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Reflecting on National African American History Month

Today marks the end of February, and National African American History Month, which has given us an opportunity to reflect on the value of the contributions made to our great nation by African Americans, and in particular, African American farmers and ranchers.  To celebrate here in Washington, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted an event on February 22 celebrating the life and work of African Americans who have made great contributions to the farming community, including the famous scientist, botanist, educator and inventor, George Washington Carver. Today,  to round out National African American History Month, the Reverend Al Sharpton spoke to employees about “Civil Rights in the Age of Obama.”

African American History Month is also a time to look at our internal work on civil rights here at USDA. Since the day he was sworn in, Secretary Tom Vilsack has made it a priority to usher USDA into a new era as a model service provider, to right the wrongs in USDA’s past, to turn the page on this sad history and to make USDA reflective of the extraordinary diversity of the United States. Working with President Obama and leaders in Congress, Secretary Vilsack settled the remaining large-scale class action lawsuit involving allegations of past discrimination. And now, we are working on a comprehensive plan to ensure that all of USDA embraces this new era, and moves forward with zero tolerance for disparities in delivery of program benefits based on race, color, sex, age, sexual orientation, or disability.

At the same time, USDA has celebrated our internal and external diversity. Outreach helps USDA celebrate the role that African Americans continue to play in our nation’s rural agricultural communities. USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach is home to the New and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program providing support for a diverse population of new and aspiring farmers.

Another program USDA uses to reach out to the African American community is the USDA/1890 National Scholars Program. The program, which partners USDA and the eighteen 1890 Historically Black Land-Grant Universities, was created to strengthen the long-term partnership between USDA and these universities. The program dates back to 1992, and has helped to diversify USDA by bringing with it a wealth of knowledge, talent, work ethic and skill that continues to propel USDA to its highest potential as a government agency.

Finally, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers Competitive Program (OASDFR) works with partners to conduct outreach meetings to inform and enlighten socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers about USDA farm programs.

With the collective efforts of all the USDA partnerships, African Americans will continue to play an integral role in the growth and success of a culturally transformed USDA. We will continue growing and cultivating new successful agricultural community based organizations, farmers, ranchers, and passionate employees, while not only sustaining bridges that we have built, but also extending new olive branches for the future.

Read more about USDA and Secretary Vilsack’s civil rights accomplishments at www.ascr.usda.gov

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