As a Latina woman, raised in a black community by a single white mother, Poppy Sias-Hernandez understands how access to equitable support and resources can have a life changing impact.
In 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed Sias-Hernandez as the first-ever Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer (EIO) in the Executive Office of the Governor. In addition to her role as the Chief EIO, she also serves as the Executive Director of the Office of Global Michigan.
In February 2022, Sias-Hernandez became one of 15 members appointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Equity Commission. Appointees serve two-year terms and bring a unique understanding of their individual fields and professional niches. The commission and its two subcommittees – the Agriculture Subcommittee and Rural Community Economic Development Subcommittee - are tasked with evaluating USDA programs and services and recommending ways USDA can reduce barriers to access by implementing transformative changes.
Sias-Hernandez credits gaining access to an affordable community college education with changing her life’s trajectory. After high school, Sias-Hernandez moved to California to live with her father. There, she was able to take community college classes for $15 per credit hour, a complete departure from Michigan where community college was not financially accessible or feasible.
This opportunity allowed her to become the first in her family to receive a college education, which included a bachelor’s degree from University of California at Berkley and a master’s degree in Organizational Change Leadership from Western Michigan University, where she received a Thurgood Marshall Fellowship.
Her first class at Berkely was titled “Women of Color in the U.S.”. According to Sias-Hernandez, that’s where she did a lot of early thinking regarding issues concerning equity and inclusion. The experiences and knowledge gained from that course have been formative over the course of her personal and professional life.
Sias-Hernandez credits the young female professor teaching the course with recognizing that the material had “lit a fire within her”. Sias-Hernandez explains, “She said to me, ‘This is going to be a challenge in life. Are you ready? You are going to have to find a way to drive the change you want to see while understanding that you will likely never see it.’”
These words became the foundation to Sias-Hernandez’s life. “That was so formative and has been throughout my life because it is the truth,” said Sias-Hernandez. “I still have that mindset. How do you keep showing up with love, integrity, and generosity knowing you’re not always going to see the change you are working for?”
As a professional, Sias-Hernandez has devoted much of her 20-plus year career to building and creating equity. During the pandemic, Sias-Hernandez partnered with other Michigan state government departments to build a migrant community response model to provide access to healthcare, financial assistance, and other resources to impacted farmworkers. One of her partners in this project, the Michigan Secretary of Agriculture, encouraged Sias-Hernandez to apply for the USDA Equity Commission.
Initially, Sias-Hernandez was apprehensive about a potential role on the Commission, but says she quickly discovered how much good work was possible. More than six months into the work, she says she’s impressed by the collective expertise of the Commission, and the group’s willingness to collaborate and share their individual gifts, talents, and lived experiences.
“I am loving this Commission. I am loving the learning; I am loving the high level of commitment,” she said. “It’s the right formula to create terrific momentum and you have these Commissioners who are just super committed to doing good work.”
From Sias-Hernandez's viewpoint, the work of the Equity Commission creates systems that are accessible to all population groups. “Sometimes you hear equity talked about through an individual lens, referenced as meeting people where they are,” said Sias-Hernandez. “But I really think about equity through a systems level lens and through a population level lens.”
Sias-Hernandez describes governmental systems and programs like a current in a stream. “These systems should be designed to keep people in the current. But what actually happens is that some people have to swim upstream to access the current, because it really wasn’t made for them,” she said. “My vision for equity is that we are creating a current that captures all people; that anyone can step into the stream and swim with the current rather than having to struggle against it.”