Erika Rumbley '03 is currently the director of horticulture at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and co-founder of The New Garden Society, a nonprofit that trains incarcerated students in the art of growing things.
Erika Rumbley ’03 knows the importance of finding and building community wherever you go. As a Country Day lifer, she found joy and lasting friendships with Bucs in the theater and arts programs. At Vassar, she enjoyed an “academically rigorous environment that also made space for the joyful and weird.” It was there that Erika learned to “appreciate the openness to interdisciplinary research, which led her to dances made from agricultural gestures, community organizing in urban green spaces and ultimately to working directly with plants.” Erika is currently the director of horticulture at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and co-founder of The New Garden Society, a nonprofit that trains incarcerated students in the art of growing things.
WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT THE GARDNER?
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is sometimes described as “an inside-out Venetian palace.” Before working there, Erika visited the museum as a place of solace and respite. “It’s a dense collage of paintings, furniture, textiles and objects from different cultures and periods among them are well-known European paintings and sculpture.” Her team grows and installs floral displays in the museum’s central atrium. From orchids in January to November’s ‘Kiku’ (mums meticulously pruned in a Japanese tradition), they grow impossible, otherworldly, flowering gardens at the center of the museum 365 days a year.
I would suggest that when things are overwhelming, go outside, feel the sun and do something tangible. I’d also tell my younger self that the injustices that she is beginning to uncover will require many of us, working over many years to undo.
WHAT LED YOU TO CO-FOUND THE NEW GARDEN SOCIETY?
Erika always dreamed about growing plants with a purpose to bring people joy. Her nonprofit helps make that a reality. “The New Garden Society brings landscapers, horticulturists and farmers together with incarcerated gardeners to transform landscapes in Boston prisons and jails. She started the work in 2013 with Renée Portanova because incarcerated people in Greater-Boston were requesting access to gardens and horticulture classes. To date, they have trained over 500 incarcerated students in the art and science of plants. Adult students go to the garden for lots of reasons- to build skills for a future career, to find stress relief, to expand their access to fresh vegetables, to be outside more. Prison gardens are one small intervention to reduce the harm of mass incarceration, but we need a wide range of strategies to heal the violence inflicted disproportionately on our neighbors of color and lqbtq neighbors.”
Country Day Influence
It was due to Chris Gawle’s Environmental Science class that Erika “drastically changed her world view to include climate change and non-human life in an urgent way.” Country Day also taught her how to take effective notes. Erika said, “this may sound small, but this skill helps me listen and take a more facilitative, collaborative approach to working in groups.” It’s those skills that will help her reach the goal of raising $35k this year. That would allow The New Garden Society to teach in three state prisons, one city jail, and one youth facility. By working in pre-release and reentry facilities Erika hopes to help people “land as softly as they can.”
When not toiling in the soil, the pandemic has provided ample opportunities for Erika to enjoy walks with her spouse, Jonna Iacono, and their poodle. She said, “I love being outside, noticing the incremental signs of the seasons changing and slowing our pace.”
The work of the New Garden Society has been primarily supported by individual donors and Green Industry businesses. To learn more about the organization, visit The New Garden Society.