similar, I mean go with me on this ride.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

But would feel similarly to you who is like, "Oh, now I've come to Michigan and it's so cold, and Arkansas was so hot." And they're like, "Oh, I'm sorry, because we manage to persevere every winter, and we don't get to go anywhere. We're plugged into the ground, lady, and I drop my leaves, I do what I have to do."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

I mean, the constraints are incredible in a situation like that, and yet they are there, and these trees live for hundreds of years, and they're fine.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely.

Quinn:

So, maybe we could take something out of that, like you said.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, absolutely. Every winter when winter is over and spring is coming, and the trees are in their glory, I think there is a lesson in that. This is what we have to deal with, and I do, I complain every day every winter. I've lived in Michigan for 17 years and I complain every day of every winter. They're like, "This is what we have to do. Go do it." Yeah.

Quinn:

Right, right, right. I'm so sorry that you get to get in a car with the heater on.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Yeah, that must be so hard for you. I appreciate that. Thank you for going down my crazy lane with me on that, but I feel like it's an important part of it.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It is, very much so.

Quinn:

So, and that obviously applies in so many different ways, like you said, in places with four season, places that are when we look at succulents and the way they manage to survive and we just go, "Oh my god, how could they live out there?" And they're like, "Well, we make it work because we have to, because we can't go anywhere." I want to talk a little bit taking a step back, but also talking a little bit about your career. I want to talk about ecology.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Which the definition of ecology, right? Is I believe it's the study of the relations of organisms. So it's not just organisms, it's the relations of them not only to each other, but also their surroundings.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

From studying your work, and your book, and your career, and getting to know scientists and teachers over the past few years, one of whom I feel like you would love this gentleman named Brandon Ogbunu who is at Brown and now I believe he's at Yale. This great just genius young fellow.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Oh, I know him. I don't know him personally, but I know him from social media spaces, yeah.

Quinn:

I will introduce you.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

He's amazing. Now he's writing for Wired, he's hiring in his lab. It's amazing. I would never be smart enough to work with him, but he's one of those people where I feel like, and it's the same with you, you're using like 10% of your brain to talk to me and the other 90% is just going about your day. Anyways, you guys, but also those of us who are a little more in the sociological, anthropological side, we're looking at these complex systems, again, thinking about ecology, that we've designed for our societies and our economies, and I can't help but feel like this, again, sort of a grander looser definition of ecology might be among the most important fields of this moment, right? How we relate to one another and the environment around us.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely.

Quinn:

Whether that's the natural environment that some of us can escape from if we want to seasonally or as we grow, some of us cannot, our neighborhoods and cities, whether we have trees or we don't, the industry around us, our workplaces, our labs, whatever. Last year you were named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes, I know.

Quinn:

Congratulations.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Thank you. Thank you.

Quinn:

And I love that in receiving it you said, this might just be in part, but, "Although such honors come in my name, the professional advances lauded arise from my leading a committed, creative and successful team, as well as working within a community, including collaborators and supporters, and I'm thankful to each of the individuals, past and present, that I've had the opportunity to engage in my path." That is about your surroundings.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely.

Quinn:

Beronda, you seem to have spent, and I definitely have watched a bunch of your YouTube speeches, you've spent so much energy not only on being involved in 10 different disciplines at your university, but as a mentor.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Which is the ... I mean, this is just an awful metaphor, but being a gardener for this group, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

When did you realize that you could be the steward, that mentorship and advocating for more and better mentorship could be such a significant part of your carving out your life and your career?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, no, it's a great question. I love the metaphor of gardener. I talk about it a lot as environmental stewardship, right? We have stewardship over environment. I think part of it, I've been just super observant, since I was a child I was always asking why as soon as I could talk, but as I was going through my own education, it became clear to me that the ways we define success, not only in a educational environment, but often, especially in the US, is what you've achieved personally. If you've achieved personally whatever we value, whether it's having a lot of money, or prestige, or all of these awards, we don't often ask questions about how you got there. We don't ask the people that you work with whether they were honorably treated, whether you were compassionate, and in fact, along my own studies I saw a lot of people who were being really put on pedestals as the science geniuses who the students who worked with them have been damaged in the process.

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Really early it became clear to me that I wanted to hold myself duly responsible for what I did, the papers I produced, whatever awards I got, but how I got there. It wasn't okay for me to get to whatever seemed like success having damaged people along the way. I think part of that is founded kind of I grew up in a family where I'm one of five kids and my mom would always say, "Well, what did you do today to help your brother or sister?" And I'm like, "Well, can we talk about me for a minute?" And then she's like, "No, we're a family." So, part of that's in my own socialization, but I do think also part of it, having come into higher education as a black woman, I've trained in institutions where I'm often the only one. I had to study the system that wasn't built for me to be successful, and I realized that that kind of communal care is one area that there was a lot of work we needed to do.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, very early I said that whatever platform I got, whether it was a good job, an award or whatever, it was never for me to stand on it and do a one woman show, I wanted that platform to do a community based play. I think that even though we kind of put on a platform individual success, we all know that we get there as a group. Whether it's someone who cleans the building you're in, or who cleans your studio or your house, or you can't accomplish any of those things without the community, and I have just held myself responsible for really acknowledging every person who contributes. Just the other day I was on campus, I haven't been on campus much, but I ran into one of the custodial workers and she said, "I saw you wrote a book." I said, "I have one in the car, let me get one for you." Right? And so she was so excited. I said, "You've been a part of this. You've been here for 10 years."

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So we've all contributed to this. That's just something I really feel is important for me to hold myself responsible for.

