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Reflections on Civil Rights at USDA

Before I was sworn in as Secretary of Agriculture, I took time to meet with a handful individuals who held the job before I did.  I asked them for advice, and two recent Secretaries mentioned that it was important that I focus on civil rights.  As I soon learned for myself, USDA has an unfortunate and checkered history with regards to civil rights, with a multi-decade history of discrimination against our customers and our employees.

So since becoming Secretary in January 2009, I have made civil rights a priority at USDA, working to turn the page on the Department’s tragic civil rights record.  I pledged that we would correct past errors, learn from mistakes, and take definitive action to ensure that there is no disparity in program benefits based on race, color, sex, age, sexual orientation or disability.

Over the past 20 months, I have implemented a comprehensive program to move us into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.  And I made it clear to every employee that USDA will have zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, and that each employee and customer must be treated fairly and equitably, with dignity and respect. We have made substantial progress towards these goals, and civil rights will remain a priority at USDA until we have truly moved into the new era I envision.

But for our work on civil rights to be successful and lasting, it must be part of a broader cultural change at USDA.  We began this process last year when I created a task force to build a more open, responsive, collaborative, transparent, and effective USDA.

So there is irony in the fact that my commitment to civil rights was a factor in the run-up and decision to ask for and accept Shirley Sherrod’s resignation as USDA State Director for Rural Development in the State of Georgia.

Following that incident, I directed the USDA Acting General Counsel to conduct a review of what took place.  I wanted to determine what mistakes were made to ensure that the USDA could learn from the incident and avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

Today, I met with Mrs. Sherrod to discuss, among other things, the review we completed of this incident and how USDA will be moving forward to address the recommendations it contains.

This review identified a handful of significant lessons.  Among them is that we need to improve protocols for internal communications at the Department, and create a set of safeguards to avoid the sort of hasty action which led to the mishandling of the matter with Mrs. Sherrod.  I have accepted all of these recommendations and asked that they be implemented immediately.  I know that they will help us build a more inclusive and deliberative decision-making environment and prevent similar mistakes from occurring again at USDA.

This experience provides an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.  But it also provides an opportunity to build a Department that empowers and respects its employees and customers.  And at the end of the day, I know that we will build a stronger Department and better serve the American people.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with Shirley Sherrod in his office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, August 24, 2010. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with Shirley Sherrod in his office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, August 24, 2010. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

116 Responses to “Reflections on Civil Rights at USDA”

  1. Stephen Voss says:

    Dear Mr. Vilsack,

    You made a mistake when you fired Shirley Sherrod. You admit it. Why haven’t you offered her the old job back instead of offering something else?

    Stephen Voss

  2. Teresa says:

    Please know I applaud the efforts of secretary vilsack as it showed an act of humility in meeting with ms. sherrod. But it is understandable too as she chose to pursue other venues outside of employment with usda.

    Management overall within usda should take a serious look at promoting employees within who are producing work way over the status quo but who are limited in showing skills by not being given opportunities for growth. This is a practice that needs to be corrected at usda. Additionally, would you consider meeting with me mr. vilsack as I desire an opportunity for growth and a new position within usda. I have over 31 years federal government experience, yet I cannot move out of the office of civil rights as this seems to be a detriment in a position without professional growth. I am also pursuing a college degree with 6 classes to complete as I’m majoring in administrative office management. Please have your administrative personnel call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx to set up an appointment if you are indeed concerned with changing usda. Thank you.

  3. Dan maksymowicz says:

    Do something simple–help farmers who provide the crops that feed the USA: implement plans now to build many more nuclear power plants to provide the clean, efficient, and US-sourced energy to power the farms in the USA.

    Civil rights? No. Human rights? Yes!!

    Respectfully,

    Daniel J. Maksymowicz
    Venice, FL

  4. Nancy David says:

    I dont mean to say that Civil Rights isnt important, it certainly is but I think that more important things should take priority say for instance what you are providing to schools to feed our children and grandchildren. No wonder obesity is a growing problem in this country, schools feed the children the highest fat and caloric foods there is and say its ok….ever wonder why kids think it is ok to eat that stuff, ever think they think…if I get it at school, which is suppose to be a good place for me, then it must be ok to eat all the time!!!
    Please lets do something to make the necessary changes to the school lunch program so that nutritious foods can be fed to our kids.

  5. Bukana Sibi says:

    It’s unfortunate that in this day and time that we (Americans) have to still deal with the ugly face of discrimination whether based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. However, the fact remains that it’s prevalent, not just at USDA or the Federal government, but nationwide. When will it change? Perhaps when folks are held accountable!

