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Josie Weldon Report on
USDA ~ Cooperators Conference
THE BEGINNING OF A NEW LEGACY
FOR THE USDA?
By Josie Weldon, RAPP Program Specialist
Association of African Living in Vermont
The USDA, this year, did something different and significant with its annual “partner” or “cooperators” meeting. It was held on September 26-28 in St. Louis, Missouri and was hosted by the one year old USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach.
Walking around I heard more than once “this is the best conference I have ever been to”. Nearly everyone at the meeting was a minority or socially disadvantaged farmer invited to attend: refugees, Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, Asians or advocates for these farmers.
USDA presentations, and a riveting stream of comments from participants addressed topics such as gross past and present racially based injustices by the USDA, organizational cultural transformation, rapid action plans to address racism and discrimination in the agency, healing, the commitment of the new USDA leadership to change, the invaluable work of community based organizations and the USDA’s progressive plan to use and partner with them much more fully, how the USDA can improve its programs to work for minorities and the socially disadvantaged, and plans to settle long standing civil rights suits against the agency.
Every conversation or workshop ended with warnings from the audience that they would not be impressed until they saw what was talked about take place outside the walls of the hotel, on the ground, in their communities. Many of the USDA leaders present, mostly Obama appointees, seemed energized by this challenge. To put it plainly, it was a one of a kind and great event.
The need for such an occasion of bringing the USDA and minority farmers into a frank conversation and speaking about how the USDA can provide restitution for and serve minority farmers has been longstanding. If you are a newbie to the world of farming and agricultural development, such as me, you may need an explanation of the history of the USDA and minority farmers.
First of all, the USDA has a great influence on the success of American farmers. For instance, it makes payments often for commodity crops. The USDA also provides loans to farmers that are not readily available from banks, overseas crop insurance, provides grants or shared cost farm investment programs and helps farmers to market their food among many other services.
If for instance and African American farmer does not have equal access to these programs, they would be at a great disadvantage as compared to their white counterparts. In fact this scenario has happened all over the country and according to the USDA’s own 1998 Commission on Small Farms, “the history of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture… is well-documented.” Minorities historically and currently do not get their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments and loans.
There are many awful anecdotes of how racism and discrimination has played out in local and national USDA offices. I would encourage everyone to read this excellent article on the topic from the Institute for Southern Studies:
Also, here is a press release on the settlement of the civil rights suit brought against the USDA by African American farmers:
Unequal access to important USDA programs most likely has contributed to the rapid decline of African American farms in the U.S., and the struggles of other minority farmers. In 1920 one out of seven U.S. farms were run by African Americans. By 1992 this number had dropped to 1 in 100. Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians and others still report that they do not have the same access to USDA field agents, as their majority counterparts do.
The USDA presented the progress of its one year journey to begin to change how the USDA does business with minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. Since October of 2009, the USDA has created a task force to create a new legacy for the USDA.
This task force commissioned a study and report on the status of the agency from the perspective of clients, leadership and staff. They did employee and management surveys and had listening sessions with farmers across the country. The USDA then created 80 high level planning initiatives and has already started on some of them.
They plan to reach every supervisor, USDA employee and customer with these changes. They see the USDA needing not just structural change, but a culture transformation. Cultural changes generally take 5-10 years.
The USDA realizes that it is a long road, but they want to plant the seed now- and in a comprehensive manner. Internally they will stress the importance of strong (and humble) leadership, opportunities for employee training and education, recruitment and retention of excellent employees, and improved customer service and community outreach (including through partnering more closely with community based organizations).
They have targeted racism, instead of denying its existence, as something that needs to be rooted out of the agency. The leadership in the USDA has also already had employees involved in some offices in creating cultural transformation initiatives, by having them submit their ideas including “small acts of inclusion” (rather than racism and exclusion).
Other important initiatives include a renewed commitment to diversity in the USDA workforce and instating “receipt for service,” so that when a client goes to get help from a USDS field office they will get a receipt and there will be documentation of the service they received. There will also be new rules that hold senior leaders accountable for the actions of people they manage- there will no longer be impunity for discriminatory practices in the agency.
If people do have a complaint about discrimination, they can file it directly with the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, which will handle the complaint in a timely manner. There are many other initiatives, including a rapid action plan to do employee training from the top down in each state on issues of discrimination. They are starting at field offices in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama and will move through all the other states with the same initiative.
Finally, there is now additional, mandatory funding (initiative of Congress) for the “Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program.” The USDA hopes this program, which sets up cooperative relationships with Community Based Organizations and Higher Education Institutions well-connected with minorities, will do a lot to help minority and socially disadvantaged farmers access USDA programs on a more equal level.
Farmers and advocates from across the country were interested in what the USDA was doing, but also voiced concerns that these high level initiatives might peter out, or not reach them quickly enough on the ground. They also placed themselves as the true frontline, who the USDA should continue to go to for input. The USDA encouraged people to advocate for their interests in the next farm bill, because this is what governs much of what the USDA can do.
The USDA also encouraged participants in the conference to vote in elections and have people in their community vote. It was not lost on many people there that the new cultural transformation initiatives and settlement of civil rights suits have come into place because of leadership from the Obama administration. One year in, the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach and its initiatives are still quite young. Time and a lot of hard work will tell what sort of future the USDA will have with minority and socially disadvantaged farmers.
The Association of Africans Living in Vermont, along with the International Rescue Committee of Phoenix and the Idaho Office for Refugees were invited to this event. Boise brought seven farmers from its refugee agricultural program. All of these RAPP groups have won USDA grants, and AALV, for one, is honored to receive funding that has been hard won by many farmers and advocates before us. We look forward to helping the USDA connect to and serve minority and disadvantaged farmers in Vermont.
For more information:
Josie Weldon, firstname.lastname@example.org