At a nationwide meeting of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, members listen to perspectives from people of color, including Lydia Villanueva (NSAC Diversity Committee co-chair), Qiana Mickie, Jade Florence (NSAC Diversity Committee co-chair), Hannah Jo King, and Nelson Escobar.  Photo submitted.

National agriculture coalition works to create socially just organization

Organic Broadcaster (May | June 2018)

By Jade Florence, Diversity Committee Co-Chair, National Sustainable Ag Coalition

Working in the field of sustainable agriculture is both exciting and challenging. In addition to the research and development that goes into making our agricultural systems regenerative and profitable, we must also think about the sustainability of these systems for the communities they serve. Equitable access to healthy foods, productive lands, and the resources needed to build these systems are just a few of the challenges we face. But there is one central tenant of sustainable agriculture that may be its saving grace. Biodiversity is a major strength of our natural ecosystems. It’s what safeguards us against widespread crop failure caused by disease, pests and natural disasters; it supports a healthy diet; and it can increase the productivity of individual species though symbiosis. Just as biodiversity strengthens ecosystems, human diversity, as supported through social justice, strengthens communities by contributing and valuing unique perspectives, experiences, and ethics.

However, the United States has a poor history of valuing social justice in its own food systems. From the nearly 250 years of forced African-American slave labor on agricultural lands to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that gave way to The Homestead Act of 1862, the U.S. has had a long history of human exploitation and cruelty in the name of profit, with these examples only scratching the surface.

More modern forms of racial injustice have also plagued agriculture in America, namely within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Both program delivery and the treatment of employees within the USDA have been found to be tainted with discrimination, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1965. Later reports in the 80s and 90s showed that USDA discrimination has historically had a direct impact on declining minority farm ownership. In the late 90s, the USDA was subject to a class action lawsuit and entered into a consent agreement to repay black farmers for the damages associated with the discrimination they faced in USDA programs. This famous consent agreement became known as Pigford I. Furthermore, the USDA has also been the target of discrimination lawsuits by Native American, Hispanic, and women producers. The history of USDA discrimination has been further cemented by a USDA Civil Rights team’s 1997 report which found that in addition to the infractions themselves, the agency was also failing to process the very complaints filed by farmers and employees that documented the discrimination.

This brief history of agricultural exploitation and discrimination in the U.S. is provided, not to sadden the heart (although it should), but to provide context to why diversity, equity, and inclusion work in the field of sustainable agriculture is vitally important.

Thankfully, the USDA has already begun to make the changes needed to become a more socially equitable and just agency. While the USDA Office of Civil Rights was eliminated due to budget cuts in 1983 under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, it was reopened in 1996. And in more recent years, the USDA has undergone a sizable overhaul, particularly under the direction of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who made civil rights their top priority for the USDA.

In 2009, Vilsack suspended foreclosures for 90 days on all Farm Service Agency loans in order to review any that may have been subject to discriminatory conduct. In addition, Vilsack learned of the over 14,000 USDA civil rights complaints filed between 2001 and 2008, and that only one had been found to have merit during the time period they were filed. He assembled a task force and called for the retroactive review of nearly 80% of those and found that nearly 3,800 could have merit. Under Vilsack, the USDA also completed a Civil Rights Assessment of program delivery, which took 18 months to complete and included recommendations for improving service to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. These examples are just a small glimpse into the progress the USDA has made to correct past wrongs and move towards supporting a more equitable agricultural landscape, but there is still a long way to go.

Advocacy groups can play a key role when it comes to holding these federal agencies accountable, but only if they themselves actively value social justice. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is an advocacy group comprised of over 100 member organizations (including MOSES) that come together to craft and promote sustainable agriculture federal policy. NSAC was founded in 2009, and is the result of a merger between the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (NCSA) and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC). Prior to this merger, both parent organizations had been in operation since the 90s and 80s respectively. NCSA was a pioneer in bringing together a wide variety of voices to support environmental stewardship and social justice in agricultural systems. Partners included the Sierra Club, National Farmers Union, coops, and farmers markets. SAC, on the other hand, was a major driver of policy change and successfully developed programs including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Value-Added Producer Grants program, the National Organic Certification Cost Share, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the Farmers Market Promotion Program. The strength of both organizations was combined in the merger, and NSAC has been a major player in sustainable agriculture policy development and lobbying ever since.