    With that said, I must commend the Secretary for stepping up to try to correct his mistakes and those who also took part in this unfortunate decision and situation. Hopefully, if any of us find ourselves in a similar situation, we will keep in mind the lessons learned in this case.

    Secretary Vilsack seems to be steering USDA in the right direction, and I wish him success in his efforts.

    Good-luck!
    Bukana Sibi

  6. Bessy says:

    Mr. Vilsack,
    When you are a leader, it is hard to come out and admit you made a mistake. Over the past few weeks, since this past incident, I respect you a lot more for being open and candid. We never met. I am not on task force where are paths will cross. I will however begin to pay more attention to what you have to say.

  7. Shirley says:

    This sounds nice

  8. jeanette says:

    I commend Secretary Vilsack in this major undertaking. The message here appears that discrimination will not be tolerated. I wish I could be on the front line in his cultural overhaul. Being a constant victim of miscommunications and or misquotes by my upper management, I hope it works. Unfortunately I feel this is exhibits power people in charge and it just didn’t work this time. Sorry that the agency lost what appears to be such a valued individual. Again congrats to Secretary Vilsack and Mrs. Sherrod.

  9. Sherry says:

    It is very unfortunate this happened. I’m quite sure that the USDA lost a very valuable employee as a result of Mr. Vilsack acting too quickly on a Civil Rights issue as important as this one. Calling an employee on her cell phone to demand her resignation is inexcusable behavior! Hopefully Secretary Vilsack learned a valuable lesson and will take his job a little more seriously in the Civil Rights area as he mentioned that this is one area he states he has been committed to improving since he took office.

  10. Eddie says:

    Mr Secretary,

    I serve in Greensburg, Pa as an Area Technician. I can say that knowing the past and seeing progress here in Pa. I am very proud of the move towards diversity and servicing every american with zero bias.

    In the majority of positions I have held, I am often the first African American to serve, yet never the last.

    I was proud of your response to the mistakes made and the fact that we as an organization are striving to be better in all aspects.

    My time is soon up as to my current position with USDA. However I have learned we have a dedicated staff here in Pa, who really love helping people. We have come a long way under your leadership, yet we still have a long way to travel.

    I feel The USDA is heading in the right direction. Thank you sir for all you and your senior staff are doing to create a better tomorrow here at the USDA.

    Sincerely, Eddie Brown

  11. C Anders says:

    This is not something the whole USDA has to suffer for … Vilsack and his immediate team should go to some kind of training on their own and take the heat.

    This was a very ridiculous immature kneejerk reaction. USDA does not need more reform and highlight discrimination as a result of this person and his team acting alone.

  12. Marilyn says:

    Why do we hear the words white and black. I thought we are all people, not colors. This country will never rid itself of its own war, prejudice. I am a caucasian, American woman. I truly support and desire equality for all people. I support the statement that we do not discriminate based on race, color, sex, age, sexual orientation or disablility.

  13. Thanh says:

    I think the Secretary handled this thing very well. He admitted the mistake, reached out to correct it, and developed a lesson learned policy to prevent future happenings. Shirley also showed a good understanding to forgive and forget, and is willing to work with the department to correct and improve policies.

  14. JO says:

    sort of hasty decision?

  15. Bernedia says:

    It would be wonderful if all employees were treated the same in regard to unfair treatment by the Agency being address by such high level attention however, unless it makes National media attention the rest of us have had to suffer and move on.

  16. Martin says:

    In this age of blogs, tweets, email, social networks, media hype and hysteria, the focus on civil rights – and any rights for that matter – still needs to be tempered with the right to due process. I am sure you know this by now, but had a thorough investigation been done prior to terminating Ms. Sherrod, a lot of embarrassment could have been avoided.

  17. Johnny says:

    Mr. Secretary, I’m a Black male which has worked for FSA 18 years. I respect what you are trying to accomplish and really would like for you to make a diffrence, but it will be tuff. I understand Shirley’s situation, the problem is deeply rooted in the Agency. Good Luck

  18. december2cute says:

    I think Secretary Vilsack and Mrs. Sherrod handled this situation in a good way.

  19. Leslie says:

    There are ALWAYS two sides to the story. Never, ever fire or discipline someone without taking time to understand the situation fully. I’ve been prematurely disciplined for an action before anyone even talked to me and learned my side of the story, and it’s unfair and reactionary. Thank you for being open about this and admitting that we did it wrong.

