Wednesdays from Washington: Agri-CULTURE: Bringing the Diversity to D.C.

This blog post was written by Arizona State University graduate student Cindy Farlee. In addition to studying Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership at ASU, Cindy is the Program Officer for the Native American Agriculture Fund.

Amid the national anxieties of the impending coronavirus, the ASU Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort traveled to the “belly of the beast” of American policymaking to visit with and learn from individuals whose collective decision-making authority, journalism/reporting, and positions in the food industry impact us as citizens of this country. It was one of the most interesting, yet intellectually overwhelming trips to Washington, D.C. I’ve had since I was first there in high school.The amount and variety of information we all absorbed that week, which ranged from improvements in nutritional products offered at PepsiCo, to a meeting with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-01) at the Rayburn House Office Building, was incredible, especially in such a short amount of time. Our packed schedules also gave us some insight into what our experienced faculty faced in the past in the name of food policy and advocacy for our nation’s agricultural champions (seriously, kudos). Given the whirlwind that 2020 has been so far, I find I have to keep reminding myself that this was only a couple months ago, not years, as it has come to seem with the uncertain time we find ourselves still living in.

During the spring immersion to Washington, D.C. our cohort met up with Don Bice, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Administration in Departmental Administration*, and his colleague Chris Nelson. Previously, I was not very familiar with this specific branch of the USDA. It was interesting to hear Mr. Bice’s overview of this office and the work he oversees on a daily basis. What stood out to me was when he spoke about the difficulties in hiring within the federal government and the need for improving it. One of the coolest things I’ve experienced through my employment in the agricultural sector has been the access to and connections with some great supporters of agriculture, most of whom work within the many agencies of the USDA. Given those connections, it was interesting to experience the USDA from a new perspective. 

The immersion was an overall good experience and I’m thankful to the Swette Center for providing our cohort the chance to participate in such dialogues. It was a privilege to meet with such a storied collection of legislators, regulators, industry leaders, and advocates that are working every day to support US agriculture and change the face of DC.  As we toured around D.C., it was inspiring to meet with folks like Karis Gutter a black, Marines veteran and now leader of US Government Affairs with Corteva Agriscience and to hear stories like Rep. Jim McGovern’s decision to redecorate the House Committee on Rules meeting room with artwork representing immigrants and indigenous people including Te Ata, the great aunt of Ranking Member Cole (OK-4). While we experienced these and other signs of progress towards diversity it still struck me that the movers and shakers of DC are still an overwhelmingly white majority.

It hit home the urgent necessity of the presence of Native people and other people of color in these federal spaces in order for the concerns of hundreds of communities across the country and Native voices to be heard in these important conversations. 

One of our goals here at the Swette Center is to actively change the faces of the individuals sitting at the table when it comes to addressing the challenges facing agriculture today.  Our vision is a food and agriculture system that reflects all the diversity in culture, knowledge, flavor, experience, and ways of knowing that this beautiful country has to offer. 

*Since the time of this writing Don Bice has taken the position of Director with BDO USA.  We congratulate Mr. Bice on this move and thank him for his many years of service with the USDA!