Quinn:

It seems like this, again, this example that people use, and I'm going to use again, and it seems such a lowest common denominator argument in the sense that I try to take these complex systems and dial them down to first principles first to understand what are the immovable parts that we can't argue about, and then what are these biases we have to take apart that are on top of them? At the same time, you see these examples especially, I mean, in the past 25 years, and then over the past year, but just immense amounts of wealth and inequality in this country, and people saying like, "How can we raise ... We don't want to raise taxes on the rich." Ignoring that they're historically low, or on corporations, or services, whether it's emergency relief or it's actually proactively building better ones, and you see these people, and we ask these "leaders" that run these massive, massive companies, profoundly wealthy and successful companies, and we hold them up and they argue against these services or public schools, and we're just like, "I'm sorry, do you use stop signs?"

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Or the police department, or fire people? Or have you ever had a child in an ambulance? It's like, which part of the structural, actually you want to talk about infrastructure, the infrastructure of a country do you not participate in that you feel like two cents of your dollar shouldn't go to? Obviously that's the much broader period, but like you said, this woman that works in the janitor services, you can't do your job without the work that she does, and that is applied everywhere.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes. It's kind of crazy as hell when you think about, at least I think it is, that we are obsessed with philanthropy. I have good friends who are fundraisers I believe in philanthropy, but the ways in which we do it, we are obsessed with philanthropy, so we're obsessed with the billionaires and millionaires who give money, but we don't focus on the fact that they hoarded before they became a philanthropist, right?

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I think that we have to tease some of these things apart, and I think we all should have a spirit of philanthropy, but it's problematic when people are hoarding and then they give back in ways that they probably should've been giving back anyway, and then we celebrate them for being ... It's really crazy to me, I agree with you, because we don't tease apart the ways in which we all are dependent upon the poor infrastructure and yet some of us who are the, I shouldn't put myself in there, I have some privilege compared to others, but it seems as the least who are able to give who are the ones who have the give the most, and then others who are hoarding give back and we're like, "Oh, we're so grateful. Thank you for your philanthropy." We really have to turn that on the head. I think it's crazy as hell.

Quinn:

Yeah, no. I mean, I'm fully with you, and I feel like we could have a whole other conversation about this, and again, without getting too fired up about it. I mean, it's true. You see oh, look, they gave this donation to this university or to this climate change fund, or whatever it might be, and it's like yes, but they don't pay taxes.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes, yes.

Quinn:

Which is look, and I'm pretty far on the left at this point, but is it often spent poorly or in a mismanaged way? Of course, but also it has the essential services and infrastructure have been quite literally bankrupted for so long, but you wonder why can't a state build a website for COVID testing? It's like well, how long do you have for me to tell you how those structures have been? There's no IT department.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

What are you talking about? How would they?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Because no one pays for them. It's infuriating, and look, philanthropy is wonderful.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, I believe it, absolutely.

Quinn:

I contribute as much as we are able to, and often more than my wife would prefer me to, and it's these things can make a difference. I have friends who work in it, who work in pediatric cancer, which is something that just should not exist. It is infuriating, make it go away. That is great, but the long tail of that is that GoFundMe pays for half of our country's medical expenses and that is-

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right. I was about to say that's the problem, yeah.

Quinn:

There is a middle ground where we hover and everyone gets to participate, and there's a philosophical standard of give back this much, this and this, but there can be the base contributions that everyone has to make.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

And if you've had all this wealth that you've been born into or you've profited from in some way to build your companies, you should have to support more. It's crazy, and like you said, we have these arguments about the people with the least give the most. I mean, it's not even an argument, it's just math, and it's out there, and it's crazy. It's so much harder.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It's exactly when we get to the place where GoFundMe is the way that people are dealing with the emergencies in their lives, whether it's healthcare, or if there's been a tragedy. It's interesting because that's one of the reasons. In the book I wrote about nurse trees and young trees, right?

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

To me, I love that philosophy of how forests work. Where sometimes it's the older trees who have the ability to make more, to produce more, and they share that, and everybody does better.

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It's not that you're just sacrificing. All of the trees do better when the ones who are able to produce more share with those who are. That's why I think we have walked away from the kind of natural lessons that we should have as biological organisms on this planet.

Quinn:

Can you imagine if huge oak trees were like, "Sorry, I built a business. You got to make it on your own." That's crazy.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Exactly.

Quinn:

I want to come back to the mentoring part.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Exactly.

Quinn:

Thank you for dragging us back. Two things. Could you tell me a little bit about what that looks like for you? Again, you work in 22 different departments. How does the actual act of mentoring and the preparation that goes into it, how is that a part of your day-to-day career and your week-to-week and semester by semester? How does that practically work, and sort of further, any tools and tips and philosophies you've found that can be universally applied for that?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, I think at the core of how it works for me is recognizing that I'm not trying to reproduce myself. I think too much of mentoring works through people kind of I call it imprinting, where you're like the mother duck, trying to show the baby duck how to be just like them. There's a lot of that that goes on in these spaces. I think early what I realized is that some of that is well intentioned. I think most people when they are happy doing what they do, they assume someone else would be happy doing what they do. But at the core of my mentoring principle is to understand that I've built a life that makes me delusionally happy. I really love my life for the most part. I have my days, right? But I really love what I ... And so, what I try to connect with people and understand is what is the thing that would make them as deliriously happy as I am not doing what I do.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I really do try to get a sense of why people have decided to be in a particular space. If it's working with me in my laboratory, why did you join the lab and where do you want to go after this, and how do we center your goals in the middle of the conversation? So, we have conversations about that, and then I try to bring my resources to that. I try to bring my experience to that. That's what I do on a day-to-day with the people I'm working with. At a larger level in the communities I'm in, whether it's a department of the university, I try to get us to think as a community about that. So, often what we assume is that if we hire people, let's say we hire five people for the same job, we assume that they each should do exactly the same thing. I try to get us to focus on what we need done communally and maybe you Quinn are better at talking to people and I'm better at writing. So, why should we both be forced to write and talk to people?