  20. Mary says:

    Mr. Tom Vilsack should be commended for his courage to stand up and make what was wrong right! It is my hope that all lower and upper management especially stand up to this challege in which we all know it is not a popular one. This experience have showed all of us that without a doubt it is time to put civil rights on the top of the adgenda once again. Civil rights issues coutinue to show itself imperative through the hiring process, working relationships and sensitivity in the state offices, county offices and througout the United State Department of Agriculture.

  21. Let Down Again says:

    The knee jerk reaction we observed persists through the rank and file and within all agencies under USDA. Many careers have been broken by the kind of behavior that top agency officials displayed. And unfortunately all of the good words about the USDA “family” fall way short of the actions taken. I wish Mrs. Sherrod well and I hope she can form a task force that can look into similar observations and actions at all levels and beyond Race but overall employee treatment. Let’s not just focus on lessons learned at the top but equally important lets also look down to the lowest staff levels in the agency. -LDA

  22. Dominic Angelo says:

    Good decision on Mrs.Sherrods part to NOT continue her employment with USDA.

  23. Davina says:

    I think what happened was unfortunate and happens all too often in the government. However, your openness about your mistake and your rush to judgment is commendable. I think this incident needs to be implemented into how supervisors are trained. Many people have called for your resignation but I think that would be a big mistake. I remember when you first arrived, you were at the doors of wing one greeting employees. You have openly expressed your commitment to Civil Rights. I just hope when you are recruiting for these positions, make sure the candidates share the same values as you. You have a hard job ahead of you, trying to erase the image the Department has gained over the last few decades, being known as the last plantation. I hope you succeed.

  24. Marcus B says:

    I applaud Ms. Sherrod for her hard work at USDA. I also applaud Secretery Vilsack. I think this is a step in the right direction. There is still much work that needs to be done. It’s not only policy that needs to be periodically reviewed and updated, but perceptions and attitudes as well. This is truly a teachable moment for everyone.

  25. Dan says:

    This situation is unfortunate for a lot of reasons. The one that sticks out in my mind is that fact that this situation is very representative of the typical ‘knee-jerk’ reactions we often get from the people in leadership positions throughout this agency. It is my belief that this administration as a whole is very prone to this type of reaction and should do their homework before passing judgement. It is also my belief that we lost a good employee because of this, and this is really nothing new.

  26. Jasmine Jackson says:

    Mr. Vilsack,

    If you continue to make civil rights a priority the USDA is truly taking a huge step in the right direction. With this lesson being learned we can continue to move forward and serve the American people with the understanding and equality that is needed and deserved.

  27. Mac says:

    Secretary Vilsack. I applaud your efforts and commend your response to these matters. Unfortunately, “the small foxes spoil the vine.”

  28. Al says:

    The USDA acted hastily, no doubt. What has me upset is the fact that a high ranking employee was speaking at a group known to be increasingly partisan liberal. Also, the cheering and clapping that happened after her “out-of- context” remarks was most upsetting, and revealing of the present politicalized and marginally racist makeup of too many in group. Might as well have USDA speak to the KKK.

  29. James says:

    The Agencies within the Department of Agriculture always seems to want to make employees vunerable to insensitive managers. These insensitive Manager do not understand employee that are differont color and ethnicity. The Secretary is to be commended for trying to change a ingrained culture prepetuated against minority employees.So as I have seened in the past 34 years nothing has changed. If someone say a person of color did something wrong today or yester years the response is the same guilty as alleged, without the giving employee the benefit of the innocent until proven guilty.

  30. Paula says:

    I was disappointed in the quick decision to ask for Ms Sherrod’s resignation. When USDA officials quickly put out a letter stating that discrimination of any kind at any point would not be tolerated before Ms Sherrod’s actions were investigated made me sad as an employee of USDA. She was determined to be guilty until proven innocent. But USDA was not the only agency that did this to Ms. Sherrod. The NAACP, who should have demanded that a full investigation be conducted, did not investigate and quickly judged her actions brought shame to themselves. Its unfortunate but it is human to judge harshly initially. But to admit a mistake, apologize and seek ways of correcting and avoiding the same future mistakes should be commended. Thank you Mr. Vilsack for admitting that you’re human and can make mistakes. We all could and should learn from Ms. Sherrod situation. We still have to work on our attitudes concerning the importance of CIVIL RIGHTS. As a black woman I would like to see the NAACP seek the same changes within themselves.

  31. David says:

    Like many of the other commenters, I support the Secretary for admitting his mistake and apologizing. Adjusting the communication protocols is also commendable, although the actions taken against Ms. Sherrod would not have been tolerated coming from even a GS 9 supervisor in the Civil Service. The larger question for me is one of judgement, and I do not see that addressed in the blog. How do you correct poor judgement?