The social justice lens of these parent organizations led NSAC to establish the Diversity Committee soon after the merger. The understanding that agriculture cannot be sustainable unless it is both environmentally and socially just was not lost on this organization. The goal of the Diversity Committee has been to instill social justice and diversity as operational elements of NSAC’s activities and committees, which include the Organizational Council, Policy Council, Issue Committees, any ad hoc committees, and other operations of NSAC. As the Diversity Committee has evolved, it has also increased its role as an entity that ensures the organization incorporates a social justice lens when setting policy priorities, advocacy strategies, communications, and other NSAC-approved or supported activities.

Over the years, the Diversity Committee has learned one major lesson—there is no one-size-fits-all solution for becoming an environmentally and socially just organization. The journey is always evolving, and the communities an organization serves, as well as their needs, shift.

In order to come to a deeper understanding of what it means for NSAC to be a socially just organization, one of our foundational events was to hold a coalition-wide panel of people of color (POC). The purpose of this panel was to share some key points with the broader coalition while centering current POC perspectives. Key topics included racial equity in food and agriculture, representation and leadership of POC, the how of working with POC members, and which resources/support are critical for POC in the sustainable agriculture movement. Panel questions included: What do you see as the primary challenges to racial equity in food and agriculture? What do you view as key opportunities? And how can the coalition and its members best support racial equity in food and agriculture? The panel session concluded with input from members about their thoughts regarding these questions. The discussion was robust, and the Diversity Committee found that many member organizations were eager to understand how they could serve a more diverse base of farmers in their home states. This led to the development of a special session during the next in-person meeting, in which coalition members brainstormed about topics to help NSAC move its racial equity work forward. Topics included how to increase collaboration with farmers of color (FOC)/ POC coalitions/increase representation of FOC and POC members, how to ground our racial equity work in accurate data and use metrics to assess our success, and training/resources that member organizations require.

We found this collaborative brainstorming and planning process to be invaluable, and it led to many initiatives to move NSAC’s social justice work forward. We furthered our data and metrics work by having each committee research what demographic data is already being collected by the USDA, and used that to determine which communities may be underserved. NSAC has also begun the process of using available data during the policy priority setting process and in order to strategize ways to increase the collection/availability of such data.

Another critical next step has been NSAC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training series which has been offered to member organizations and staff. An example of this training comes from another in-person meeting in which NSAC member organizations were invited to take an organizational assessment and then brainstorm as a group ways that their individual organizations could become more racially equitable and socially just. NSAC staff and key stakeholders have also undergone numerous group training sessions and are actively working towards strengthening the organization and its promoted policy priorities through equity and inclusion.

NSAC and the United States agricultural system as a whole have had a long history of grappling with social inequality and developing new ways to address and correct these issues. Although the history of agriculture in the U.S. has been fraught with exploitation and cruelty, all members of the agricultural community have a unique opportunity to build a new food system—one that equitably serves the needs of all workers and eaters.

From my experience as the NSAC Diversity Committee’s co-chair, there is no one universal path to increasing the racial/social justice of our organizations. Each organization is unique, and so is each path. The best advice that I can give is to make the changes as genuinely as possible. Setting quotas for number of POC reached or engaged looks good on paper, but unless there are meaningful relationships behind that engagement, these relationships can prove to be extractive and empty. The real change comes when the members of organizations understand where they’ve been, what they’re working towards, why they’re working towards it, and come together to take that journey one step at a time.

Jade Florence works for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides in Boise, Idaho, and co-chairs the Diversity Committee of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.



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