Today, a global pandemic has led to school closures and millions of layoffs — straining the economy for the second time in most millennials’ lives. At the same time, massive protests have erupted across the nation in support of racial justice — exposing disparities and biases in every aspect of society, including agriculture.
I wondered how students pursuing agricultural degrees were feeling, and if the pandemic and racial justice movement had affected their career aspirations. So, I sat down with two scholars — Joshua ”Josh” Simon and Zachary ”Zac” Brown for a check-in. Josh is a master’s student in Environmental Natural Resources at Ohio State University, and Zac, a doctoral student in Agricultural Education and Communication at Purdue University.
Sitting with two young Black men a month after the killing of George Floyd wasn’t business as usual. Josh shared that while frustrated with systemic barriers that he’s faced, he sees hope in the protests and increased conversations around racial justice in the country. From his father’s pecan farm in Morganza, Louisiana, Josh reflected on “the talk” his parents gave him at a young age with how to conduct himself if approached by the police — be courteous, keep your hands in plain sight, don’t resist — your goal is to get home alive. Zac echoed the same conversation with his parents as a child.
Zac, grew up in Houston, a more urban area than Josh, and as an adult understands the importance of the conversation about race, equity, and safety for African Americans that’s being had across the globe today.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new,” he said, and he is skeptical of what he considers as performative actions and corporate statements for racial equality. Racism has long been an uncomfortable topic in agriculture. However, American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union released statements denouncing racism and police brutality, followed by statements and comments from other agricultural groups and coalitions. Josh and Zac talked further about the importance of action and the need for changes to structural policies that have allowed injustice and unfair treatment. Black farmers make up less than two percent of agricultural production in the U.S. and continue to seek equitable access to financial assistance for operations and production needs.
Just as agriculture has diversified as an industry, more strides are necessary in the racial diversity of its workforce. Both men know the demographics of the agricultural workforce, and are not discouraged by the low racial representation in their degree programs and departments. Zac and Josh are leaders in the largest organization for minority agricultural students, MANRRS, and serve on university and municipal committees promoting inclusion and equity in decisions. Zac sits on the Purdue College of Agriculture Dean’s Advisory Council, and Josh is on the Columbus Urban Forestry Master Plan Advisory Council.
While career planning amid the pandemic and current societal tension, it’s impressive to learn how strategically these young men have navigated education and professional development experiences.
Zac, who currently leads [email protected] Summer Scholar Program, has always been flexible. He targets an administrator role at a land-grant institution, but his resume and transcripts position him for various industry and academic agricultural careers ranging from animal science and agricultural education to project management and communication. Zac wants to make change happen, and he studies the power of the position as closely as the potential.
In his last few months of coursework, Josh is actively job hunting for urban forestry and environmental conservation positions. His decision to minor in public policy and management opens the door for public relations, environmental justice, and advocacy roles. Not on his radar before, but coronavirus has prompted him to look for positions with telework flexibilities.
“What keeps you going?” I asked.
Their response was the Black advisers and diversity leaders in their colleges and departments and their personal determination to create more equity and access in agriculture and conservation. They have both found community in minority students on campus and are mentors to those coming behind them to give back just as they have received. Josh and Zac completed undergraduate studies at Southern University, a historically black land grant university, they describe as an ecosystem of support and selflessness. Representation, encouragement, belonging, and opportunity make a difference.
It’s been 18 years since I walked across the stage, receiving my undergraduate degree in urban forestry, a young Black woman from rural Louisiana who fell in love with agriculture in the fourth grade. Throughout my forestry career, I’ve relied on the same resiliency and network that Zac and Josh are already displaying and tapping into. I am confident they will be game-changers, advocates and leaders in the agricultural industry.
I asked both men to leave me with one word, for Josh it was “consistent,” while Zac shared “equity.” Words often used when delivering my diversity workshops, words I’ve come to expect from the next generation who will not sit on the sidelines of decision-making. My plan, in this space on AGDAILY, is to continue exploring an array of pressing topics facing the future of agriculture equity, workforce, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Pull Up.
Bea Wilson is a diversity strategist and agricultural professional passionate about the next generation of agricultural leaders. She owns IDEATION308, a diversity consulting firm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Twitter: @IDEATION308