Skip to main content

Reflections from the Road in Oregon: Building Trust and Partnerships so Rural Communities Thrive

Posted by Katharine Ferguson in Equity
Jul 10, 2024
Pictured from left to right: USDA Senior Advisor for Rural Development Gbenga Ajilore, USDA Administrator for Rural Housing Service Joaquin Altoro, USDA Chief of Staff Katharine Ferguson, Equity Commission Member Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, USDA Administrator for Risk Management Marcia Bunger, USDA Chief Evaluation Officer Cecilia Hernandez, Equity Commission Member Nils Christoffersen

On June 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held its Pacific Northwest Regional Equity Convening on the beautiful grounds of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon. Nestled in the heart of rural communities, this event was more than just a meeting—it was a heartfelt gathering aimed at nurturing trust and forging partnerships essential for rural communities to thrive.

Co-hosted by USDA and Equity Commission members Nils Christoffersen of Wallowa Resources and Toni Stanger-McLaughlin of the Native American Agriculture Fund, the convening was marked by a spirit of genuine connection and mutual appreciation. The event’s location on Tribal land added profound significance as the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute is the only museum on the Oregon Trail that tells the story of western expansionism from a tribal perspective. Tribal hosts welcomed the audience with song and remarks, evoking a strong sense of interconnectedness. The customs and practices of the Cayuse, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Tribes were celebrated, grounding the day’s discussions in a deep sense of respect and history. The sky, mountains, and great expanses of the land reminded us of our relationship with—and responsibility to honor—the land, water, animals, and one another. The concept of reciprocity emerged as a powerful theme in presentations, panel discussions, and conversations throughout the day.

Tribal leaders and hosts provide opening remarks

“It was an immensely humbling experience to have the chance to directly engage with community leaders, producers, and federal employees to center the work being done thanks to the leadership of the Equity Commission and this Administration’s commitment to equity. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) stands committed to make meaningful progress to ensure that all producers have equitable access to our programs.”

  • Marcia Bunger, Risk Management Agency Administrator

For RMA Administrator Marcia Bunger, participating in the Equity Convening was a deeply personal experience. As the first woman and the first person of color to hold her position, Administrator Bunger knows what it’s like to have to chart your own path forward. Her experience as a Japanese American farmer from South Dakota, coupled with her previous service as the Farm Service Agency (FSA) County Executive Director for Oglala Lakota County led her to share poignant examples of how USDA is centering its work to meet the needs of diverse rural communities. Administrator Bunger shared details about the Building Resiliency program, an initiative led by RMA and the Intertribal Agriculture Council to recruit, train, and mentor crop insurance professionals from underserved communities. The theme of the day was partnerships, and this partnership highlights RMA’s commitment to creating rural jobs and ensuring that every producer has equitable access to our programs. Additionally, on an even more personal level, while exploring artifacts at the cultural institute that had been gifted by Japanese Americans to the Indigenous People in the area, Administrator Bunger learned of the internment camps of the Japanese during World War II on the Tribal lands. After the release of Japanese Americans, who lost approximately 75% of their previous land holdings, the Indigenous people sheltered them and allowed them to stay on their own lands where each shared their agriculture knowledge to grow nutritiously improved foods. It became a very symbiotic relationship born out of despair of two very distinct cultures but mistreated in so much the same ways, that resulted in a mutual understanding of the importance of compassion and kindness. The significance brought tears to her eyes and added even more meaning to the day.

People speaking about the Northern Blues Restoration Partnerships

“Partnerships are advancing U.S. Forest Service because it’s the opportunity to come together and figure out how to solve issues together…It’s an opportunity to bring everyone to the table and to ensure that everyone sees themselves at the table.”

  • Shaun McKinney, USDA Forest Supervisor for the Forest Service Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

Speakers brought forth examples of different partnership models that equitably serve communities. Local stakeholders lent their voices to highlight their efforts to revise the national forest plans for the three Blue Mountain national forests, emphasizing collaboration and mutual support. During the panel Northern Blues Restoration Partnerships moderated by Equity Commission Member Nils Christoffersen, panelists showed how they are raising awareness, engagement and support for this large cross-boundary landscape restoration program and the current priorities supporting the program. John Punches, Associate Professor at Oregon State University Forest Extension, further emphasized the benefits of the collaborative Northern Blues Restoration Partnerships, “We accomplish more when we work together.”

Clockwise from top left: USDA Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service Terry Cosby, USDA Senior Advisor of Farm Service Agency Scott Marlow, USDA Associate Deputy Chief of Forest Service Lisa Northrop, USDA Administrator for Risk Management Marcia Bunger

“Inclusion is critical to helping all people help all lands—no matter how big or small the operation is, and no matter how urban or rural. Every acre counts. We need to reach everyone that we can and we’re trying to do that.”

  • Terry Cosby, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Program (NRCS)

Throughout the day, the importance of building trusting relationships and removing barriers to access was emphasized. Transparency was a key theme in discussions covering the ecosystem needed to support rural communities, including natural resource and climate strategies, forest restoration, building a regional food economy, and rural workforce development and housing. Equity Commission Member Nils Christoffersen underscored the significance of hosting the event in eastern Oregon, where isolation and limited access to markets pose unique challenges. As a way of bridging barriers to connection, participants had the opportunity to directly engage with USDA Leadership during via Zoom a Question and Answer (Q&A) session.

