Diversity & Inclusion in Agriculture: Leading With Intentionality

LaKisha Odom, Ph.D.

Scientific Program Director
Sustaining Vibrant Agroecosystems

In recent years, racial disparities, racial injustices and the need for systemic change has received increasing national attention, due in part to the tireless efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement.  More attention than ever has been brought to the realities of systemic racism and the realization, for some, and confirmation for others, that there is much work to do in dismantling existing systems of oppression; systems so ingrained that their effects are inculcated into the genetic makeup of this country and whose impacts are felt every day. We have witnessed the effects and opportunities in the agriculture sector change dramatically over the years: from its role in the slave trade, to loss of land rights of black and indigenous peoples, to the history of racial disparities in lending practices to black farmers and access of federal dollars to historically black agricultural colleges and universities designated with land-grant status under the Morrill Act (1890s). 

As more agricultural organizations are having conversations on what changes need to be made to address these historical disparities, and as I find myself in some of those conversations, I often reflect on Dr. George Washington Carver.  As a proud alumnus of Tuskegee University, I am well versed in the teachings of Dr. Carver- who, for those unfamiliar with his legacy, was a black agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. His legacy and commitment to agriculture and people of color has always been both aspirational and inspirational.

Now as an agricultural scientist, serving as a Scientific Program Director at FFAR, I think about the impact that I can have in my current role. I reflect upon FFAR’s vision: a world in which pioneering, collaborative science provides every person access to affordable, nutritious food grown on thriving farms. As I reflect, I am reminded of the legacy of George Washington Carver and one quote of his that comes to mind: Where there is no vision, there is no hope. 

One of the things that was most compelling to me as I joined FFAR was its vision, its mission and its focus on training the future leaders of agriculture. As an African American person with a Ph.D. in agriculture, I am confronted with the reality that according to the National Science Foundation, only six percent of all doctorates were earned by African Americans in their last survey (2016).  It is imperative to think about how to engage more fully with students of color and minority serving institutions and to ensure that funding organizations like FFAR are supporting research that pulls the most innovative minds so we have a diversity of perspective, background and experience.

In an agricultural landscape where only 1.3 percent of farmers are black, it is critical to consider how we can ensure that those farmers of color needs are understood and to find ways to  fund research that meets their needs for productivity, while also developing strategies to steward farmlands and ranches.

This can all feel daunting at times- how to address historical disparities, while addressing current challenges. In addition to thinking about impacts of the pandemic on the agricultural system, I spend most of my days thinking about sustainability, innovation and the role that agriculture can play in addressing climate change What all of those conversations have in common is that they are about the future:  the future of agriculture, research, partnerships, but still- the future. And I bring my whole self to these conversations about the future:  I am black, a woman, a scientist in agriculture, from Alabama with farming in her personal legacy, and from the intersection of those identities – I often ask myself how do I ensure the future that includes me and is representative of people who look like me? 

I don’t think there is a magic answer, or at least I haven’t found one yet. The answer I have today is: intentionality. We can be intentional and purposeful about the ways we engage, the programs we develop and the ways we ensure coordination and collaboration are possible. What I have today is commitment to improvement and learning from mistakes, What I have today is a vision that we can be better to persons of color in agriculture and that vision gives me hope. I don’t have a special answer, other than commitment and intention and at times that doesn’t feel like enough to me. At times I feel like the answer feels too pedestrian or common. But that makes me recall another quote from Dr. Carver: When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world. And that reminds me that a good thing, a good common thing done well can be enough. 

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