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National FFA takes new steps to embrace diversity, culture

breanna-holbert-agdaily

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The 95th National FFA Convention and Expo rolled in a new set of community values for the organization.

  • “We respect and embrace every individual’s culture and experiences.”
  • “We create leadership opportunities for every individual to enhance their personal and professional endeavors.”
  • “We cultivate an environment that allows every individual to recognize and explore their differences.”
  • “We welcome individual’s to advance our communities and the industry of agriculture.”

As referenced in a publication of Here by the Owl, the recently retired National FFA advisor James Woodard shared the intent of creating these above value statements.

“In a time of divisive attitudes, opinions, views and beliefs, we stand solid on our focus to create an organizational culture aimed at “Building Positive Professional Members,” shared Woodard. “The value statements were created to help us understand the key actions we take to ensure an environment where FFA members will feel a sense of belonging.”

The organization created these value statements in conjunction with the 2020-2021 National FFA Officer Team, the National FFA Board of Directors, and the National FFA staff to drive the creation of more equitable environments for FFA members across the nation.

When the new interim National FFA advisor, Cheryl Zimmerman, distributed this message to the over 75,000 members, advisors, and other attendees during the first general session of the 95th National FFA Convention and Expo in her opening address of the convention, the National FFA Organization didn’t end their endeavors with just talk about action. After the first general session 1B took place, they took a big step into walking the walk when convening with urban FFA chapters in an intentional listening session.

The Urban Chapter Convening at the 95th National FFA Convention and Expo — which included students, advisors, state staff and stakeholders of urban agriculture programs — was designed to be an open dialogue centered around opportunities, challenges, and barriers that exist for urban chapters. The discussion also sought feedback from those in attendance about what the state associations and National FFA Organization could do to better engage urban chapters and members.

Myself and a student from the Sacramento-Florin FFA Chapter in South Sacramento, California, were welcomed to the event by special invitation.

When we walked into the space, we noticed something we didn’t normally see or feel when walking into FFA spaces: We noticed a room full of predominantly people of color, all mixing and mingling with one another at various tables. Normally, in National FFA Convention & Expo spaces, people of color are like a dot in a sea of blue jackets. Or, we are an ameba migrating together through the ocean.

Here, we saw a semblance of home and community with those who shared similar social and cultural experiences as us. The National FFA Organization created a space where people of color from urban areas could see each other, witness each other commune with one another, and offer an opportunity to feel as if we were not alone in convention and expo spaces.

As we sat down for our lunch, we got to know students from the John Bowne FFA Chapter in Flushings, New York. Prior to the open floor discussions, we spoke together about our chapters’ individual projects, leadership structures, and what the communities around our chapters were like. It was an incredible experience to bond with another chapter who also came from an urban area and shared similar demographics of student membership.

Not only were we beginning to see a semblance of home in that space, but we began to create a feeling of home and belonging among the other chapters as we got to know our similarities and differences as urban FFA chapters.

After a while, the listening sessions began and were facilitated by Syngenta’s North American Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Brandon Bell.

In February 2022, the National FFA Organization began a new partnership with a long time supporter of the organization, Syngenta, to lay a foundation for national equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy for the National FFA Organization. This included facilitating the kind of dialogue my student and I were invited to, along with a host of other amendments to the organization to aid in the National FFA’s effort to build their sought after equitable environments.

In addition, an inaugural executive in residence position in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion was created within the National FFA Organization, and Bell was hired for the position.

According to the organization’s communications announcing this partnership, Bell’s position will focus on creating a framework to implement and measure the organization’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion goals.

“I am honored and humbled at the opportunity to partner with FFA for this executive in residence program,” Bell said. “I look forward to working with FFA to develop the next generation of leaders who will create an inclusive and innovative agricultural industry of the future.”

And Bell held true to his conviction during our listening session.

Students and advisors from all across the country in various urban chapters — such as Philadelphia, New York City, Sacramento, Des Moines, Chicago — all were given an opportunity to share their lived experiences and opportunities that would aid their chapters and membership if provided the National FFA seriously consider them.

Bell masterfully asked inquisitive questions and ensured each student and advisor who wanted to speak got the opportunity. After each share, he would repeat the information back for the record so no morsel of information was lost on those in the room, the state association leaders present, and the National FFA Organization staff present.

Topics of discussion ranged from creating more equitable Career Development Event and Leadership Development Event standards were shared, to how students felt their culture was rarely incorporated within the music played in FFA spaces, the clothing deemed appropriate, and the food provided at conventions and expos.

 
 
 
 
 
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Students also shared the value of sharing urban agriculture with the rural demographic. Multiple students collectively left us all with the message that in expo and workshop spaces, many students are exposed to conventional agriculture equipment and resources (such as tractors, sprayers, etc.). However, they felt as if many students are not exposed to urban agriculture equipment and resources used in our local urban agriculture chapters and industries. Students said that if they were tasked to explore the expo and learn about the more conventional and/or rural agriculture, then the same should be said for urban agriculture equipment, resources, and industries.

The issue is not urban agriculture students and chapters assimilating to the rural. It’s us all recognizing each other and creating a sense of belonging and validity for both rural and urban agriculture in FFA.

The question remains. What does the organization plan to do with this information and how will they address the apparent inequities before our urban agriculture students, advisors, and programs?

Only time will give us the answers. We must acknowledge the work that is being done at this moment. The listening session was such a moving and validating experience for many FFA members in that room that day, which will reverberate to other students through them in the chapters each resides.


Bre Holbert is a past National FFA President and studied agriculture science and education at California State-Chico. “Two ears to listen is better than one mouth to speak. Two ears allow us to affirm more people, rather than letting our mouth loose to damage people’s story by speaking on behalf of others.”

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