Last month, USDA took time to reflect on the great strides we’ve made in achieving better Civil Rights results for those who work here and those we serve. This month’s chapter, Rural America is Back in Business, examines how USDA has helped the rural economy rebound. By embracing Civil Rights and opportunity for all, the case can be made that the two themes are closely related.
As I reflect on some of the ways USDA Rural Development (RD) has demonstrated equity and inclusion for our external and internal customers. One of the goals Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed last month is USDA’s “New and Improved Outreach to Expand the Breadth of Our Service.” Perhaps one of RD’s biggest expansion efforts is the creation of specific outreach plans to reach the underserved and unserved populations, particularly through our StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative.
In addition, the establishment of Community Economic Development (CED) was created to foster the communities living in persistent poverty and rural areas that have limited resources. Some of CED’s efforts include designating regional representatives across the country who outreach to specific sponsorships for minority organizations and socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
To improve access for individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), RD implemented the Limited English Proficiency Strategy for Federally Conducted and Assisted Programs. The implementation strategy ensures recipients of federal financial assistance provide meaningful access to their LEP applicants and beneficiaries. RD provides oral and written translation free of charge to the general public.
Most recently, RD launched a new electronic application intake system, RD Apply, which allows individuals the ability to apply for the Agency’s programs online. The simplified intake system allows applicants control over when they apply, standardizes the methods of applications and provides a neutral, non-discriminatory interface through which applications may be filed. Currently, RD Apply is only available for Rural Utilities Service loan and grant programs. RD anticipates the availability of this tool for use for all program applications in the near future.
RD has made significant strides to promote diversity and equality among Agency employees. The RD Office of Civil Rights offered over 30 training sessions to over 2,000 employees which represents close to half of the entire RD workforce. RD hosted a listening session focused on veteran employment matters. As a result of feedback received, RD created a Veteran Employment Advisory Council to support and advocate employment opportunities and retention for Veterans. Additionally, the Office of Civil Rights hosted the Agency’s First Annual Diversity Day for all USDA employees. RD Special Emphasis Program Managers exhibited and provided informational materials regarding the Agency’s seven Special Emphasis Programs and the Veterans Employment Advisory Council.
Our efforts demonstrate RD’s commitment to treating all customers fairly and equitably. By emphasizing the importance of civil rights, RD continues to culturally-transform the Agency for both internal and external customers. As we reflect on the Agency’s accomplishments, let us continue to make Civil Rights a priority to ensure RD is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.
Secretary Vilsack is fond of saying, ‘…when rural communities do well, America does well..‘ I have a corollary: When everyone has the opportunity to do better, we all do better.