NRCS Chief Cosby emphasized inclusion as a critical element of assisting communities that face challenges accessing federally available funds. Lisa Northrop, USDA Associate Deputy Chief of Forest Service, echoed the need for inclusivity and the activation of previously unheard voices. And, Scott Marlow, USDA Senior Advisor for Farm Service Agency, shared ways in which USDA is building access into the process of programs to be more open to entrepreneurship, getting the food dollar back to farm, and making programs that serve farmers better.

Pictured from left to right: Executive Director of the Umatilla Tribes’ Nixyáawii Community Financial Services Dave Tovey, USDA Administrator for Rural Housing Service Joaquin Altoro, Founder of GCT Land Management Gust Tsiatsos, Project Manager of the Oregon Community Foundation and Project Turnkey Megan Loeb, Managing Director of R3 Nick Green

“Housing affects us all and it really does take a village.”

  • Joaquin Altoro, Administrator, Rural Housing Service

For Joaquin Altoro, Administrator of USDA’s Rural Housing Service, the conversations were also deeply personal as he understands the importance of listening and learning from those that have been impacted by generational disparities. During the panel he moderated on rural housing, the issues discussed reminded him of growing up in a community that was that was ignored and suffered persistent generational poverty. The audience had the opportunity to dive deeper into how local partnerships are improving workforce development and housing for rural communities. Panelists also addressed the urgent need for skilled workers to build homes and the efforts to make housing more affordable. Partnerships, such as one with Habitat for Humanity, were showcased for their success in serving more communities across Oregon. Megan Loeb from the Oregon Community Foundation shared how Project Turnkey, a unique private-public partnership, increased shelter in Oregon by 35%.

Pictured from left to right: Eastern Oregon Regional Solutions Coordinator for Governor Kotek Courtney Warner Crowell, State Director for Rural Development Oregon Margi Hoffman, Executive Director of the REV Center Grace Donovan, Executive Director of EUVALCREE Gustavo Morales, Council Member for the City of Ontario, OR Eddie Melendrez

“When we say that all of America prospers when rural America prospers, we mean everyone. Equity is more than a promise; it’s a practice. One we improve through consistent and intentional action.”

  • Margi Hoffman, Oregon State Director, Rural Development

Building on the vibrant discussions of the day, Margi Hoffman, the Oregon State Director for Rural Development moderated a panel of local stakeholders to discuss Rural Workforce Development issues. Leaders discussed the barriers workers face, such as housing, childcare, and transportation, and emphasized the need for holistic solutions. They also stressed the need to inspire and provide tracks for youth to both stay and to come back for careers in their communities. Grace Donovan, Executive Director of the Rural Engagement Vitality Center, emphasized that “Our collective role is to lend additional capacity and bandwidth to communities so they can accomplish more to make their communities more attractive.”

USDA Leaders and Equity Commission members speak on a panel to outline a new vision for Rural Partnerships. Pictured from Left to Right: Equity Commission Member Nils Christoffersen, USDA Senior Advisor Gbenga Ajilore, USDA Administrator for Rural Housing Service Joaquin Altoro, USDA Chief of Staff Katharine Ferguson, USDA Administrator for Risk Management Marcia Bunger, and Equity Commission Member Toni Stanger-McLaughlin

“When talking about scale, the question should be, how do we define scale in rural communities? We need to balance efficiency with equity. You need to have an equity frame for rural communities to thrive.”

  • Dr. Gbenga Ajilore, Senior Advisor for Rural Development

For Dr. Gbenga Ajilore, Senior Advisor for USDA Rural Development, engaging in conversations about equity with stakeholders in rural communities was a special outcome of a long journey from his upbringing in urban Southern California to Pendleton, Oregon. As an economist who had a limited understanding of the value and assets within rural America until he studied rural places at the Center for American Progress, spending time in eastern Oregon with the community was very meaningful. He is known as one of the “Founding Fathers” of USDA’s Equity Commission who helped establish the cadre of outside experts to bring forth recommendations to advance equity for all.

The audience of about 75 attendees, including representatives from local Tribes, universities, non-profits, local government, USDA Senior Leaders and Equity Commission Members, engaged in meaningful conversations about creating prosperous rural communities. USDA also elaborated on its role and dedication to advancing equity and rural communities, highlighting the recommendations outlined in USDA Equity Commission’s final report (PDF, 2.0 MB) and the many efforts already underway. Equity Commission Member Toni Stanger-McLaughlin reminded everyone that the work to advance equity is ongoing by reflecting that “The work the Equity Commission is doing is not stagnant—it’s not done. When we turned in the report, the Secretary [Tom Vilsack] said, ‘this is just the beginning.’”

In summary, it was a very fulfilling and meaningful day for many of us—and a special day for me since in this role I don’t often have the opportunity to travel and engage in-person with people in their own communities and region. As conversations evolved throughout the day, we went from panel discussions to a circle of authentic dialogue that many had not experienced before. By pushing aside tables and chairs, we removed the physical barriers to conversation and were able to connect with each other as people committed to improving the lives of our collective communities. With renewed energy and commitment, we all left the convening ready to continue building trust, fostering partnerships, and removing barriers in an effort to ensure USDA programs and services are for the many and the most, not just the few. Together, we are moving towards a future where rural and Tribal communities can thrive, driven by a collective spirit of connection and collaboration—and a USDA that works hand-in-glove with farmers, families, business owners, and communities as the name “the People’s Department” implies.

The journey continues as USDA prepares for its sixth Regional Equity Convening on July 18 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Urban Ag Week.

Category/Topic: Equity