Vilsack, Bronaugh to announce members of USDA Equity Commission
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh today will announce the members of the Agriculture Department’s Equity Commission and its subcommittee on agriculture, which have been created to address historical discrimination at USDA.
Bronaugh, who is the first Black female deputy secretary, and United Farm Workers President Emeritus Arturo Rodriguez will serve as co-chairs of the commission. The members of the commission include prominent people such as Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia farm leader who was forced to leave USDA during the Obama administration in what Vilsack later said was a mistake; Ertharin Cousin, who served as both the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Rome and as executive director of the World Food Program; and Charles Rawls, a former USDA general counsel. The list also includes people who don’t have a national reputation.
The agriculture subcommittee includes Pennsylvania Agriculture Commissioner Russell Redding and Sarah Vogel, the former North Dakota agriculture commissioner who is the author of the book “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” about her experiences defending farmers against USDA during the farm crisis of the 1980s. The subcommittee also includes lesser-known farm leaders.
In a telephone interview late Wednesday, Bronaugh said the Biden administration has documented racism and discrimination going back to the 1960s that has had “a decimating effect on farmers of color. Equity and providing equitable programs is foremost for USDA.” She also noted that the commission was authorized and funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, and the launch follows the first anniversary of the Biden-Harris administration’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.
In a news release, USDA said, “The 15-member commission and 15-member Subcommittee on Agriculture will provide recommendations to the secretary on policies, programs, and actions needed to address equity issues, including racial equity issues, within the department and its programs, including strengthening accountability and providing recommendations to the secretary on broader and more systemic equity issues at USDA.”
A second subcommittee on rural community and economic development will be formed in the next few months, USDA noted.
Bronaugh said the members of the commission will meet virtually on Feb. 28, and the meeting will be livestreamed.
The commission will deliver an interim report in one year and a final report in two years. Bronaugh emphasized that the commission is independent and that she and Vilsack had made the final selections of people who will “not necessarily be kind to us, but very critical.”
Although USDA’s discrimination against Black farmers is best known, Bronaugh made it clear that the commission will address all forms of discrimination at USDA. In a news release, USDA also noted, “As part of the application and selection process, USDA sought members who can share the voice and experiences of farmers, ranchers, and farmworker groups, people of color, women, Tribal and Indigenous communities, individuals with disabilities, individuals with limited English proficiency, rural communities, and LGBTQI+ communities. Other important perspectives included those from the small business community and higher education institutions, among others.”
Bronaugh pointed out that the commission includes people with a variety of professional backgrounds, including an historian and an economist as well as people who have experienced discrimination.
While the commission is independent, USDA will help the commissioners come up with recommendations that are “actionable,” she said.
About 420 people applied for the commission and its subcommittees. Those individuals who were not chosen for the commission or the agricultural subcommittee will be considered for the rural and community development subcommittee, Bronaugh said.
The commission is not the Biden-Harris’s first efforts to deal with equity at USDA, Bronaugh noted. USDA has established an “equity action plan” to make it easier for people to participate in USDA programs, and officials are “looking internally at all levels of the organization in terms of hires, who we put in leadership roles, to have fair and equitable culture, to make sure we are offering programs in a fair and equitable way,” she said.
She also noted that USDA has worked on the issue of heirs property, the complicated ownership patterns among Black and Native American farmers that sometimes make it difficult to apply for USDA programs because those programs require clear ownership of farmland. Also, Bronaugh pointed out, the administration has made grants to historically Black colleges and Hispanic serving institutions and re-established the Office of Tribal Relations.
The USDA equity action plan will eventually be made public as part of an administration-wide effort covering equity in all federal agencies.
Finally, Bronaugh said she wanted “to express our seriousness in this effort to end discrimination across all areas of USDA. If we will make sure we will provide equitable access, we can build that trust we have lost over the years.”
“USDA acknowledges we have not done enough to provide all farmers and ranchers an equal chance of success and prosperity, and we are striving to change that,” Vilsack said in a news release. “This commission will support our work to build a USDA that does not ignore or leave anyone behind anyone as we dismantle barriers that historically underserved communities have faced in accessing USDA programs and services.”
“I want to thank everyone who invested the time and energy to submit an Equity Commission nomination. We were overwhelmed by the amount of applications we received,” said Vilsack. “I encourage all who applied and the American public to engage with the commission and help inform discussions as it works to develop equity recommendations for USDA.”
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