Young Farmers’ Racial Equity Transformation


Hi there! For those of you that I haven’t met yet, I’m Michelle Hughes, the Equity and Organizational Change Manager here at the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers). I’m writing to tell you a bit about myself and the equity work that’s happening behind the scenes at Young Farmers.

I’m a queer, Black farmer on hiatus who, like many of you, couldn’t pull together the resources necessary to start her own farm. My journey to farming started during my  preparation for veterinary school, when I worked in large-scale hog reproduction to learn everything I could about large animal medicine. To my surprise, I also accidentally became a farmer. One day I looked up and realized all my co-workers, colleagues, and friends were farmers. And I wasn’t mad at it. Raising animals was something I loved doing: it was therapeutic, connected me to the environment, and reminded me that magic truly existed in the world. Even though I was poor, sore every day, covered in hog poop 75% of the time (this might be an underestimation), and had close to no free time, it was what I wanted to spend my life doing, because it healed something in me I didn’t even know was broken. 

But I couldn’t make it work. I’m not from a farming community, and there isn’t a whole lot of generational wealth to be passed down in my family. And as you all know, even when you have all those things, sometimes you still can’t make it work. So I went into debt and proceeded to get a masters degree in food studies at NYU instead, where I focused on agricultural economics and policy specifically. I figured if I couldn’t make farming work, I might as well spend my time helping other people make it work, at least until I could figure out how to do it myself, successfully. The racial equity work I dedicate myself to at Young Farmers makes me feel like I’m accomplishing that. I get to help farmers like me take a step closer to making their dreams come true, in a time when it’s hard to be hopeful about the future. And I feel fortunate to be able to do that every day. It would be easy to give up while we grieve the loss of so many brothers and sisters at the hands of those that are supposed to protect us, at the witness of adjacent systems that exist by nature to oppress us. But as the resilient people that we are, we prevail. We grieve, we mourn, and we get up again. We live to fight another day, despite how hard it is to be Black in this country. 

 

 

When did “Equity and Organizational Change Manager” become a position at Young Farmers?

The crafting of this role has been in the works for some time. Our Co-Executive Directors (Co-EDs), Sophie Ackoff and Martin Lemos, put together the job description in late 2019, at which point I was appointed into the role. I came fully into the role in May after transitioning from serving as Federal Policy Associate (yes, we may have met during a fly-in). But this role is really the product of years of racial equity work spearheaded by past and current staff as well as former Board members, Tess Brown-Lavoie and Eduardo Rivera. Michelle Hughes (same name, but not me), Mai Nguyen, Sara Black, as well as Sophie and Martin, have been working to advance racial equity both within and outside the organization. Beginning with our Racial Equity Statement, written by the former Michelle Hughes, Tess, and Sara in 2016, you can see the history of our racial equity work here. Stay tuned for our full racial equity page on youngfarmers.org soon. 

 

What does an Equity and Organizational Change Manager do exactly? 

It’s true, we’ve never had an Equity and Organizational Change Manager before, and the title sounds a little ambiguous. But many of the organizations we’ve looked to for guidance have someone managing their equity work. Someone who can ensure each staff member is making individual progress in order to reach our organizational equity goals. In other words, someone to hold folks accountable. I spend most of my day researching anti-racist organizational change, talking through best practices with our Co-EDs and our operations manager, consulting on strategy with program staff, and connecting all the dots in between. Along with the Co-EDs, I’m the nucleus of our racial equity work. But just like any cell (the cell being our organization here), all of the parts around the nucleus have to work together too. My job is to drive and track the progress we make on advancing racial equity across our organization in order to make change happen organization-wide, from the inside out. 

 

What is the goal of all of this transformation?

