The People’s Department: A New Era for Civil Rights at USDA

Tom Vilsack
USDA Results
Published in
15 min readAug 2, 2016


Just a few weeks ago, I had the honor of accepting the Federal Agency of the Year award from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While it’s always encouraging to receive praise on behalf of the Department, I am exceptionally proud of this award in recognition of the hardworking people at USDA and the improvements we’ve made since the start of the Obama Administration. Together, we have come a long way.

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When I assumed the office of the Secretary nearly eight years ago, USDA had a reputation marred by decades of systemic discrimination. Thousands of claims had been filed against the Department for denial of equal service, many based on race. Many of these claims languished for decades, unresolved. But this Administration heard President Obama’s call to uproot inequality, and we acted. Over the past eight years, we’ve taken big, bold steps to rectify past wrongs and ensure all Americans who come to USDA for help are treated fairly, with dignity and respect.

We got started promptly by examining our history and bringing to light the most challenging aspects of the Department’s past. We made it our mission to change the culture of USDA. To root out exclusivity and build a culture of accessibility, we created new policies, corrected past mistakes and charted a stronger, more inclusive path for our employees and the communities we serve. While there’s still much to accomplish, we’ve made significant progress by addressing the following goals:

1. Correcting Past Mistakes
To gain trust as a provider in the communities we serve, we took action to heal the wounds of past mistakes, setting the stage for a more inclusive future.

2. New and Improved Outreach to Expand the Breadth of Our Service
USDA’s services impact individuals in every city, county, state and territory across our nation — in addition to countless countries around the globe. To increase awareness of our programs and make sure every American has access to our services, we’ve expanded our outreach and engagement efforts to better reach those in need.

3. Increased Representation from Those We Serve
To make sure every American has a stake in the USDA experience and that our policies reflect our commitment to fair and equal service, we’ve made significant changes to enhance the diversity of decision-makers across the Department, making sure our customers are represented and voices from all of America’s communities are heard.

4. Unparalleled Access to Economic Opportunity
To level the playing field and make sure every American has a chance to succeed regardless of race, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity or zip code, we created new bridges to economic opportunity to help make the American dream a reality.

5. Cultural Transformation within the Department
Over the past several years, we’ve seen a remarkable increase in the diversity of people working at USDA, with more individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Since 2009, we have transformed the culture within USDA to ensure employees are met with the support, sensitivity and care they need to thrive.

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The results are in, and I’m pleased to say that when it comes to civil rights, we’ve brought about real change. In 2015, USDA reduced the inventory of pending civil rights complaints to its lowest level in five years; and between 2010 and 2014, USDA’s Farm Service Agency reported the fewest customer complaints on record. Major improvements to farm loans have made it possible for more Americans to get involved in farming and ranching. And today, because of our programs, more hardworking people have access to affordable homes they can call their own. We’ve made groundbreaking investments through our StrikeForce program and Promise Zone designations to improve quality of life for those in communities experiencing persistent poverty, in addition to multi-generational efforts targeting the needs of parents and children which will have lasting impacts for years to come.

Correcting Past Mistakes

When we arrived in January 2009, there were 14,000 administrative civil rights cases pending at USDA and no formal processes established to provide pathways to justice for USDA customers. In addition, to address long-standing allegations of discrimination, we settled thousands more claims as part of large-scale class-action lawsuits in the district courts with Native American and African-American farmers and ranchers, and we established a unified claims process for women and Hispanic farmers and ranchers, providing more than $2.5 billion in combined payments to claimants, more than $118 million in debt relief and millions of additional dollars to nonprofit and educational institutions.

In 2010, the historic Keepseagle settlement agreement made up to $680 million available to Native American farmers who faced discrimination by USDA in past decades, in addition to extensive programmatic relief and $80 million in debt forgiveness and tax relief to make sure claimants could continue to farm or ranch. When there was approximately $380 million remaining after payment to over 3,600 successful claimants, attorneys handling the case established a special fund to be distributed to nonprofit organizations serving Native American farmers and ranchers, including tribal colleges, Land-Grant Universities and financial institutions committed to community development, helping to enrich these communities for generations to come.

