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Reflections from the Road: USDA Engages the Southeast with Regional Equity Convening in Georgia

Posted by the Equity Team in Equity
May 29, 2024
Pictured from left to right back row: Equity Commission Member Dr. Ron Rainey, Senior Advisor Dr. Dewayne Goldmon, Equity Commission Member Savi Horne, Equity Commission Member Shorlette Ammons, Equity Commission Member Dr. Jennie Stephens; Middle row: Equity Commission Member Shonterria Charleston, Equity Commission Member Poppy Sias Hernandez, Equity Commission Member Arturo S. Rodríguez, Cecilia Hernandez, Tanika Whittington; Front row: Equity Commission Member Shirley Sherrod

On May 16, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held its Southeastern Regional Equity Convening on the grounds of The Sherrod Institute in Albany, Georgia in conjunction with the Institute’s Annual Farm Field Day, focused this year on advancing equity at USDA and ensuring equitable access for farmers to climate-smart practices.

Hosted by Ms. Shirley Sherrod, President and CEO of The Sherrod Institute and a member of USDA’s Equity Commission, the event gathered more than 400 attendees including farmers, ranchers, students, 1890s University Foundation members and scholars, members of USDA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Farmers, USDA Equity Commission Members, state and federal USDA leaders, and more.

The day opened with powerful freedom songs sung by Ms. Rutha Mae Harris & the Freedom Singers, evoking the spirit of resilience and progress. Ms. Sherrod welcomed participants with opening remarks that set the stage for the significance of the event to unfold.

Ms. Shirley Sherrod welcomes attendees in her opening remarks

Ms. Sherrod shared the history and vision of The Sherrod Institute and its focus on fostering greater equity in agriculture. “We want this to be a place where we’re training people on new methods of farming…we see this as a place of healing.” Ms. Sherrod followed her opening remarks by participating in a panel discussion alongside Equity Commission Co-Chair Arturo S. Rodríguez and Equity Commission Member Dr. Ron Rainey, as well as Cecilia Hernandez, Designated Federal Officer for the Equity Commission, to provide first-hand reflections on the USDA Equity Commission’s final report (PDF, 2.0 MB) and its potential effects on communities nationwide.

Equity Commission Co-Chair Arturo S. Rodríguez speaks on panel sharing insights from the Equity Commission Final Report

“Farmers are the heart and souls of America…and USDA is committed to improving the economy and quality of life in rural America.”
– Dr. Penny Brown Reynolds, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

Dr. Penny Brown Reynolds addresses the audience

Dr. Penny Brown Reynolds, USDA’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, shared her commitment to championing the Equity Commission’s final recommendations to address documented historic discrimination, eliminate any and all barriers to accessing Department programs, and ensure equity for all Americans touched by USDA. She outlined concrete steps USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) has taken over the past 18 months to ensure equitable treatment for all, including significantly reducing the processing time for program complaints by more than 100 days so far in Fiscal Year 2024. She noted that “Farmers are no longer going to have to wait years to have their complaints heard with the changes we’ve made.”

This Regional Equity Convening built on the first two convenings held in Michigan and Texas by engaging local students about the future of agriculture. Joshua Smith, a local student, inspired the audience with a plea for collaboration across generations to see real change. “We have to work together in this effort. If you want me to do my part, you have to do your part. It’s like a puzzle; we have to all do our part to put it together.”

After his heartfelt remarks, Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, President and CEO of the 1890 Universities Foundation and former USDA Deputy Secretary, inspired local students with a powerful call to improve funding for 1890 universities and empower the next generation of agriculture leaders. She also acknowledged the 1890s scholars in the audience and recognized their commitment to excellence.

“Find your 1890 liaisons and insist that they get the funding for 1890s…let’s do whatever we can do to support the next generation of agriculture workers,” Bronaugh urged the audience.

Dr. Jewel Bronaugh addresses the audience
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivers keynote address

“We need young people to be part of USDA’s future. And it will be very difficult to embrace and encourage young people to be part of that future unless they see it serving all of America…It’s in everyone’s long-term best interest to embrace this.”

– Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

Building on the morning speakers, Secretary Vilsack delivered a keynote address expressing his deep commitment to advancing equity within USDA and the communities it serves for the benefit of the entire country. Secretary Vilsack highlighted the concerted efforts to address inequities and increase diversity within USDA to better serve its communities and country and noted that USDA now has the most diverse senior leadership in the history of the Department. He also praised the noteworthy accomplishments carried out by dedicated leaders and staff at USDA who are implementing the Equity Commission recommendations and working with stakeholders day-to-day to find new and creative ways to promote greater inclusion and equity across USDA’s programs and resources.

“Today as we work to transform the food system into one that works for the many and the most, not just the few, USDA is focused on ensuring producers, especially underserved producers, have access to credit, land and markets,” said Vilsack, pointing to the Inflation Reduction Act’s Distressed Borrower Assistance Program in particular as an important tool for supporting producers in financial distress. As of May 14, 2024, USDA has provided $2.3 billion of assistance to almost 43,000 producers.

Ms. Sherrod and Secretary Vilsack engage in a Fireside Chat

Secretary Vilsack’s remarks were followed by a fireside chat with Ms. Sherrod where they dove deeper into the work of the Equity Commission and their respective vision and commitment to advancing equity in agriculture.

The Secretary echoed the sentiments of local student Joshua Smith, stressing the need to encourage younger generations to be part of an agriculture industry that represents all Americans. He also reiterated his commitment to implementing systemic change.

“Over time I thought ‘this is real’,” Ms. Sherrod said, reflecting on her experience on the Equity Commission. “Some of the things we were coming up with, you didn’t wait until the end of the report to start implementing them, you started implementing them right away. That was encouraging.”

“When you look at equity and think about where we’re going…we have to keep asking ourselves, ‘If not now, when? If not you, who?’ as we move forward.”
– Dr. Dewayne Goldmon, Senior Advisor for Racial Equity

Dr. Dewayne Goldmon leads a call to action

Dr. Dewayne Goldmon further underscored the collective responsibility of ushering in true equity, inspiring renewed commitment and a clear call to action for the audience after sharing his own story of answering the call to join USDA as the Senior Advisor for Racial Equity. He asked those in attendance for support and engagement to continue the march toward equity.

The day ended with an afternoon filled with climate-smart agriculture tours, offering an opportunity to engage with local farmers and ranchers and learn about the latest USDA initiatives supporting equitable access to climate-smart agriculture practices.

USDA’s dedication to fostering inclusivity and accessibility in agriculture continues with plans underway for future convenings. The next equity engagements will be held on June 13-14 in Raleigh, North Carolina at the Minority Farmers & Landowners Conference and June 18 in Pendleton, Oregon at the Regional Equity Convening: Northwest focused on Natural Resources and Tribal Issues. During these next events, USDA will further engage with communities on the journey to improving access to programs and services for all.

Third-generation local farmer asks a question during a Q&A session with USDA leaders
Category/Topic: Equity