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Civil Rights

Secretary Vilsack has made it a priority to build a new era for civil rights at USDA and ensure that all customers and employees are treated fairly, no matter their race, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability or age. Over the past five years, we have corrected past errors, learned from mistakes, and charted a stronger path for the future where all Americans are treated with dignity and respect.

Providing Better Service to USDA's Customers

  • Between 2010 and 2013, USDA's Farm Service Agency recorded the lowest number of customer civil rights complaints since the Department began keeping track. This was a result of Secretary Vilsack's initiative to focus civil rights trainings in agencies with large program complaint filings.
  • In 2013, USDA formalized protections for customers from discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression.
  • To improve USDA's ability to serve minority farmers through our programs, we analyze the potential for new policies, rules and decisions to impact civil rights. Over three years, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights recommended important changes on about 20 percent of all policies reviewed.
  • USDA has reported the four lowest years of equal employment opportunity complaints by employees since Department began keeping track.
  • Created a single, USDA-wide form that customers and program participants can use to file a civil rights complaint. The form helps to simplify and expedite the process for those who believe they have been discriminated against. By capturing all of the information needed to accept a complaint, the form will reduce the time it takes to process complaints.
  • Realigned the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights to report directly to the Office of the Secretary, in accordance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations.
  • In fiscal year 2014, USDA drafted a proposed rule that prohibits age discrimination in programs and activities receiving financial assistance from USDA.

Correcting Past Mistakes

  • USDA and the Department of Justice jointly announced the historic $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement with African American farmers.
  • USDA announced a historic settlement agreement with Native American farmers who claim to have faced discrimination by USDA in past decades. To improve relations with Native American Tribes, USDA named – for the first time – a Senior Advisor on Tribal Relations, and all USDA agencies are working to engage with and be thoughtful about tribal issues.
  • USDA is currently carrying out a unified claims process to provide a path to justice for Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who claim to have faced discrimination by USDA in past decades.
  • USDA has reduced the typical processing time for new civil rights program complaints from four years to 18 months.
  • USDA conducted training to Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Rural Development leadership and staff at state offices in more than a dozen select states with a history of civil rights problems.
  • In August 2012, the Government Accountability Office issued a final report on its October 2008 audit in which GAO reported on management deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR), and provided six recommendations. USDA has taken action to address the recommendations and further strengthen the Department' Civil Rights operation.

Improved Outreach Efforts

  • We commissioned an independent assessment of civil rights in USDA's program delivery. USDA agencies are working to implement the recommendations of the assessment to help improve field-based service delivery to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and communities that have historically not participated in USDA programs.
  • In May 2012, we established an historic Memorandum of Understanding to increase cooperation on groundbreaking research between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), and the 1890 Land-Grant Universities.
  • We more than doubled the number of internal compliance reviews of USDA agencies to evaluate their civil rights and equal opportunity policies, procedures and practices.
  • USDA is committed to actively reaching out to and identifying small and minority owned businesses that can provide goods and services that meet USDA's mission requirements. From 2009-2011, nearly 14 percent of USDA's procurement dollars – $2.3 billion – were spent on products and services from socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses, which is up from 11 percent of procurement spending in 2008 and more than double the federal average.
  • USDA established the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to improve access to USDA programs and enhance the viability and profitability of small farms and ranches, beginning farmers and ranchers, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
  • USDA created a Minority Farmer Advisory Committee to advise the Department on outreach strategies.
  • To support rural counties suffering from poverty on a persistent basis, USDA established the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative to better coordinate efforts and promote economic development in these areas. It has now expanded to 770 counties and target areas in 20 states around the country. Since inception in 2010, USDA has partnered with more than 500 organizations on 109,000 projects – ranging from farm and home loans to hoop houses and summer feeding programs – that have ushered $13.7 billion in investments for the poorest places in rural America. In 2014, a total of 3,512 jobs have been created, saved or retained through USDA's Rural Development efforts in StrikeForce areas.
  • FSA has made significant modifications to the County committee structure by annually reviewing local administrative area boundaries to ensure a fair representation of minority and women producers in county or multi-county jurisdictions are elected. In addition to elected members, FSA county committees may also include advisors who are appointed to county committees in counties or multi-county jurisdictions that have significant numbers of minority or women producers and lack such members on the committees.
    1. Increased outreach efforts by FSA have resulted in greater diversity of not only the candidates for County committee elections but also an increase in the diversity of nominees elected.
    2. However, when a statistical analysis demonstrated that a lack of diversity still existed on a small number of county committees, the Secretary used his authority under the 2002 Farm Bill to appoint voting County committee members where needed to address underrepresentation of socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers and ranchers. This has resulted in Secretarial SDA appointments to slightly over 100 county committees following each of the last two elections in 2012 and 2013.
  • USDA has constructed microlending programs to provide financial assistance to beginning and small farmers and ranchers. Minority and historically under-represented communities were a significant part of the continued growth among new and beginning farmers and ranchers. Since the program's inception in January 2013, USDA has provided more than 8,400 microloans to farmers and ranchers in all 50 states.

Cultivating a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce

  • To create an environment for USDA employees that fosters growth and helps us become a top-notch service provider, Secretary Vilsack launched a Department-wide Cultural Transformation effort.
  • Since 2009, USDA has expanded the diversity of its Senior Executive Service Corps members. Today, USDA's SES Corps are the most diverse government wide and we have made significant improvements in the diversity of our workforce and student interns.