Event Details

For the past two years, a garden exhibition “Seeds of Survival and Celebration: Plants and the Black Experience” at Cornell Botanic Gardens has been sharing the knowledge, skill, and resilience of enslaved Africans, their descendants, and today’s Black community and their deep connections to plants, the cuisines they inspired, and the medicines that healed them. 

Join us for a webinar featuring the creators of the exhibition to learn how enslaved Africans used their culinary skills and plants that came with them from West Africa and new plants available to them in the Americas to prepare foods—Many of which became regional staples and are part of the culinary and cultural heritage in America today. Enslaved Africans also brought and applied their knowledge and uses of plants as medicines. Panelists will discuss some of the plants grown and used by enslaved Africans in the Americas such as black-eyed pea, okra, collard greens, watermelon, and more. Turning to contemporary plant connections, panelists will also discuss and show the “Cultivators of Celebration,” which is a display within the exhibition that celebrates people who continue to safeguard and elevate the rich heritage associated with the plants showcased in the exhibition. 

Event Details:
DATE: Monday, February 26, 2024
TIME: 7:00 p.m. ET
LOCATION: Online Zoom Event | Zoom link here. Passcode:445718


  • Kofi Acree, Director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, Africana Center, Exhibit Advisor
  • Dr. Christopher P. Dunn, PhD, The Elizabeth Newman Wilds Executive Director of Cornell Botanic Gardens
  • Sarah Fiorello ’98, MPS ’17, Interpretation Coordinator, Cornell Botanic Gardens, Lead Exhibit Designer
  • Kamillah Knight ’13, MPA’15, MBA’22, Vice-President of Programming, Cornell Black Alumni Association (CBAA)
  • John Rawlins III ’06, President, Cornell Black Alumni Association (CBAA)
  • Sonja Skelly, Director of Education, Cornell Botanic Gardens and Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section
  • Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, Mental Health Promotion Program Director (retired), Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health, Cornell University
  • Jakara Zellner ’24, Learning by Leading Co-Leader, Exhibit Advisor

About the speakers:

Mwalimu Kofi Acree is the Director for the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and Curator of Africana Collections for the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. He provides leadership for the Clarke Africana Library as well as advancement strategies for student and faculty learning and development of library collections in support of educational research related to our rare and distinctive collections in African and the African diaspora.

Dr. Christopher Dunn became The Elizabeth Newman Wilds Executive Director of Cornell Botanic Gardens in 2014. He is also an adjunct associate professor in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section) and a faculty fellow in the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Prior to coming to Cornell, Dr. Dunn was Director of the Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawaii.  He previously served as Executive Director for Research at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where he managed one of the largest botanic garden research programs in the country, and as Director of Research at The Morton Arboretum.

Dr. Dunn is a botanist and conservation ecologist who has considerable research experience studying the relationships between people and places, and human impacts on the landscape.  Recently, he has been focusing his work on the intersection of biological and cultural conservation.  

He is presently serving on the boards of several organizations that are working to preserve the world’s biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature–U.S., the Center for Plant Conservation, and Terralingua.  He is also active in the American Public Gardens Association (for which he served as President) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International.  He holds adjunct faculty status at Northwestern University, the University of Illinois–Chicago, and at the University of Hawaii.  

Dr. Dunn completed his undergraduate training at SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry, Syracuse University, and his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, followed by three years of postdoctoral studies at the University of Georgia.

Sarah Fiorello 98, MPS 17, as an interpretation coordinator at Cornell Botanic Gardens, Sarah is responsible for creating and updating the garden’s’ interpretive master plan as well as planning, writing, and coordinating the design and installation of all interpretive materials. Working with botanic gardens staff and advisory group to co-create the “Seeds of Survival and Celebration” exhibit has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in her career.

Kamillah Knight ’13, MPA ’15, MBA ’22

, graduated from Cornell with degrees from Arts and Sciences, the Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, and the Johnson Graduate School of Management in 2013, 2015, and 2022. Committed to a mission of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in both her professional and volunteer endeavors, Kamillah works with a myriad of Cornell organizations: the Cornell Black Alumni Association, Cornell Association of Class Officers, Cornell Campaign Cabinet, Cornell University Council, Johnson Recent Alumni Council, Mosaic Members at Large, the Class of 2013, Cornell Advocacy Program, Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network, and Johnson Leadership Council on Combatting Racism and Promoting DEIB.

John Rawlins III ’06 (he/him/his) is a Diversity & Inclusion/Student Affairs professional with almost 20 years of experience as an administrator and advocate for students, more specifically students of color. John is a native of the Washington, DC Metropolitan area and earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University and his Master of Arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University. John lives in San Diego, CA, where he is a Campus Diversity Officer and Director of the Black Resource Center at the University of California San Diego. 

John holds memberships with NASPA, ASCAP, and is a Life Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He is the current President/CEO of the Cornell Black Alumni Association and serves on several alumni boards for the institution. John is also a Gospel recording artist and vocalist who has performed on national and international stages alike. He has been honored to share the stage and sing with artists such as Grammy winners jazz icon Wynton Marsalis and Gospel legend Kirk Franklin. He currently serves as a worship leader and music ministry leader at the Bayview Church San Diego.

Sonja Skelly, PhD is the Director of Education and Academic Initiatives for Cornell Botanic Gardens and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Horticulture in the School of Integrated Plant Sciences.

Sonja provides leadership for the gardens’ education and visitor services programs. She teaches classes on public garden management, plants and human well-being and directs Cornell’s Masters of Professional Studies program in Public Garden Leadership. Sonja is an educator who works with plants, nature, and gardens to help people foster a deeper connection to plants. She is interested in the conservation of nature and using education, for learners of all ages, to protect nature.   

Sonja has been with Cornell Botanic Gardens since 2002. Prior to joining to Cornell, she worked with Walt Disney World, the EPCOT Flower and Garden Festival, and the University of Florida on a statewide school gardening initiative and was an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University. Sonja has a Ph.D. in Environmental Horticulture from the University of Florida and earned her Master of Science in Horticulture and Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology at Texas A&M University. 

Catherine Thrasher-Carroll was the Mental Health Promotion Program Director Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health, Cornell University.
In her role as Cornell Health’s mental health promotion program director before she retired, Catherine worked to impact multiple levels of influence regarding campus mental health and well-being. As the lead for Cornell Health’s clinical application of NatureRx, being able to highlight safe, beautiful natural areas for walking/running/hiking, sitting/meditating/ bird watching and exploring various gardens and other plant life has made it easier for our medical and mental health providers to actually prescribe nature to campus community members. Cornell Botanic Gardens is a natural partner and perfect “fit” for upstream, prevention approaches to student, staff, and faculty mental health and well-being. Additionally, as a person of color who is an avid outdoors lover, Catherine feels it is important that we extend the invitation to the outdoors to our students of color, many of whom have not yet been exposed to the beauty, wonder, and health benefits provided by nature.


Jakara Zellner ’24, is a Sociology major in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University with a focus on Health Equity. As the Education Program Assistant for Cornell Botanic Gardens and a member of the Learning by Leading Garden Ambassador team, she curated the Cultivators of Celebration display as part of the Seeds of Survival and Celebration exhibit to amplify the work of individuals who skillfully balance the arduous and celebratory narratives of these plants.

Registration Questions? Contact Lizeth Jaimez
Event Questions? Contact Veronica McFall