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

You can talk to twice as many people and I can write twice as many papers, and we get everything we need to get done. So, I really do try to get people to focus on how we can align what needs to be done with people's individual passions, and motivations, and gifts, because if you can help people to work in the range where they really are working behind their passions, people will work much harder and much longer because it's feeding some kind of internal goal.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, it's really trying to understand that. How do we understand what people feel they need to contribute? How we understand what we need and have some kind of match as opposed to trying to force people into what our kind of idea of success is for? I think we do a lot of that, and it makes miserable people, and I don't like to be with miserable people.

Quinn:

No thanks. Had enough of that. That is so, I mean, clearly you didn't spring out of the womb with that philosophy and methodology imprinted or developed.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Quinn:

It seems a long time fostered, and I imagine there's a lot of learning that goes along the way. It seems very intentional, and you talk about in the book asking I think the ... Asking the right questions to learn from plants about how to live with purpose.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Agency and intention.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Now, there's this big, I mean, we can go down the sci-fi bend, come back to Earth, but there's this big debate about intelligence, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

In animals. I love octopuses.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

I mean, they're aliens. It's incredible, right? Not just in how cool they are, everybody loves the YouTube videos, but if you take two minutes to read about them, they could not be more different than us. It's incredible, but also plants, who seem to be, from what I gathered, constantly making decisions.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Do I grow my stem or do I grow more leaves? Because I can't do both with this limited energies, and again, I can't move.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

So, I can think of 10 million ways we could all learn from, again, this very constrained, beautiful, intentional life, and as you call it, intentional self-reflection.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

And I try, I fail often, as a dad asking myself, and it's really hard in the moment, again, when they're young. I'm sure you remember this. I imagine it's the same with a teenager though too. Am I acting in parenting with speed or direction?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

And I wonder if you can talk a little bit, because you keep talking about everybody else, and being this shepherd. How do you apply this intentional self-reflection and the actions that come from it yourself? What has that done to your day-to-day, and as a parent and a mentor?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

No, I think self-reflection I have come to realize is one of the most important parts of my life for staying centered as much as I can feel centered and staying in tune. Part of it is it's interesting, part of the ways in which I really got to be really intentional about self-reflection goes back to my being a scientist, where self-reflection was a time for me to look at the data and see what the data was telling me about things. So, at the end of each week I spend a little time thinking back on which part of the week really felt fulfilling and happy to me. I marked down which meetings those were, and I spent a little time thinking about which days I was super frustrated and what I was doing, and I write that down. Over time, I realize that there's one committee that always frustrates me. Then I say to my supervisor, "I need off this committee. It's not working for me." Sometimes there are things that you can't get out of. So, I think about people who I enjoy being around, and if there's something I can't get out of, I got to the list when I reflected on, when I spent time with this person I always laughed, or I felt like we worked well together collaboratively, we came up with good ideas.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I really do try to reflect on that. If there's something that I can't get out of doing that I don't enjoy, then I try to draw people who I like being with into doing that with me. So, I'll show up to the meeting knowing that I don't want to work on the meeting, the topic of the meeting, but I get to hang out with people that like.

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I think those kinds of reflections, when are there times that I'm doing what I love to do and how can I bring more of that into my life? When are there times and spaces where this really doesn't, it feels painful, it's not rewarding, how do I get out of that? Then who do I like to be with? Or not even that, who do I work well with? Because a few years ago I started writing with a friend of mine who I liked to be with, and we both realized that our writing got horrible, because we were not good writing partners. So, sometimes you have to figure out who am I productive with, but I really do take little notes. It doesn't take much time. At the end of the week I spend 10 minutes, just making notes about things, and then over time I'll stick with that. But at the end of each year I take a retreat and ask, when was I deliriously happy this year? When was I not? Who was I with? And I reorganize my calendar to try to have more of the time and space that I felt rewarded, and fulfilled, and happy and take things off my calendar that really leave me feeling drawn out. I think we don't do that enough.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

We kind of just sometimes assume somebody put me in this job I have to do, somebody put me on this committee, or I'm doing this in the community, and I just particularly after this past year and the last couple of years, my father passed away, then there was a pandemic. I was already intentional, but I'm even more so intentional now because life can turn on a dime, right? But you're stuck in your house, and I was asking questions about my space. Does this space make me happy? I'm stuck here for nine months, this chair does not make me happy. It has to go.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, it's from really small things to big things, but I think over time it's really first of all given me a sense that I have some control over parts of my life. Even the part that I don't have control over, I have control over who I do those things with, which still gives me that sense of control about being in that space. So, that kind of self-reflection has been so important for me to feel grounded, and hopeful, and like I have agency on a day-to-day basis.

Quinn:

Again, those are all a list of things that I feel like I have written down in some Evernote file to do at some point or to do every week and then I make myself feel guilty that I didn't do them. Whole different therapy session you don't need to be part of. But it matters, and then like you said, it becomes, and I don't want to be so cold about it, but if you sit once a week for however many, 15, 20, 40 weeks in a row and you notice that this meeting is making you unhappy, that's data.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

And now you go oh, that's out of here.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes, absolutely.

Quinn:

But it's so funny, like it's we are so lucky, and again, not everyone is this way by any stretch. I mean, we saw how many folks on factory meat lines were not able to get out of their jobs this year, or did not say like, "I don't want to work with Sam because they're first to process 1,500 pigs an hour or whatever next to whoever and be exposed." But a lot of us do have this choice, and I think like you said, it's we don't always get to choose the people, right? Sometimes it's family and then there's just not getting out of some of that.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

Sometimes, like you say, it's your friend and your writing partner, it's like the friends that you can be amazing friends with and you vacation with them once and you're like, "Oh, we're not doing that again. We can keep being friends every week. It's so great. We're not doing this thing."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

And that's fine, and we're on the same page, that's great. But again, how lucky are we? Because plants don't get to do that. They don't get to go like, "Well, Sam the wildfire, not interested in this guy."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

You can't move. That's it.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Stuck here with you.

