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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. Ernest says:

    I hope the Secretary reads all of these…..

  2. Bill says:

    I applaud the continued efforts of Secretary Vilsack and USDA to clean up it’s act and conform to civil rights law. This is needed and expected. What USDA should strive for and demand from all of it’s employees, is to treat everyone equally, with respect, and without prejudice or personal bias. This personal bias has ruined a lot more people, their careers, and wasted a lot more talent in USDA, than anything that has been proven as a “civil rights” violation. In spite of what is being advocated in all of the mandatory civil rights training, the attitude that “You can do what you please as long as you don’t get caught for violating someone’s civil rights” is much more prevalent in the culture of UDSA leadership and it’s managers. Please do more to support treating everyone equally and with respect, and then hold those who abuse this “almost criminal activity” accountable for these actions as well. This will help solve all of our civil/person-rights problems! Please keep fighting the good fight for all USDA employee’s and the people we serve!

  3. James R. says:

    Who really cares what I have to say? Is this a show? What about the injustices that go on in this agency every day year after year that are covered up by working around the system in an intelligent manner that disguises the wrong done to people. This is hard to prove when various purposely selected beneficiaries will help to disguise the injustice. Nothing has changed! Lip service and politics are the same word. People with mal-intentions laugh at people like me because they get away with their dirt. This response may sail in the wind because people who wish to dismiss what I am saying will justify their decision as this does not apply to the blog or for some other reason. It does apply if you want change! Who really wants to expose corruption, this would be a blow to the social fabric, but here it is, here it is, the USDA, a microcosm of the destruction of a civilization.

  4. Debbie says:

    This is yet another example where Senior Departmental employees are not held accountable in accordance with their own(USDA)accountability regulation. The civil rights saga will continue in USDA until someone steps up to the plate to hold all employees accountable. Discrimination is alive and well in USDA. The administration’s answer is to resolve backlog cases by paying $$$$$$ to get the complaints off the books (been there done that if you remember CRIT/CRAT)rather than addressing the issue. Millions paid out, yet Senior Executive Service personnel continue to receive bonuses instead of receiving the appropriate performance rating in their civil rights performance element.

  5. Amanda says:

    Mr. Vilsack, I applaud your sincerity and humbleness. Your admittance of mis-handling Mrs. Sherrod’s case shows your strength and willingness to change discrimination within USDA. As a USDA employee, I wish all of your officials would practice your honesty and admittance of wrong doings and then correct what they’ve done wrong. My managers, who are definitely wrong and have and continues to discriminate against me, uses retaliation; yes, retaliation is how they punish me for having filed a case against them. Had they humbled themselves and admitted their wrong doings, thousands of USDA dollars wouldn’t be spent in attorney fees and lawsuits. Now, they are having to tell one lie after another, while wasting our governments money. I would love to discuss my EEO case with you. I have documentation and I can prove my case.

  6. Another abused USDA emploee says:

    I’ve worked for the Federal government for nearly my entire working life. I chose Federal employment because I firmly believe in the mission of civil service. I have always been recognized for being a responsible and professional representative of the Department, and an employee who produces quality work in a timely manner, that is.. until 3 years ago, when I became the casualty of a series of very unfortunate and poor management decisions. I agree and sympathize with the numerous employees that are struggling with EEO complaints and are finding that the support that they were led to believe they had as Federal employees, including fair and equal treatment, is nothing more than empty rhetoric. Discrimination and retaliation by management is rampant–Department wide. It saddens me to agree the above comments that this Department, which I supported with all my professional enthusiasm and dedication, has become my worst nightmare: a hostile, inhumane, and unethical work environment. Mr. Vilsack is admirable for his idealism and “efforts”, but I don’t see change coming. My current philosophy is “get out before they suck the life out of you”…there are plenty of other ways to do good work and honestly help people while acting with integrity, and not risk discrimination or retaliation fueled by knee-jerk reacting, myopic, self-absorbed management.

  7. USDA EMPLOYEE says:

    Mr. Secretary

    I applaud you sire, I hope all of you F.L.S in N.Y read this and changes there ways.

  8. C. F. says:

    I concure with a lot of the above comments about management and favortism with younger employees that is well known families to upper management and others staff members thats also associates with family members white over black employee if there is new and don’t have that associate pass then you are out and not consider for your work or ablity if you are blacks which mean if you are full-time tempoaray no permnance of awards or raises.You are not treated the same with the knowledge of information that is past on in the office to other employees,they just get quiet when you are around or whispers alot.