In the long-run, our goal is to secure a bright and just future for agriculture, which will require a significant amount of change to our current agriculture system. And we cannot ensure that change without being an anti-racist organization. Our vision is a “country where young people who are willing to work, get trained, and take a little risk can support themselves and their families in farming.” But this is not the reality for many farmers, especially many farmers of color. Becoming an organization that not only recognizes, but addresses that, will ensure they too have the opportunity to enter into a sector in which they are seen, heard, valued, and respected. The sector will not reach its peak strength and resiliency without it. Our plan is to achieve this reality by advancing racial equity, which is why the process is called a “racial equity transformation.” And the keyword here is process. Yes, achieving racial equity is our outcome, but we are not committing to just a destination. We are committed to only supporting actions that lead to a system that is equitable for people of color. Ijeoma Oluo, bestselling author of So You Want To Talk About Race, tweeted it best: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

 

How will this transformation happen?

Our strategy is to shift power to farmers of color within and outside of our organization. Here’s some of the internal work happening at the Coalition. We’ve spent the last few months combing through our operations processes, policies, and practices, ensuring they are as equitable as possible across all lines of difference. This includes everything from hiring processes to performance evaluations to strategic planning. Basically, we’re weeding out practices and policies that perpetuate white supremacy, and cultivating the seeds of those that advance racial equity. We’re also caucusing as a staff to ensure these changes are not made without a shared understanding and intention within the organization. White staff and staff of color meet separately at least once per month in a dedicated space to make progress on objectives identified by staff of color at the end of 2019. White staff also spend some personal time outside of work educating themselves and sharpening their racial equity analysis. 

 

How does a racial equity focus affect programming?

We started the change in our programming–land access, business services, development, communications, policy, and organizing–with a similar, but different type of internal audit, a racial equity impact assessment. First, we conducted baseline interviews with program leads on their racial equity impact outside the organization. We then gave each of our programs a level, 1-4, that we believe characterizes how well they have prioritized racial equity in their work. While we did identify a couple of programs operating at the lowest level, we are confident that these programs can operate at a level 3 by the end of this year, our organization’s 2020 standard. Progress for each of these programs will be evaluated during staff annual reviews and via an evaluation interview towards the end of the year. By the end of 2021, we expect all of our programs to operate at level 4, our highest identified level at this time. In the meantime, I meet with each program on a monthly basis to monitor and assist with progress on their racial equity efforts. 

 

Here are some highlights from programs that were given high marks: 

  • Paid leadership opportunities for farmers of color to wield power in our organization, namely the Convergence BIPOC Planning Committee, the Policy Committee, and the California Farmer Political Leadership Fellowship.
  • 2020 National Leadership Convergence planned by and for BIPOC farmers on the theme of Advancing Racial Equity in Agriculture.
  • Specific financial and professional development resource set asides for farmers of color in every opportunity at the organization including the Young Farmer Grant program with our partner Chipotle, D.C. fly-ins, advocacy days, speaking engagements, and press opportunities.
  • Translated past tools and publications into Spanish, including our FSA Guidebook, California Report, and the Finding Farmland Calculator and Course.
  • Racial Equity Toolkit for our chapters, and regional resources for chapter leaders to provide anti-racism training to their farmer communities. 

 

How will you hold the organization accountable? 

Over the next few months, I will be talking with our BIPOC-led partner organizations and some of our BIPOC farmer members about their experiences working with Young Farmers, in order to find out the kind of partner we have been to them as an organization. Were we a responsible ally? Do we show up and follow up? Are we accountable to our words? Much like allyship, our organization can only be considered accountable when farmers and partners of color consider us accountable. We have a lot to learn from these farmers and organizations, many of whom have been fighting for racial justice for longer than our organization has existed. Frankly, we wouldn’t be in the place we are today in this transformation without past and current staff mentioned above, farmer members, along with mentors Karen Washington, Leah Penniman, Larisa Jacobson, Stephanie Morningstar, Anthony Chang, and many others. Our entire racial equity transformation, including the results of these interviews, will be shared in the form of the first annual Young Farmers Accountability Report set to publish later this year, so please be on the lookout for it. 

 

Who should I talk to if I have more questions?

If you have any questions about our process, or the report, please feel free to be in touch with me directly. My email is hughes@youngfarmers.org. In the meantime, I’m wishing you all a bountiful harvest from the District! 

 

Hero photo credit: Convergence 2019 POC Caucus, Erin McCarley

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