Quinn:

Right.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

And maybe you're an annual and you got one shot, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's so true, yes.

Quinn:

We have so much to learn from that, but I do, I appreciate you mentioned very briefly your dad and you mentioned how things like COVID can give us very quick, very sharp perspective, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Whether it's trapped in your house like hate that chair, or loss.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

I have been through it, I understand. It very quickly, again, it seems cliché, but boy, does it actually work this way where everything that isn't important is made clear very quickly.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, absolutely, yes.

Quinn:

And the first page of your book is a dedication to your dad.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

It reads, to the memory of my beloved dad, roots of distinction bear great fruit.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Can you tell me what that means and means to you and what he meant to you?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

My dad, I always say to people, so my dad and I were so similar that my mom would just say she should've named me after him. His name was Will, my mom said, "I should've named you Willemina because you're so much like your dad." So, if my dad and I, our relationship, we danced together, we just had so much fun together, but I always say to people that my dad, he could see me physically harm someone and he would say to the police, "She didn't mean it. Don't take her, she didn't mean that, I know she didn't." He just always saw the best in me.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, it was really quite tragic. He was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and then three and a half weeks later he was gone. So, it was a very kind of rapid thing.

Quinn:

Oh god.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Fortunately, what you just said is true. I traveled a lot pre-COVID and I had several trips. I was going off to Japan, and when we got the diagnosis I canceled everything and I just went to be with family. So, that's a privilege, right? That was a privilege that I was able to do that.

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

But the loss, the thing about loss is it's difficult and you should walk through the grief, but for me it's also a moment for you to reevaluate some things, to think about some things. So, it was a time, it was he passed away in October of 2019, so I was processing that. I had a chance to write an article about him recently when the book came out, about how when he passed I had planted some tulips and kind of forgot about them, and was trying to get back to life. I planted those in November 2019, and then I got back to my travel schedule trying to honor him, because he would always say to us, "You know, you're from my roots, so everything that you do is a reflection of the roots." So you can't be out there spoiled fruit, bad fruit, seeds not germinating.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I tried to get back to my life because I knew that's what he would want, and then COVID hit in March 20. I used to have a really bad carbon footprint. I was on the road all the time. Here I was stuck in the house, my son is in the first year of college, so I'm in the house by myself, and I'm just trying to figure that all out. I walk out one day and the tulips are blooming.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

As they started to grow, and I was taking walks through the neighborhood, and spring, the trees, or the tree's leaves are coming out. I really got this strong sense that plants were going on, even though we were all not figuring it out. It was a strong lesson that despite everything that changes around you, you can sense that change, but you have to figure out how to move forward in your purpose. You have to move forward kind of single-mindedly, recognizing that the change is there, honoring the loss. I love to say we haven't done enough national honoring of the nearly 600,000 Americans who have lost their lives, and you need to grapple with that, and then figure out how you move forward, honoring what the interaction with all of those beings has done.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, for me, I have to move forward with joy and hope, and find a way to dance again because that's what my dad would've wanted. So, I do think that the plants kind of going about their purpose was a daily reminder, you've got to figure this out, how to go about your purpose and bear the fruit that really will be the kind of evidence and legacy of the roots that he has served for as me, served for.

Quinn:

That's amazing. Well, I'm terribly sorry for your loss. Cancer is ... It's just something else. Now, he seemed to use a lot of plant metaphors. Was your dad as well into botany and biology?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, both my parents are, I would say, amateur botanists. So, they grew up in rural Arkansas. Actually, my parents grew up in the Jim Crow South, and they grew up at a time where it was not uncommon for them to be pulled out of school to work in the agricultural field. So, they had that kind of not great history with plants, but they both loved plants. My father worked for years at a bank, and then when we retired he was a vegetable gardener. He didn't sell them or anything but he just grew huge vegetable gardens and would deliver tomatoes and everything to people in the neighborhood. So he really loved plants. My mother also has a beautiful green thumb. So they do, I did kind of grow up with these parents who were connected to plants, even if they weren't the plant scientists in the technical way that I am.

Quinn:

Sure. That's awesome. It is a fascinating and obviously very complex history, but I'm glad that you've found some sort of beauty that you're able to pass onto it. Now, what about this feral teenager that's been trapped at home with you? Does the plant life extend to him? How does this part of him, and I guess how do these lessons that you've picked up this year and over the past two years and all this mentorship, how does that apply to your relationship and how you're doing to try to raise him as he goes off into the brave world?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah. There are certain things that I've learned from plants that has really impacted the ways in which I think about engaging with them. Sometimes I go to the default. As parents, we want to mold and kind of we almost want to treat our kids like topiaries, right? We want to just prune them until they look exactly how we.

Quinn:

I'm very bad at that.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

I have tried to understand that he has his own kind of agency, but one of the things we did, and I did write about this in the book. When he was not quite one we bought a tree and planted it, and said, "This is your tree." We have used that as a touchpoint. He hasn't shown the greatest, and he'll help me plant some things. I think it's more to hang out with me, but he doesn't show his own kind of connection with wanting to grow plants, but that tree he has watched over the years. Just he was home for the Christmas break and he was looking at it, he's like, "I'm taller than the tree now." So we've had these lessons over the years where we watch its growth. There was a few years that it wasn't growing, and we figured out something was going on, and it had a disease that needed to be treated, and he himself reflected on how plants have this great healing power. He was like, "Do we have that kind of healing power?" And I was like, "We do." I was like, you know something.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, it's funny how he will touch on plants, and when he was young the cutest thing, he realized how fascinated I was with plants and he would tell his friends, "Go over there and ask mom to explain photosynthesis." And I would get all excited, and then they'd all laugh, right? Because it's a joke. So, I think he uses is at a way to connect with me, which I find gracious and loving.