  32. A. Elsa says:

    Although the original decision was extremely hasty, it was a sticky situation and I am glad to know that Mr. Vilsack recognized the mistake made. It’s should serve as a lesson to all what these political extremist are capable of doing. We must learn from this and hopefully USDA will be the better for it. Mrs. Sherrod has demonstrated what a classy lady she is in how she has handled this whole situation. It is a loss to the agency.

  33. Dan says:

    Upon becoming a temporary employee of USDA only last year to assist with ARRA engineering, I was immediately struck with the emphasis placed on civil rights and employee empowerment by Secretary Vilsack. My first impression was that it was a little over the top; not so necessary in this day and age in which we have come so far. I see now why we must continue to be vigilant; how mis-information can lead to mis-understanding regardless of good intentions. Thanks to the Secretary and Ms. Sherrod for their examples of integrity.

  34. E. Isidro says:

    “It’s that wonderful old-fashioned idea that others come first and you come second. This was the whole ethic by which I was (we are), brought up. Others matter more than you do, so don’t fuss, dear; get on with it.” + Audrey Hepburn~05/04/29-01/20/1993 +

  35. Michelle says:

    I am very proud to work for the USDA, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the Forest Service, especially Job Corps. There are supervisors who have yet to learn the lesson that you have learned. I hope that you can make sure that your program is one that will be enforced and especially in this area of the USDA. No one should have to work under these types of conditions.
    I also commend you for standing up for what is right and being able to say I was wrong and I am sorry.

  36. Donna Fowler says:

    I think Secretry Vilsack and Mrs.Sherrod are both to be commended for their courage.It takes courage to stand up for what you believe.It also takes courage to admit when mistakes have been made.Can any of us say that we haven’t done the same thing? Who hasn’t made a hasty deciion that they later regretted, or spoken too soon? I am happy to see that we are looking for ways to learn from our mistakes and improve so we can build a better, more equal tomorrow for everyone.

  37. Noemi says:

    Does the results of the “study” only pertain to USDA in D.C., or will it effect ALL of USDA?

  38. Asghar says:

    Mrs. Sherrod, I am a USDA employee for more than 30 years and in the past I was involved in EEO cases represening my colluges for more than 12 to 15 years. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has admitted his mistake and he is offering you the best resolution within his power.Remember that peaple learn more by making mistake rather than not making it.

  39. Bewildered in Nebraska says:

    I wonder if the roles were reversed and it was a Caucasian making the same statements against an African American; would we have seen the same hasty rush to judgement? I have a terrible feeling that we would not have see it, I am thinking that we would have heard something like the USDA employee has been forced to take a leave of absence until this matter is investigated further. Too bad that we did not hear this type of response.

  40. José A. says:

    I believe these are steps in the right direction, but the fact remains that the principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty wasn’t exercised. However, we are all human and make mistakes no matter what position we hold.
    Improving the channels of communication bilaterally vertically in the organization could greatly reduce future incidents such as this one. One can merely not jump to conclusions on just hearsay alone. There’s a saying that states “don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see.” How true it is most times.
    One suggestion I’d like to make to USDA, is that only specialist to take ethics and civil rights training on Aglearn, yet technicians are not. I believe that all employees without exception should be required to take these courses. Many times I feel there are situations that reflect the lack of these courses
    All in all, Mr. Vilsack handled the situation as best he could and shows he has not only the courage but the determination to improve Civil Rights at USDA and that alone should be commended. Thank you Mr. Vilsack!

  41. Robinson says:

    Secretary Vilsak, I’m glad that you were “wise” enough to admit to your hasty decision making mistake and apologize; but a lot of us (employees who were treated unfairly) are still waiting on an apology. Through years of working for the agency, there have been incidences where events such as this and even worse have been “swept under the carpet” and thought to be forgotten, but the scars are still there and even painful. Sure, it’s time to move on, but what about the past incidents that have never been corrected.

  42. Peter says:

    It is shameful that all too often there is a rush to judgement when an African American is perceived to be involved in a matter that may have raised a few eyebrows, when actually, he or she is quite innocent. This type of rush to judgement is prevalent throughout our country mainly because of sterotyping? Why does race and gender based unfairness continue to occur in the greatest country on the face of our planet? We need to be a kinder, gentler, and a more thoughtful society before conditions can change for the better.

