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Sad update, Sept. 15: Looks like Assata has died. RIP.
Walking by the stretch of North Broad Street that a few hours later her team would photograph as it erupted in chaos, boiling over during the first day of anti-racism protests in a pandemic-mangled Philadelphia, Danese Kenon was grateful for the opportunity to turn her focus to something cheerful.
“I’m just so happy I’m talking about something that’s not death and devastation,” Kenon said over the phone around noon on May 30, five days after George Floyd’s murder. “Something that’s alive.”
Director of photography and video at The Philadelphia Inquirer, she was returning home that Saturday from a brief stop in the newsroom, where she regularly picks up PPE for her crew. “I actually just saw Assata,” Kenon added. “She’s fine.”
In this case, Assata is a plant.
Stationed at the desk of arts and culture writer Brandon T. Harden, the succulent is one of the only living things spending serious time in the paper of record’s Center City headquarters right now.
It has also become something of an icon to Inquirer staff, a beacon of endurance and solidarity during unsettled times.
“That plant is a reminder of what the newsroom culture ideally should and could be,” said modern life reporter Cassie Owens, one of at least four journalists to water the plant since remote work began. “It’s really wild that this chain of people only coming in briefly [are] still managing to keep Assata alive.”
Harden first posted about his orphaned greenery on March 31, a couple weeks after the paper transitioned most staff to working from home.
“After not being watered for some time now, I’m certain my office plant…has died,” he wrote on Twitter. “May she rest well in plant heaven.”
Harden, a 29-year-old Texas native who’s been at the Inquirer since 2017, got the sprout at a company wellness event in November. Interacting with plants is thought to relieve physical and psychological stress, and a January study found even “the mere sight of an indoor plant” boosted office workers’ mental health.
Leaving her terra cotta pot smooth instead of decorating it, Harden set up a special chair for Assata to live on, a wicker deal picked up at the Sable Collective, a Black-owned Fashion District boutique.
Over the next few months, the succulent flourished as one of many plants in the newsroom. Owens, who shares a cubicle with Harden, said she kept at least eight near her desk, and visuals director Kenon described a whole cart full. Colleagues would water them for one another as needed, and there was never worry about soil running dry.
Until Philadelphia went into lockdown, and the building emptied out. About a week after Harden tweeted his eulogy to Assata, his mortality prediction was proven wrong.
“She’s alive!” Kenon replied on April 9, supplying a photo to prove it. She left a bottle of water for anyone else passing through.
That kicked off a slowly-building thread of documented Assata care. Its most recent entry is from last Friday, two and a half months after it began.
Next to participate was Ross Maghielse, Inquirer manager of audience development. He’d gone into the ghosted bureau to pick up a cherished notebook — he’s a checklist person, and that’s where they were written.
“Just as I was leaving, I remembered, ‘Oh, the plant,'” Maghielse said.
Multimedia producer Astrid Rodrigues got into the game on April 15, tweeting a closeup of Assata with the note, “She’s looking good!”
Kenon, a relative newcomer who in 2018 moved to Philly for the director of visuals job, kept up a regular watering schedule in May. Plants remind her of her mom, she said, and “Girl, go water that plant!” still rings in her ears. Her visits to Assata continued through the following month, too, undiminished by the professional and emotional weight of the growing Black Lives Matter movement — even as it hit home.
In early June, more than 40 Inquirer journalists of color called out “sick and tired.” Spurred by an ill-considered headline, the action struck a deeper fault. A letter from participants decried a company culture that placed upon them the burden “of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age.”
Solo at Harden’s desk, Assata soldiered on. On Juneteenth, Kenon made sure the succulent felt the love.
“Plants don’t care about your position, or who you are,” said Kenon, that first afternoon in late May. “They don’t care who it is helping them, as long as they’re getting what they need.”
She added: “I think Assata is the hope we need right now. She is us. She just needs a little bit to survive, and she’ll make it.”