Quinn:

Sure, sure. I mean, that's what my children do but with action figures, so I'm glad that yours is much more productive.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

They figure out how to get you going.

Quinn:

Oh god. I know. My poor wife looks at my oldest and just sees a little copy of me, and I think she's just like, "Great. That's all we need, more of that."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Two of you.

Quinn:

Yeah, perfect. We are in this, and I imagine you see this quite a lot with the work you were doing with living things in the ground. We are in this climate crisis, right? We are coming out of, starting to come out of COVID, at least the way we've experienced it so far, right? This thing is going to be with us in a number of different ways for a long time. We've got just massive inequality, right? We've got this desperate need for environmental justice in a 1,000 ways. We need better jobs, cleaner air, and more affordable water, and we need a health system that is proactive and focused on communities and wellness. So, I read this section. Again, it blew my mind in isolation but also as I'm continually trying to find ways to home this philosophy of how we can all work better together. It's a few different pieces here.

Quinn:

You said, "Plants forge collaborative relationships, not only with other plants, but with groups ranging from ..." Is it fungi or fungi? I'm the worst.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Both of them are. Yeah, people use ... Yeah.

Quinn:

Perfect. That's what I'm looking for, is both. "From fungi or fungi, to bacteria to insects." And then later you said, this is just so wild to me, "When the leaves of corn plants are attacked by a butterfly or a moth larva, the plant releases a chemical that attracts a parasitic wasp, a natural predator, of the larva. The attracted wasps feed on the larvae and prevent them from damaging the corn plant." We could stop there, that's crazy, but this last little bit, which was much later but connects, and again, it's sort of this thesis which is the greatest and most enduring lesson is understanding that each individual in a community brings particular skills and has the potential to offer unique contributions. We are in this moment again where we clearly need every hand on deck on there, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

In this moment all I get, because we don't just do climate. I talk to plant ladies like yourself, I talk to cancer people, whatever it might be, ocean, COVID, and no matter what it is, we get these questions of, what can I do?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Right? Or it's emphasized, what can I.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Quinn:

But it's endless, it's from Uber drivers, to listeners, to readers, to parents, and the best response, which is simple, but it continues the conversation I think in proactive way, is but what can you do, Beronda? And obviously there's a different bunch of concentric things we can bring into that, but that's my go-to reply because everyone has these unique skills, whether you've realized it or not, whether they're at your job or it's something you learned about in seventh grade, or it's something you care about, or brings you joy but don't do as a job, or it's your lived experiences that are entirely different from mine, which is something I try to emphasize, especially with this show because I'm about as privileged as you can get in history. But our goal is to provide specific action steps, right? Our listeners can take.

Quinn:

So, not only with their jobs and their dreams, but also with their voice and their dollar, right? Because we can take these personal actions every day, right? We can tweet, we can create in art and things like that, and they're great, and they can add up to great change, they also make you feel good, but when I talk about a voice, it's also recognizing that probably the greatest, in a data driven way, probably the greatest levers we can take are these things that really work on the systemic change, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

So, I'm curious what your thoughts are on the big but actionable and specific questions we should be asking of our representatives and of people that want to be in office, the people who can actually make that systemic change, whether it's your school board, or your state representatives, or on the federal level, if you've thought about that at all or whether we could work on that.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, I've thought about that because I think it can happen at so many levels, right? So, I happen to be in a neighborhood association, and that's an association.

Quinn:

Of course you are. Why not?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

There are very small ones, all the way up to Congress. But one of the things I hope, I hope there are so many lessons we will take from having been in this pandemic, but I think the pandemic, apart from the public health lessons, it's offered us some real kind of things to chew on to think about some of these things. So, I think if we look at the pandemic, the ways in which it happened so quickly, right? The virus emerged and we had to respond to it. The pandemic on some level is not different from climate change. Climate change is just stretched out on a time scale so we don't feel that same urgency. But I think what we learned in this moment-

Quinn:

Well, some of us don't.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Some us don't feel that same urgency.

Quinn:

People like me don't. Indonesia is moving their capital, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

That's right.

Quinn:

And people in the front lines in Brooklyn or Louisiana who are already talking about walking away from that land.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes, yeah.

Quinn:

So, I just want to be aware that-

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, that's true. There are some of us who don't, some who do.

Quinn:

Right.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

But I think more of us could if we ... This, we couldn't ignore this because it was so-

Quinn:

Of course not.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

... condensed within a time. Climate change is as important, if not more so, but we don't have that same kind of in our face urgency.

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

I think that what the lesson about the parasitic wasp that come in to attack the pest of the plant, any other example that you use, there are a few things that emerge from that to me. One, you have to recognize that there is a problem, right? So, you have to be aware, you have to not just be so focused on yourself and your own needs, but looking around to recognize not only when things are going well, which we love to do, but recognizing when people around you, when the plants around you, when the ecosystem around you is showing some kind of sign of stress. Then the way that that parasitic wasp comes in is that the plant speaks. It sends out a signal that it needs help. I think the reason I like to really point that one out, we often underestimate the power of that. When we think about any problem, COVID, climate change, we want to be the ones producing the vaccine, or we want to be the one who has the engineering solutions that remove carbon dioxide from the air, but the voice to speak, to say that there is a problem and the person who has the capability to come in with the engineering to change it is as critical.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, that's one of the things that I really like to impress upon people, is that if you're the kind of person who can talk about an issue with groups of people, you're speaking and amplifying the problem, that is so important. I think too frequently we don't value that enough and people who have the connections with individuals who could help maybe give money, or help find the scientists or the engineer, they don't value their role enough and we don't value their role enough, and I think that's one of the most critical ones.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It's one of the reasons I wrote this book. I think often we think I am very committed to equity, and people would say, "What's your training?" And I say, "Well, my training is as a plant scientist." And they're like, "That is not going to help us with equity." But share-

Quinn:

Right, but you're also a black woman in academia. It's like-

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

I am.

Quinn:

... you have receipts.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

But I also think that even the plant knowledge itself, right? Is something that ... And so, I really think for people to think about what is their lived experience, what's their personal experience, that that's what really resonates with people when you're talking about something from a personal passionate experience. So, I think really getting people to speak up. I think often we were talking before about the big philanthropists who give millions of dollars and they're in the news, but there are some weeks where I say to my son, "We're not having any Starbucks lattes this week. Whatever we would've spent on that we're going to look around our community and find someone who needs help, and that's what we're going to do."

Quinn:

Sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I think we also have to think about the small ways, the voice we have, the small ways we can give, even if what you're giving is showing up to hand out water to someone because you don't have the voice to do something else. That's one of the things I'd really like to get people to think about, is if you look at an issue, let's say it's voting, what happens for us to increase voter registration? It's not just being Stacey Abrams, it's the people who are knocking on doors, it's the people who are putting. So, I really like for people, whatever issue they're interested in, to study it from top to bottom. Ask what goes into that and don't just focus on what the big things are that have to be done, but whether you can show up and clean up a parking lot after an issue, if you can show up to march. So, I think that's what's really important, is teasing apart everything that goes into an ecosystem of an issue and asking which parts of that can I contribute to, because I think too frequently we feel that we have to offer is too small or not as impactful, or we're not the ones on the front page, but none of those things happen, Stacey Abrams can't get her work done without an army of people behind the scenes.

Quinn:

Of course, yeah.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

And we have to be willing to be in that army as well as if we have the gifts and skills, to be the one of the stage.

Quinn:

Yeah, and it's so important, and I feel like I have that ... Thank you for sharing all that. I mean, you're just the most well-considered person. It's not just hey, what are your skills, right? Not just what can you do, it's what are you comfortable with?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Recognizing that, again, from a lot of different levels, maybe someone doesn't have time to, or they work 18 hours, or they drive a truck, or whatever it might be, and their answer might just like smash this button and donate two dollars if you can do it.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Quinn:

Or it might be one of my good friends, all he wants to do is help, as much as he can. He already does so much with his job, but it's like go knock on doors. Not comfortable with that. All right, what about phone calls? By the way, three quarters of the time you get, nobody picks up, right? So, you can just bank it and leave a message. Great, you don't even have to interact with people, and it's like pure anxiety. I'm like, "Great, you know what you can do because it's 2021? Texting."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes, yes.

Quinn:

There's text banks, and that's where you see. After the Georgia election, or I'm in Virginia, what's happened in the past 10 years, you don't get at the end when the director, when your Stacey Abrams says, "Our youth texted 700,000 people." Whatever, you don't get that by one person at the top by Stacey doing it, or whoever it might be, it's everybody. You can do it from your couch, in your sweatpants, with your plants, whatever you want.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely.

Quinn:

There are so many different ways to do that thing, so it's asking like what are your values and what do you care about.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Again, on a local level. No one's asking you to go to city council and bang on the gavel and make a speech. If you can and you're up for it, let's go.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

I'll drive you there, but like you said, someone's got to pick up the trash after that event so that you can leave a good footprint, and you can show that this is what we do and who we are and that matters.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Absolutely, absolutely.

Quinn:

What about, if you have any specific suggestions for what someone can do with their dollar, are there any organizations that you really love and you believe in, supporting whether it's locally, or nationally, or whatever it might be, where people can contribute in some way? Because again, that's the way, whether it's on a big level or a small level, the way some people like to support. They like to look at it and go like, "I'm such a big fan of this person's work. How do I support that?" Or, "I really care about this thing, who is effective that they love?"

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

One of the things that I do really recommend that people do, whether it's a national disaster, or if it was in the middle of the voter registration, or Black Lives Matter, I think too frequently what we do is give to the Red Cross, the National Red Cross. I'm not saying you shouldn't give to the national organizations.

Quinn:

For sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

But local organizations are suffering. So, one of the things that I love to do when there is ever any issue that's come up, it's to look locally for people who are doing that work and try to figure out how I can give to them locally. I think that too many of us, I think about the millions of dollars that went into the red cross, and the national Black Lives Matter, and they'll do good money, do good work with that, but the local organizers, many of the local organizers are the ones who are working 40 hour a week jobs or two jobs and still volunteering that work. So, part of that is reaching out to your local organization, city council to find out who's doing that kind of work, but that's where I always go first. Local food banks, local organizers to really try to support that on the ground work in your own community.

Quinn:

I love that very much because we talk a lot about, and again, I try as humbly and in listening ways I can to bring in these lived experiences that are very different than mine, and it's so important that we pass legislation on the federal level that we fix water pipes, and we fix hunger, and this like that, you have to feed people today.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

And that's where groups like Feeding America, or like you said, your local Black Lives Matter, the person who is working 40 hours at the place down the street or at the restaurant, whatever it might be, and then volunteering the rest of the time, we have to support those here because climate, or COVID, or water, or hunger, whatever, it is inherently such a local thing.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

We have this problem in the climate movement, which never ends, and I think a lot of it, a lot of it, not all of it, comes from good intentions, which is like personal actions are bullshit, they're not going to move the thing, or systemic actions don't matter because it's not part of your everyday life and it's never going to happen, it's too theoretical. I think a lot of it comes from folks who've just had a history of working on it for a long time and feel scarred that nothing has happened, which I understand. It's like hey, we only have so much energy, focus it on these things. A lot of it comes from look, we know that these companies have been green washing, for lack of a better word, for 50 years. We have emails, and receipts and letters.

Quinn:

They have been lying to you, planting a garden isn't going to put those companies out of business and make them stop polluting your neighborhood. But what I have realized and tried to lean towards as folks have told me, because all I ask for feedback all the time, is people really want this sort of portfolio of actions, or what are the things I can do in my day-to-day that make me feel attached to this thing personally and in my neighborhood association, or my school board, or a city council, running for office, whatever it might be, because it does happen on a day-to-day. The air you're trying to breathe is the air in your neighborhood.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Whether it's from a postal truck, or a school bus, or highways, right? Federal legislation will help. Buying a bunch of electric US Postal, these sort of things are going to help, your school board can't do that. You feel it on a day-to-day level, right? So, what I've realized is trying to help point people in the direction of pull the systemic levers, call your congresspeople as much as you can, and insist on this, and march but also do these things, because sure, there's definitely moments and applications where one precludes the other or people go, "Look, I only have enough energy, Beronda, for one of these things. I don't have time, I don't have money." But I find that people become most invested, I guess, by giving them the spectrum of things. So, I appreciate your-

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

No, I agree, and I think you need-

Quinn:

... perspective on that.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, you need all of those things. The one other thing I would add is trust the young people and find the young people. I think about, I'm here in Michigan less than hour away from Flint.

Quinn:

Yeah.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

And they're kind of this legislation to fix that issue with a pen stroke, and yet Little Miss Flint, I forget her name, Little Miss Flint has been on the case, right?

Quinn:

Yeah.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I look on our campus, some of the biggest changes we've seen on our campus are when the students organize. So, I've learned to follow the young people as well and see where they are, and ask them what do they need, because sometimes they don't have the resources but they have the voice and the energy, so I think that's critical too.

Quinn:

Yeah. I mean, and a lot of the times I get, and I'm technically not that old, I feel a 1,000 but I feel even older, I feel like, I don't know if you've watched Indiana Jones, but in the Last Crusade when he goes and finds the knight who then just falls over when Indiana Jones. That's where I am at this point at the end of every day, of thank god you've come. Never more so, and in the most endearing way, when you talk to some of these younger people, and I'm like, "What do you need?" They're like, "Give us money and get out of the way." Okay. I mean, thank you, but also okay. Sure, great, and it's the same way. We talked to, we've made an effort. I'm a pagan atheist monster, but I was a religion major at a liberal arts school. So, we've made an effort to really talk to reverends and folks like that, or Hindu leaders and Buddhist leaders who are involved in environmental stuff and often their answer when I say, "What are the specific action steps are?" Give us money to do our thing because you're not the right messenger. And that's true, because the messenger really matters.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

So, there is no ... I try to come at it as humbly as I can, which is just like no, I don't care, but what is the thing that's going to make you most effective and move this needle? So I appreciate that. Like you said, it's the young people that ... Man, I get so offended when people are like, "Young people don't want to work hard." I'm like, "Ah."

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Have you seen them?

Quinn:

What are you talking about? This is crazy.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

All right, Beronda. I have kept you for long enough. Last couple questions and I'm going to let you go back to whatever your 400 jobs are today. Beronda, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I'm laughing. I have to give you two quick ones. So, the first one, I didn't understand my full power. At four and a half I started kindergarten and tried to have a crusade that I should be able to read to the class and I got a teacher, this was her first job out of college, and I said to her, "I should be able to read to the class." And she said, "No, that'll discourage the other kids." I said, "This would empower them, I think."

Quinn:

Sure, yeah.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

And she refused. I told her, I said, "You're the worst teacher I've ever had." And she started crying, and I realized the ... I said to her, "I'm so sorry." I said, "If I were you, I wouldn't let a four-year-old make me cry." But I realized then the power of words, and I really tried not to. I'm serious, I was just devastated for weeks my mom said about how I hurt her feelings. But I think in college I got involved in some organizing over some decisions that were being made about curriculum. We did some sit-ins and all of that, and I realized then the power of voice in community, because it was a collective of us. So, I think over the years I've realized the power of speaking up, but it was as a teen, early 20s, the power of the collective became really critical to me. So, I've always tried to kind of guard the ways in which I build trust with my own voice but then also ask, who do I need to be in community and conversation with? Because that's when real power for change comes, I think.

Quinn:

Sure, sure.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

That's helpful, and that poor teacher, I mean.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

I know, they shouldn't have done that to her.

Quinn:

I mean, my daughter, they're still doing Los Angeles public school remotely, we haven't gone back for a 1,000 reasons, but her teacher is a first year trying to do kindergarten remotely.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Oh my, bless her heart.

Quinn:

During COVID for her first year, and some parents would get frustrated. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, so I'm just like, "You got to give this lady a minute." Are you kidding me? Kindergarten, hard enough, are you serious? I coach enough youth sports and swim lessons and things like that. That's awful, but if a kid doesn't listen in swim lessons, they just drown, you can hold that over them. Kindergarten, hard enough, over a computer. I watched this poor woman, a kid just literally walks away. What can she do? She can't do anything.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

No, I know. My friend has a kindergartner who keeps turning off the video, and her mom's like, "You can't turn off the video." She said, "I need a break."

Quinn:

And I empathize, I get it. No one is supposed to be on these computers that long.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah.

