Robert Washington-Vaughans: Bold bouquets and beautiful bonds

How one man is helping spread joy and flowers wherever he goes

June 22, 2024

Robert Washington-Vaughns. Terry Moore

For the last three years, Robert Washington-Vaughns, a technical project manager for the Actinide Analytical Chemistry group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has made it his mission to deliver flowers to as many Black men as possible. But, when he was on the receiving end of a bouquet, he struggled with how to process that act of kindness.

"I was taken off guard. I do this for other people, other people don't do this for me," Robert said. "It was very hard and very shocking. I was holding onto something, I don't know what it was, but I had to let it go to accept those flowers."

Robert is the founder of the Black Men Flower Project (BMFP), an initiative born out of his own mental health journey and personal growth. The idea is simple: Family and friends nominate Black men to receive flowers. Then, the nonprofit will work with professional florists to design bouquets and arrangements to deliver to the men. Funding for the purchase and delivery of the bouquets comes from donations to BMFP.

"The project goes where I go, I have a Johnny Appleseed trail of flowers," Robert said. He spent time in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago before moving to Santa Fe. "It's so simple that even in cities where it doesn't exist yet, we can usually find a florist that is willing to create a bouquet." 

A personal journey

For Robert, ideas for an organization centered on the mental health of Black men started in 2018. At the time, the Chicago native was living in Columbus and was exploring his own mental health. He came across a Japanese philosophy known as wabi-sabi, a world view that acknowledges and accepts the imperfection and impermanence of nature and tries to find beauty in those characteristics.

"Nothing in nature is perfect, so why are you trying to be perfect?" Robert said. "Flowers are a form of art that showcase that. Here's a piece of imperfection that is still beautiful."

At the same time, Robert observed a mindset surrounding flowers where typically the expectation was for men to give flowers rather than to receive them.

"I had heard the term 'give them their flowers' mostly in sports to show appreciation, but in my mind, it was like why aren't men actually getting flowers?" Robert explained. "It started with that very simple premise, but it evolved into confronting how men struggle to make genuine, intimate connections."

Robert hoped using a system of peer nominations could spark that connection and shatter some of the stereotypes around flowers and masculinity. He admitted there have been some challenges in the process — including the first bouquet he delivered.

"I sent the first bouquet to a friend in New York, and I thought he would be more receptive because of his identity and how open he is," Robert said. "That was not the case. He was still very standoffish, and it took a second for it to grow on him."

Partners in growth

Since clearing that first hurdle, BMFP has grown significantly allowing Robert to look back on that first delivery with a tinge of humor. In 2022, a year after launching BMFP, Robert moved back to Chicago. That's when things really took off.

Robert partnered with John Pendleton, a Chicago-based florist and woodworker and the founder of Planks and Pistils, to workshop an expansion of BMFP. It was in their first meeting that Robert received his first bouquet.

"In Chicago, John was already famous because he would do these bouquets and massive installations for statues of Black historical figures," Robert said. "So, he really started to carry us."

In Columbus, Robert had built up a network and process that was efficient for that scale. Expanding into Chicago, though, would be a whole new endeavor. John agreed to serve as the primary florist for Chicago-area deliveries and to collect donations so that all BMFP deliveries are free.

As the initiative gained traction, multiple local news outlets expressed interest in highlighting Robert's work, increasing exposure even more.

"When nominations come in, deliveries are based on funds," Robert said. "[As of August 2023] I think we've given out around 100 bouquets and flowers, and as funding comes in, flowers go out."

Seedlings in the City Different

It wasn't long before Robert was on the move again. In November 2022, he took a job at the Lab. The move to Santa Fe, known as the City Different, has brought a new set of challenges that weren't necessarily front of mind before.

First, Robert had spent significant time in both Columbus and Chicago before setting up BMFP. When he had doubts or thoughts about quitting, a network of friends and family surrounded him to encourage him to press on. In New Mexico, he said he doesn't have that same level of history and connection. Luckily, he has managed to find a florist whose values align with the mission of BMFP, and Robert has used community events, like the Juneteenth celebration on the plaza in Santa Fe, to make inroads and get BMFP's name out there.

Second, the latest census report from 2020 placed the number of Black people in the state of New Mexico at 40,000. For comparison, the same census reported that the Black population of Chicago was 800,000.

"In places like this, finding a florist can be easy, but finding the Black men, that can be a bit more of a challenge," Robert said. "I've gone to gathering points where Black people congregate, and it's definitely harder, but I know there's 40,000 Black people here and I want to reach them all."

Winning moments

With the rapid growth of BMFP, Robert has plenty of moments that validate his belief that the work he is doing is important, such as when a group of teenage boys between the ages of 12 and 19 were on the receiving end of a delivery. Or, when someone was nominated and received a flower installation that was four feet tall. But perhaps his favorite is when a son nominated his father.

"The wife reached out and said, 'my husband never smiles, he never takes a photo, but he let me take a photo of him smiling,'" Robert said. "He ended up smiling the whole way to work, and he took the flowers to work. That really touched me."

Instances like these make the whole experience more personal for Robert. Without directly making the arrangements, Robert said he often feels a degree of separation from everything, but that's allowed him to get more in tune with the purpose of the initiative.

"I've struggled with the phrase from the Bhagavad Gita that you are entitled to the work but not the fruits," Robert said. "It can feel like I'm just a custodian, but, in the end, it's really just about giving."