That same year, the Pigford II settlement agreement made $1.25 billion available to African-American farmers and ranchers, awarding approximately $870 million for 18,310 claims and providing $647,000 in debt relief. To ensure inclusivity for all who seek justice, USDA also created a streamlined claims process for Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers in 2011 to address past claims of discrimination, awarding over $195 million to for 3,144 claims.

While these settlement agreements helped close a painful chapter in our collective history, our work to create a new era for civil rights at USDA had just begun. It wasn’t enough to address the past — we had to change our policies and practices for good. That’s why over the past eight years, we’ve worked hard to make sure USDA is a trusted provider in every community we serve. And to solidify positive change for future generations, we cleared old case backlogs, created new safeguards and improved systems and processes so all civil rights matters can be resolved promptly and effectively.

We prioritized customer service trainings for employees across the Department — including targeted workshops for field staff and leadership in more than a dozen states with histories of civil rights infractions. As a direct result of these efforts, civil rights complaints have plummeted. Under the Obama Administration, USDA has consistently received the fewest equal opportunity employment complaints and fewest complaints from program participants on record, with complaints from the Farm Service Agency — the agency that deals most directly with farmers and ranchers — down by 70 percent.

Additionally, farm loan assistance provided by the Farm Service Agency has helped nearly 10,000 farmers in 2015 alone, of which 72 percent are considered socially disadvantaged or beginning — a record number compared to prior years. Since 2008, USDA’s annual lending to underserved producers has more than doubled from $380 million in 2008 to almost $830 million in 2015. USDA has also expanded opportunities for credit, creating the popular microloan program in 2013 to provide flexible access to credit and increased lending limits. Participants can now borrow up to $50,000 to help finance farm operations, making it easier for people of all backgrounds to get the tools they need. Since its launch, minority and historically underrepresented communities have accounted for significant growth in the program and we’ve provided more than 20,000 microloans to farmers and ranchers in all 50 states — of which 6,972 went to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

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Here are a few other steps we’ve taken to better serve our customers since 2009:

  • Reduced approximate processing time for new civil rights program complaints from 4 years to 18 months.
  • Created a universal form for program participants to report cases of discrimination at USDA. This has helped simplify the reporting process and reduced processing time for complaints.
  • Established an early Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) option for complaints of discrimination in USDA programs. Last year, 75 percent of program complaints reached resolution through ADR, avoiding the need for lengthy investigations and adjudication.
  • Issued Departmental regulations prohibiting ageism and discrimination against people with limited proficiency in English.
  • Revised USDA’s nondiscrimination clause to include explicit protections against discrimination based on gender identity and/or expression.
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The People’s Department: Increasing Outreach and Representation for All Americans

One of the most direct links we have between USDA and farming communities is the Farm Service Agency’s County Committee system. Committee members help deliver FSA farm programs at the local level, and farmers who serve on committees help decide the kind of programs their counties will offer. To ensure fair representation in the communities we serve, we made meaningful modifications to the County Committee structure, annually reviewing local administrative boundaries to make sure socially disadvantaged and women producers are adequately represented. When statistical analysis demonstrated a persistent lack of diversity in some County Committees, I was the first Agriculture Secretary to use authority granted under the 2002 Farm Bill to appoint voting members to over 385 committees, addressing underrepresentation of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. As a result, when someone applies for a loan today, they can be more confident knowing the individuals reviewing the applications reflect the diversity of the constituency they serve.

To address the economic effects of long-standing discrimination, USDA established the Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO) in 2010 to improve access to federal programs and enhance the viability of small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Since its launch, OAO has maintained its presence in historically underserved communities by providing technical assistance through the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the 2501 Program), and additionally by enlisting USDA staff at 1890 Land-Grant Universities (historically serving African-American students), 1994 Land-Grant Universities (serving Native American students) and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

In 2011, OAO launched its first Minority Farmers Advisory Committee comprised of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, representatives from nonprofits that serve minority farmers and ranchers, civil rights activists and academics to provide guidance to USDA on policies and strategies that impact minority farmers and ranchers.

Through coordinated outreach and consistent engagement, we’re forming new partnerships in diverse communities and regaining trust where it was once lost. This is most evident in the rising number of Hispanic and African-American farmers. Between 2007 and 2012, the United States saw a 12 percent increase in the number of black farmers and a 21 percent increase in Hispanic farmers. In 1992, the New York Times reported “black farmers are on their way to extinction.” Today, we have come a long way in changing this trend for the better.

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While OAO has played an integral role in expanding the reach of our programs and services, our efforts have not stopped there. All of the Department’s agencies have expanded their outreach, developing targeted strategies to help meet the needs of America’s diverse communities through their programs.

For instance, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service houses the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) to improve access to nutritious foods for tribal households, and FNS has developed several resources in Spanish to connect more people to nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and the Summer Food Service Program. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) has hosted over 20 engagement events on heirs property loss to help socially disadvantaged landowners keep land in their families; and in 2015, OASCR signed a historic memorandum of understanding with the National Black Farmers Association — a community organization founded in the 1990s with a mission to break down barriers to USDA programs.

In February, I traveled to Moncks Corner, South Carolina to announce the launch of the African American Forest Restoration and Retention project, jointly led by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The project supports landowners by providing forestry, land tenure and technical services to help prevent the loss of African-American owned forests. Since 2009, USDA has also facilitated over 2,500 contracts to transition over 400,000 acres of expiring Conservation Reserve Program land from retiring landowners to beginning or underserved producers for sustainable grazing or crop production. And in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, NRCS has also helped sponsor and develop over 50 new community and school gardens sparking young peoples’ interest in agriculture and increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in urban communities including Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri.

Since 2009, USDA’s Rural Development has brought hope to families of all backgrounds by creating homeownership opportunities in over 3,200 counties and investing approximately $11.2 million to help low-income homeowners make essential repairs to their homes. In addition, through its Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program, Rural Development has made improvements to facilities at 26 minority-serving colleges and universities.

USDA agencies are working together to improve quality of life for all Americans. Since 2014, USDA has hosted a series of Rural Summits in partnership with the True Colors Fund and National Center for Lesbian Rights, bringing targeted resources from all of USDA’s agencies to LGBT Americans living in rural communities. This is critical: same-sex couples in rural America are more likely to be low-income and almost twice as likely to receive public assistance, while transgender Americans are four times as likely to have an annual household income less than $10,000 and are twice as likely to be unemployed. Through USDA’s LGBT Rural Pride Summit Series — the first of its kind — we have brought our programs to rural America to combat these pervasive vulnerabilities. By increasing awareness of USDA’s rural housing, community facilities and economic development programs, we are working to fight homelessness, increase access to quality healthcare and create economic opportunities for those in need.

Leveling the Playing Field, Investments in Opportunity

USDA believes every American should have an opportunity to succeed, but a full 85 percent of our country’s persistent poverty counties are in rural America. That’s why in 2010, we established the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative, making a commitment to strengthen rural economies through increased investments, intensive outreach and local partnerships. Through StrikeForce, we’ve partnered with almost 1,500 community and faith-based organizations to support nearly 190,000 projects, investing $23.5 billion in over 970 high-poverty counties, parishes, boroughs and census areas in rural America. In 2015 alone, our partnerships have supported nearly 57,000 projects directing more than $7.5 billion to the poorest places in rural America.

Video: StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity

Adding Seats to the Table: Diversity, Inclusion and the Many Faces of American Agriculture

Recent research suggests that through 2020, an expected average of 57,900 jobs will become available in food, agriculture, renewable resources and the environment each year with only 34,500 students graduating with the expertise to fill them. Engaging young people in these fields now is an investment in our future. That’s why we’ve allotted approximately $5.6 billion for programs serving new and beginning farmers and ranchers through 2017. To engage more Americans in the agricultural sector, we recently partnered with Archer Daniels Midland to encourage industry, academia and government to spur diversity across the field, and in 2015 we hosted training workshops for over 130 students through our Summer Youth Employment Programs in communities across the country.

From the classroom to the farm to the boardroom, women in agriculture are paving the way for a better future. To improve visibility of women’s leadership across the sector, we launched the Women in Agriculture network in 2015 to support and engage women across all areas of agriculture and foster professional partnerships between women with shared interests and goals. Today, the network has over 1,200 mentors and mentees working together to meet the world’s growing food, fuel and fiber needs.