Quinn:

But these poor teachers, I mean.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

No, those teachers, I tell you, I tell you.

Quinn:

Oh my god. All right, Beronda, let's pay it forward here. Who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Ooh, in the past six months.

Quinn:

You can't say a plant, it's got to be a person, Beronda.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, that's a easier one than I might've imagined. So, I didn't even intend to write this book. My acquisitions editor had a conversation with me after I gave a talk at a conference, and one of the people at the press has just been so influential because I've been in this moment of trying to balance working from home with all the requests that are coming in, including the one to write this article about my dad, and I said to her, "I can't do it." And she said, "You have to do it." So, that kind of spirit. First of all, there are not a lot of people who are bold enough to tell me I have to do anything. So, for her to say, "You have to do it." She's like, "This story is important." I think that the reason that impacted me is that I think so many more of us need to do that for each other, particularly in this moment where many of us are tired, we're overwhelmed, some of us are sad and depressed.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It's been a long run, but I think sometimes the question is not whether the person can do something, but if you know they have the ability. What she said to me is, "What would make it possible for you to do it?" And that was so influential to me, because that's something I can do for other people, is to say, "This is something you need to do. What can I do to make it possible for you to do this thing?"

Quinn:

That's so practical.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Quinn:

Yeah.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, that was just a few months ago, and that has stuck with me in so many ways because sometimes the thing that someone needs is for you to order them dinner, right? Which is easy to do. So, I have really taken that perspective into my relationships to try to say not how are you doing, but what's going on with you and what is it I can do to make the things you need to do possible? So, that was really influential for me.

Quinn:

It's so practical, right?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

It's taking this you can do it to that. My sister-in-law, who not surprisingly considering this is a therapist, and married to my brother-in-law, once told me, just sort of innocuous, one of the main keys to marriage is just asking, "How can I help?"

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

And just how far that goes.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, yes. Yeah.

Quinn:

It can be helpful. So, I try to use that. Nobody listens to me anyways, but I try. I try.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

No, I think that can be really powerful, so.

Quinn:

Beronda, what is self-care? What are we doing to take care of ourself despite all of these things going on?

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah, so I had a really robust pre-COVID self-care. I'm serious about my self-care.

Quinn:

I can tell.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

I was is Zumba classes three times a week, at the spa, having lunch with friends. So, now in the middle of COVID self-care has been using Zoom for good.

Quinn:

Okay.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

So, I have a couple of college friends. Once a month we have a happy virtual hour. Taking walks, just getting away from the computer and going out to look at take a walk in nature is really important, but also spending time however that is, whether it's on the phone or virtually with family has been really important for me in this moment. I think as there's so many people have lost so many. My mom lost two brothers. There's been so much loss. Self-care has been really making sure that I'm connected with the people who if I'm in the hospital on a ventilator, they're the ones who are checking on me. I think too frequently we put our time and energy in workspaces, and other spaces, and the people who care the most about us get the least of us, and the last of us. I've been trying to flip that. So, self-care has really been about that.

Quinn:

I love that, and that last little bit about the people who we love the most and who love us get the least of us because of this American way we've dialed of-

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

... work and expectations, and it's so true. I mean, I try not to go home to my kids with the last of my energy.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Because it's not fair to them for them to be tired and for me to be tired and cranky. I want to give them something.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

I appreciate, that's living with direction, this self-reflection.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Last one. What is a book you've read this year that's opened your mind to something you hadn't considered or changed your thinking in some way? We've got a whole list of recommendations on Bookshop, so.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yeah. So, I've done a lot of reading this year and attended a lot of book events, but one of the books that has really just stuck with me is Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry. So, she's a professor at Princeton. She's the mom of two African American males and she wrote this letter to them about everything, about how to find joy, even when there is other things going on, but she says something in the book that has really impacted me. She said that awareness is not in and of itself a virtue. That awareness has to be coupled with the moral imperative. I think that fits to what you were saying about how you like to talk about action, and I think a lot of us have had an awareness about so many things in this past year, whether it's public health, or Black Lives Matter, or whatever number of issues, climate change, but awareness in the absence of a moral imperative is not going to get us where we want to be. So, the book itself is brilliant, but she has a couple of nuggets in there like that that are just life principles that really deeply impacted me.

Quinn:

I love that. That's fantastic. Thank you for sharing. We'll throw that on the list and I will add that to my list of books that just keep piling up, that I'm trying to make my way through.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

It's a good problem to have.

Quinn:

I know, it could be worse. Like I tell my wife, my vices could be much worse than this, clearly, you know? It supports small bookshops.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Beronda, where can our listeners follow you online, should you choose to go that way? You can feel free to-

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Sure, yeah. So, I'm on Twitter @Berondam. I'm on Instagram @Beronda_M, and I have a website, berondamontgomery.com where I drop blog posts every once in a while, so.

Quinn:

Beautiful.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Yes.

Quinn:

Well listen, thank you Dr. Montgomery for your time and your expertise, and your life lessons here. I feel like a changed human. Thank you again. Again, the book is tremendous. It's gorgeous, it's so thoughtful. Again, there is 10,000 little things that I have underlined where I just have like WTF written next to them because it's just like, what are you talking about? How is that possible? Anyways folks, Lessons from Plants is out there, Beronda Montgomery. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery:

Thanks. This was an absolute pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.

Quinn:

Thanks to our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dish washing, or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news, most vital to our survival as a species.

Brian:

And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @importantnotimp. It's just so weird. Also on Facebook and Instagram, @importantnotimportant, Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So, check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. Please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. And if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts to keep the lights on. Thanks.

Quinn:

Please.

Brian:

And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, importantnotimportant.com.

Quinn:

Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.

Brian:

Thanks guys.