Date: Tue, 3 Mar 2015 21:22:47 -0500
Subject: Fwd: joe leonard story of untrues
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On the right side of the promise: guest opinionBy
on March 02, 2015 at 12:51 PMBy Joe Leonard, Jr. Ph.D
As a school kid during the first years of desegregation in the public schools of Austin, Texas, much of my experience of the world around me was shaped by color. I saw and experienced firsthand how discrimination and inequality can stunt and hold back too many Americans--not only through violence, but the more subtle, life-altering trauma of discrimination.
I've also seen how inclusion and understanding have the power to lift up individuals and communities and help them heal.
Those experiences inspired me to dedicate my life to helping organizations and companies chart a new, better path forward--one where every customer and every employee is treated with dignity and respect, no matter what. So when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called me to serve as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at USDA, I said yes.
When we walked in six years ago, Secretary Vilsack and I knew that USDA was marked by a history of denying equal service and opportunity to numerous individuals, based solely upon skin color. It was the furthest thing from "The People's Department" that President Lincoln envisioned at the founding of USDA in 1862.
We started by examining our history, deeply and thoroughly, and bringing to light the worst aspects of the Department's past. In my first weeks on the job, my staff and I were flooded with accounts of alleged discrimination by USDA dating back decades.
We also knew that acknowledging this history publically would be uncomfortable. Setting a new course would create a new set of challenges, but we had to make things right, and not just on paper or in lofty speeches. The Secretary and I demanded results--not rhetoric--from our staff.
We had to evolve and set an example for our future by first addressing past mistakes. In 2010, USDA settled large-scale class-action lawsuits that involved allegations of past discrimination against Native American and African American farmers and ranchers with the establishment of claims processes to adjudicate discrimination claims. In 2011, we began to carry out a similar claims process to address decades-old claims of discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers and ranchers.
But rebuilding trust takes more. We had to ask our stakeholders tough questions and be willing to hear difficult answers. We used their feedback to lay a new, solid foundation for institutional practices that cannot easily be undone.
To do that, we had to change the culture of USDA itself by rooting out exclusivity and building a culture of inclusivity and accessibility. We began by training our employees to ensure those we serve are treated fairly and equally. We made changes to the structure of our County committees--the direct link between the farm community and USDA's programs and services--to ensure a fair representation of minority and women producers. As a result, complaints and findings of wrongdoing have decreased. In 2013 and 2014, our Farm Service Agency--the agency that deals most directly with farmers and ranchers--received the fewest civil rights complaints from customers on record.
We also initiated an improved review process for conducting investigations when civil rights complaints arise. Today, processing times have been dramatically reduced. Cases are no longer closed because they have "expired," a practice that ran rampant in the past and led to complaints that lingered, sometimes for many years, without being addressed. Instead, all issues are examined, diplomatically and promptly. To ensure that every person is properly served by our local offices, we've issued more than 101,000 receipts for service since we began implementing the practice two months ago.
Recognizing that discrimination can come in many forms, in 2013, we added protections for gender identity, gender expression and political identity--one of the first government agencies to do so. This past year, we also issued two key departmental regulations to prohibit age discrimination and discrimination against people with limited proficiency in English. Socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses, producers and regions of the United States now apply for--and receive--USDA loans and support they qualify for, which has ushered in billions of dollars in new economic activity, created jobs and spurred innovation in places that had been for too long overlooked, such as parts of Alabama.
In 2013, 39 of Alabama's poorest rural counties began receiving intensive and targeted support through our StrikeForce Initiative for Rural Growth and Opportunity. USDA partnered with local leaders to identify areas where the need was greatest and provided more than $71 million in funds for community-led projects that would strengthen the economy and spur community growth.
While more needs to be done, these investments are a start. Discrimination and poverty are still part of the lived experience of too many Americans, particularly in the rural communities USDA serves. We will continue to listen, engage and transform to better serve every American and move out from under the shadow of prejudice and injustice. Today, I am proud to say that USDA is standing on the right side of the promise President Lincoln made to the American people 150 years ago.