At Botanic Garden, Protesters Call Educator's Firing Absurd

Hayes Bowen, a firefighter with a green thumb, has done manual labor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for eight years. The 48-year-old volunteer happily shoveled and pruned the stunning landscape, where plants and reptiles looked as if they'd been torn from the pages of National Geographic. The work was a tranquil escape from the rest of life.

Two weeks ago, he quit. The reason: A passionate educator named Caroline Lewis was canned for allegedly commenting on the staff's lack of ethnic diversity. On Saturday, dozens of teachers and volunteers will gather at the garden to protest the firing. (Sign her petition here.)

Lewis, age 51, built a program that taught thousands of South Florida kids to love nature. At a meeting about a month ago, as staffers planned a weekend event for teenage minorities, she said the kids weren't interested in hearing a speech from a bunch of middle-aged white ladies. According to employees, she then encouraged young Hispanic staffers to show up. That's it.

The comment bothered at least one person at the meeting, who then reported it to higher-ups. She was fired about two weeks later. Says Bowen: "The situation is horrible; she's an incredible woman."

Garden spokesperson Jeanne Becker contends there's more to the story. Lewis has had problems with other employers, too, she says. "It's not as black and white as it looks." (She didn't elaborate.)

To Bowen, Lewis's firing is a symbol of a bigger problem. The garden has gotten away from its core mission, he says. Instead of promoting conservation research, trustees have turned the land into a fairground for festivals and events. "It's the straw that broke the camel's back," he insists. "This is not Disney World or Epcot Center. They're turning Fairchild into an amusement park."

The rally is 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on January 16. It will start outside the north entrance of the garden at 10901 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables. Bring signs and banners.

Update: Director Carl Lewis, who is not related to Carol, declined to discuss

specifics of her firing, saying: "It's an internal personnel matter." He

added that construction on a $7 million science village will soon start and  "2009 has

been a big year for science at Fairchild." (Check out a list of science

projects here.)