  43. Terrina says:

    I do aplaud the step up and take accountability aspect to secretary Vilsak and I am sure he has shown the remorse he feels with the aftermath of Ms. Sherrod situation. However, I am perplexed at why were not general procedures done with her in asking for her resignation? This woman was humiliated, she was on travel status with USDA equpment, asked to pull on the side of the road to submit. Could they not wait until she told her side of the story? This phobia about race must stop. It is creating predeterminations of peoples opinion on things that they extract from the media. I myself work for USDA and when I first started here there were 2 African Americans and 2 Carribeans and at least seven hispanics of different backgrounds. I saw that this place was working for a diverse working society. I am a Special Emphasis Program Manager (African Americn) for the EEOAC, which helps with the situations of outreach and diversity in a workplace. So far, I can say that our facility here should recieve Kudos for their efforts in diversity. As for Ms. Sherrod not accepting the oppourtunity to work for USDA again, I probably can understand, that is something you do not want the chance of happening again to you, when you are misunderstood.

  44. Sonny says:

    It seems in my neck of the woods it’s just the opposite! If your white and male…Good luck! I am all for equality but let it be just that “EQUALITY” on both sides…

  45. L. Johnson says:

    I was once told by my supervisor that admitting to anyone that I made a mistake would reflect poorly on my character and would result in my subordinates and colleagues to think I was incompetent. It is so nice to see that the Secretary does not share that same philosophy. I have been reading for months about Civil Rights being on the forefront with USDA and as an employee who has been in an EEOC suit for almost four years and with no end in sight I can say that we still have a long way to go. I would like to see others follow the Secretary’s lead and acknowledge when mistakes have been made. For the past three and half years my life has been turned upside down because of what my supervisor did to me. He got one week of leave without pay and I got reassigned. I was in a position that I loved and that I did well. I am now required to travel 75% of the time and I wake-up every day dreading work all because of what someone did to me. No one should have to wait three and half (plus) years before a complaint is heard.

  46. Joe A. - South Texas says:

    After knowing the true facts and the outcome on the Sherrod incident it is difficult to truly understand such a misfortunate mishap. It is more surprising that the incident was not investigated before forcing her to resign. The Department’s Zero Tolerance Policy was not adhered to, by not doing so, she suffered the consequence and became the victim of the Department’s own inactions and quick jump to conclusion and firing. However my highest admiration and respect to Mr. Vilsack for admitting the Department’s wrong doing. I have reported discrimination and harassment in my workplace by management to the National Office due to the State Office not taking the complaints seriously and discarding them. In doing so, I ended up with a police report filed by the manager at the local police department. I am still trying to get the State Office to help me do away with such a fraud police report. I still hope they will help, if not, I will do my best to communicate with Mr. Vilsack or his staff to discuss the Department’s Zero Tolerance Policy and my personal experiences in my workplace at Rural Development. Sincerely.

  47. David Coulson says:

    Yes, a mistake was made. One that should never have occurred had a bit of thought gone into the situation, rather than a knee-jerk reaction. I wonder if Secretary Vilsack would have been as understanding had the mistake been make by one of his underlings? I doubt it.

    I do hope this wake up call brings a bit of humanity and reasonableness into the Department whenever people are involved. However, given the Department’s history and personal exeriences, I have my doubts on that front too.

  48. Joleen says:

    words, words, words, and more words that have no meaning. Training on-line via AgLearn is meaningless; more letters, memos, emails being sent by leadership to all employees regarding Civil Rights just clutter our already too full in-boxes. Until every single person in management truly embraces Civil Rights nothing will change, for some folks it’s too deeply ingrained from birth/environment/family to not accept others who don’t look like them; minorities will always be guilty of whatever they are accused of without recourse and words will be used to justify whatever actions are taken against them and management will leave them defenseless with Unions/Human Resources/Employee Relations/Civil Rights staff that are in place to provide/pledge support to management only – after all, who funds their positions? We can hope/wish/pray that things will change……but it will take everyone changing….

  49. Daryl says:

    Why did Secretary Vilsack act so hastily in firing Shirley Sherrod? I believe he was afraid of yet another news “controversy” blowing up. It’s time for the FOX news to act like a news organization,i.e report the facts, investigate matters and try to report the truth, rather than a crazed bunch of vigilantes with hot pitchforks, ready to stab their next victim.
    And it’s up to us individually to abandon the one sided decision making so prevalent in America. Ask Shirley Sherrod!

  50. c says:

    What about the person that posted the information on the web site totally out of context and incited this whole thing?? He should be taken to task for purposely posting mis-leading and false information to malign Mrs. Sharrod. That detail has been eclipsed but should also be dealt with.

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