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In agriculture, there are opportunities for everyone — even if you live in a concrete jungle in a bustling metropolis. From rooftop gardens to aquaponics centers in old warehouses, urban agriculture is one of the latest movements to challenge the traditional view of farming, bringing fresh new advantages to communities of all kinds. Urban agriculture is also inviting a new crop of producers to the marketplace, and diverse communities across the country are seeing positive effects with increased access to healthy, local foods, reduced crime and new opportunities in employment and education.

In April 2016, I joined innovators in Baltimore to unveil USDA’s Urban Agriculture Toolkit to help entrepreneurs and community leaders successfully create jobs and increase access to healthy food through urban agriculture. By expanding access to nutritious foods and increasing awareness about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, urban farms are making a real difference in the lives of many, promising a brighter, healthier future for the next generation.

The Next Generation: New and Beginning Farmers

The next generation of farmers and ranchers will come from everywhere. They may come from generations of farmers or be entirely new to agriculture; they may be college graduates coming home to work the land of their families; or they may be returning veterans, second career seekers, immigrants and people from all ethnic backgrounds looking for a chance at the American dream. Over the past eight years, USDA has extended resources to support a strong next generation of farmers and ranchers by improving access to land and capital, building new markets and market opportunities, creating new conservation opportunities, offering appropriate risk management tools, and increasing our outreach, education and technical support.

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To make agriculture a reality for many, since 2009, we’ve made financial support and tools available to more disadvantaged small businesses, producers and regions of the United States — ushering in billions of dollars in new economic activity, creating thousands of jobs and spurring innovation. With this work, we are setting the standard for the rest of the federal government and today, USDA is leading federal engagement efforts with small and minority-owned businesses.

Cultural Transformation within the Department: Working for those Who Work for Us

In order to provide our customers with the best service possible, we made a commitment to ensure each and every individual at the Department is afforded equal opportunity for professional growth and the support they need to thrive. Recognizing lasting change could only come from within, we launched a Department-wide Cultural Transformation effort to create an environment where all USDA employees are empowered to reach their full potential.

Over the past eight years, we’ve seen diversity and representation increase steadily across the Department and today, our staff looks more like the communities we serve, with 27 percent of our workforce comprised of minority employees. With nonwhite representation up by 88 percent and a 38 percent increase in the number of women, USDA’s Senior Executive Service (SES) Corps is now the most diverse across the U.S. government, exceeding the federal workforce in 9 out of 10 diversity categories.

As part of our promise to make sure every employee is wholly supported, we established the Special Emphasis Program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees, making USDA one of the first Cabinet-level departments to designate a program for its LGBT employees. Since its launch, the program has helped improve employment and advancement opportunities, identify causes of discrimination, monitor progress in eliminating discrimination in agency programs and increase cultural sensitivities among employees and managers across the Department.

To lead this pattern into the future, USDA has partnered with the Office of Personnel Management, 1890 Land-Grant Universities (historically serving African-American students), 1994 Land-Grant Universities (serving Native American students) and Hispanic Serving Institutions to maximize hiring flexibilities, develop a model intern-to-career program and host innovative hiring events with an emphasis on serving historically underserved communities. Over the past 5 years alone, these approaches have demonstrated a 140 percent increase in the number of minority students hired.

Sustaining our Legacy for a More Inclusive Tomorrow

For one-and-a-half centuries, USDA has empowered communities across the country and helped ensure we leave our children a future rich with promise and possibility. Today, I am proud to say that USDA is again standing on the right side of that promise.

As this Administration begins to draw to a close, USDA is committed to laying the groundwork for the future, making sure all Americans have equal access to opportunity and the support they need to succeed. Discrimination and poverty are still part of the lived experience of too many Americans, particularly in the rural communities USDA serves, but we continue to listen, engage and transform to better serve every American and move out from the shadow of injustice.

Header photo: Yvonne Cooper-Carter explains to Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the steps they have taken in preparing to plant a pine forest on 85 acres of family land during his visit in Berkeley County.
Photo credit: Paul Zoeller, The Post and Courier