  9. C. F. says:

    One other thing I forgot in past two years that I have worked as a full-time temporary employee, I have not seen any black hire period in this county where I work with the exception of myself and I don’t believe that there are any black hired in the three States District offices where I am employed. However, I was told about five months ago that at the end of September I will no longer have a job but I do know that they brought in a younger white female in take my place when I leave but they are not saying that, even though she quit a full time permnant position in another county and nieghboring State which belongs in our district under the same tilte as myself to come here as a full-time Temporary,special projects. I sure when I am gone she will be made permnant. What a snow job if I ever saw one and this maybe possibly discrimination. I am considering consult the NAACP.

  10. Stephen says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think that a simple apology and job offer even comes close to making up for the extremely poor judgement exhibited by the SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE! I have spent some time with him and his staff with regards to the Station Fire and the post-fire investigation and this knee-jerk reaction does not surprise me. It does, however, disappoint me. Folks, just think about it for a minute. The person at the top of the food chain for the USDA made a snap decision based on an edited clip from FOX news. Does that show good judgement? Does that exhibit the qualities we expect from our leader and chief decision-maker? In this day and age is there really anyone who thinks that this is exceptable? Is it not common sense to NOT do something so unresearched?

    I personally see this as an offense which should question the Secretary’s credibility and whether or not he is worthy of his position.

    Has he really admitted what his errors are/where? I don’t think so and I really hope that this matter does not rest. I am ashamed to be associated with him and I suspect that he is not the only person to perform such acts on a regular basis. This is just one that we found out about.

    Shame on you Mr. Vilsack! Give us a real apology, own up to the gross errors and negligent acts and be an honorable adult about it.

  11. USDA Employee says:

    I recently received a decision on an EEO complaint against a USDA agency. The agency won the case and I know the same managers in my case have numerous cases against them. These type of managers are never dealt with and this gives the impression that nothing will ever change in USDA.

  12. USDA Employee says:

    I recently received a decision in an EEO complaint against a USDA agency. Of course, the agency won. The managers that I filed against have numerous cases against them and nothing is being done to deal with their treatment of employees. This gives the impression that nothing will ever change within USDA.

  13. lars says:

    “We can elect politicians every week, but until poor performing, high level, career government employees are placed were they can no longer damage the public trust, then no new laws, ambitious political leaders, our cabinet member will change our government agencies.
    Most often those in power hire friends, lovers, and relatives, then when they are inside, give them the best appraisals and thus awards and quality step increases (salary increases), and promote them. Before long they have a power base that serves them well. They take long drinking lunches and have affairs during work hours and when they actually attend to the work at hand delight in making a huge mess of things. The saying among the people who want to do a good job and actually have the ability to do a good job (which I would place at 10% or less) is “keep a low profile” – because if you insist those in power put the public interest first (or even somewhere in the equation) you become a target and are taken out with swift ferocity. And there is nobody to report it to, because nobody cares. A majority of the workforce either actively does harm or does absolutely nothing. The few who want to do the right thing and have the skills to do so walk on eggshells and develop stress-related illnesses, and the unlucky ones who are forced to directly do something unethical like cover up for those in power (which means the eggshell walking failed, and they were unable to stop or fix the really bad thing that wastes a tremendous amount of money and does a great disservice to the public – or barring that, they were unable to avoid being involved) take leave until things blow over or they can find another job. This is a HUGE agency that directly impacts the well-being of the public.
    I do believe in our form of government, and am a veteran and patriot. I will continue to inform taxpayers, and government officials of the USDA/NRCS mismanagement fraud, and waste.
    I do need the support of citizens. I have found a small group of poor performing employees at the NRCS. This situation must be corrected. They are not in keeping with the finest tradition of the USDA, and our federal government.”

    vilsack: is just an empty suite with fancy rhetoric; don’t expect anything different. I thought my fist Afro American CIC would do something at the USDA. Ya’ll remember Mike Espy. He didn’t have a chance.

  14. joe paterno says:

    I’ve worked for the Federal government for nearly my entire working life. I chose Federal employment because I firmly believe in the mission of civil service. I have always been recognized for being a responsible and professional representative of the Department, and an employee who produces quality work in a timely manner, that is.. until 3 years ago, when I became the casualty of a series of very unfortunate and poor management decisions. I agree and sympathize with the numerous employees that are struggling with EEO complaints and are finding that the support that they were led to believe they had as Federal employees, including fair and equal treatment, is nothing more than empty rhetoric. Discrimination and retaliation by management is rampant–Department wide. It saddens me to agree the above comments that this Department, which I supported with all my professional enthusiasm and dedication, has become my worst nightmare: a hostile, inhumane, and unethical work environment. Mr. Vilsack is admirable for his idealism and “efforts”, but I don’t see change coming. My current philosophy is “get out before they suck the life out of you”…there are plenty of other ways to do good work and honestly help people while acting with integrity, and not risk discrimination or retaliation fueled by knee-jerk reacting, myopic, self-absorbed management.

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