"I am part of change"
Jacquie Felix-Mitchell is a professional garden designer, a dual member of Wellswood Afternoon WI and Buckfastleigh WI (Devon Federation) and writer of the My WI gardening blog ‘Diary of a Devonshire Daisy’. We caught up with her for her thoughts on Black History Month.
Credit: Emma Stoner
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a qualified garden designer and have worked on projects both large and small. I also give talks on garden design and other topics, and I really enjoy it.
I live in Devon and very much enjoy the countryside. I write a gardening blog for My WI called Diary of a Devonshire Daisy,’ which is lovely, but it immediately makes me think of a white lady. There’s a picture of me on the blog now and it's about getting the visibility out there so people see that this is a blog about gardening and it happens to be a black woman. And then it becomes normal to see different people.
Garden design is quite homogenous; I’m well aware that the type of person people think of as a garden designer isn't necessarily me. It was quite a concern to hear people in my industry saying, ‘How do we engage Black people in gardening?’ One person in my industry recently said they thought Black people weren’t interested in gardening because it reminds them of slavery: what a load of tosh.
A lot of the Black West Indians who came to England were rural poor since the affluent ones had no need to go to another country. Growing vegetables was part of their tradition because that’s what people from the countryside do, irrespective of where you come from. It’s not so much that they don’t want to garden nowadays – it’s just that not everyone has access to a garden.
Before this, I had an interesting career in PR and communications. As a West Country girl, moving up to London was a bit of a shock. I've also worked in advertising and was a radio presenter for the BBC. I'm really proud of the fact that I went to university at a time when it was both unusual and challenging for children of immigrants to get so far with their education. Whilst there continue to be challenges for people of colour, I like to turn these into opportunities for engagement.
I've recently moved from the Coast to the Moors. It's a great place to be and I am loving my new community. I've met up with my new local WI in Buckfastleigh and am looking forward to getting to know them all more.
Q: Which Black women inspire you?
This is easy. My mum was my inspiration. She came to England from Jamaica in her twenties in response to the call of ‘Your motherland needs you,’ with nothing but a small suitcase. She worked extremely hard, along with my stepdad, to raise four children. She was so very positive, even in the face of adversity. I loved and adored her and wish I had shown my admiration for her more when she was alive.
My biological dad was also from Jamaica and my stepdad was from Dominica. That’s why I planted a Washingtonia robusta palm, native to the Caribbean, in my garden – I like its strong architectural lines, it's so bold and interesting, and in South Devon, we have a very warm climate; Torquay, where I lived for many years, is often referred to as The English Riviera. I liked the way that it celebrated me, being very much English, but also Black. I think it’s important to celebrate those parts of you.
Q: For Black History Month in 2020, what’s an area of history you’d like to see highlighted?
The real role of Black people in British history needs to be taught in school. How many people know, for example, that Black people fought in not only World War One, but World War Two as well, to support the allied effort? People need to understand how Black people have been treated in negative ways for hundreds of years. They need to have the opportunity to hear the many positive examples of what many great and unknown people of colour have done and achieved. Our schools need to start addressing this imbalance.
I would be happy to play my part by talking to others about my life and my achievements. I feel I'm part of change: my whole life is change, the fact that I’m here, the fact that I’ve gone from working class to middle class, the fact that I do not live in an urban area and I feel that I can live anywhere I want to. Why shouldn't I?
Q: What change would you most like to see in UK society in the future?
I was once talking to a white lady about Black Lives Matter and I said, ‘You know, if I go into a department store, I get followed around the shop.’ She gasped and said, ‘You don’t!’ But it’s quite common. Sometimes I’ll say, sotto voce, ‘Oh, they think I'm going to steal something,’ because they're not even subtle about it. And other times I use my theatrical training and start talking to myself: ‘Oh, well, this dress is quite nice, I wonder if I should try it on?" It’s a way of saying, don't worry, I'm not going to steal it. The woman I was talking to said, ‘I can’t imagine that,’ and I said, ‘Well, why would you?’
But at the same time, you've got to live your life and try not to get hung up on everything. What you have to remember is if someone has an issue with people who are Black or gay or disabled or whatever it might be, the problem lies with the person with the problem, doesn’t it? Some people do not realise that their questionable viewpoints are ingrained. Racism isn’t just the individual who thinks, ‘Let me hang onto my handbag, I can see a Black person walking towards me!’ It's a sum of the parts of what people have been taught, subliminally and otherwise.
I would like to see people of colour represented at all levels throughout society, in industry and the professions. As a former Board Member for the Westcountry Housing Association, I would like to see more diverse board members. I would like to see Black people recognised throughout the year, not just in Black History Month. Fairer representation for all will lead to a more balanced, inclusive society, and that can only be a good thing for everyone.
This Q&A has been collated from Jacquie’s written answers and an interview she gave to WI Life, appearing in the October 2020 issue, which you can read in full here https://www.thewi.org.uk/wienterprises/look-inside.
If you are a WI member, why not take a look at Jacquie's gardening blog over on My WI https://mywi.thewi.org.uk/interests/floral-art-and-gardening/diary-of-a-devonshire-daisy.
To find out more about Jacquie’s garden design work or book her for virtual or in-person talks, see details below: