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Moving the Needle on Racial Equity in Extension

The 1862 Land Grant institutions were founded during the immediate post-Civil War, post-slavery period for the benefit of white farmers and homesteaders and were built on the wealth generated by land expropriated from indigenous peoples across the U.S. (Joseph A. Myers Center, 2021). With a history so fraught with racial oppression, our public sector extension service faces an enormous task not only in righting past wrongs, but in moving forward in truly meeting the needs of contemporary people of color.

In an effort to address racial inequities in our own University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR, the land grant arm of the UC), as well as in the broader public sector and non-profit extension community, staff of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program launched an initiative in 2019-2021, which included an internally focused set of institutional change activities, and a set of educational activities geared toward external extension work. For the internal work, the program hosted a day-long training on “Uprooting Racism in the Food System”, led by staff from Soul Fire Farm, targeted to our extension colleagues.  From this training and other initiatives, our program joined a nascent group of committed academic and professional staff in what came to be known as the “DEI Alliance”. This Alliance worked on assessing, self-educating, and developing objectives, activities and metrics to guide the organization to address structural discrimination and increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout UC ANR offices and programs. The awareness-raising work of the DEI Alliance, in turn, moved UC ANR’s leadership to institute a DEI Advisory Council to “provide advice, support and ensure accountability for DEI efforts that the university, its staff, and academics undertake to improve working environments within  and quality of life for marginalized populations living in the state of California” (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Council to the Vice President, UC ANR, 2021).

The externally focused work involved organizing a series of six professional development webinars for University of California and other extension professionals to learn about needs, challenges, and opportunities for engaging with clientele in communities of color. The 1.5-hour webinars covered topics ranging from building relationships with agricultural communities of color, to respecting different knowledge systems, to rectifying racial inequities in land access. Speakers included a range of experts, from farmers of color and leaders of tribal-serving organizations and other nonprofits, to University of California and NRCS extension professionals.  Knowledge systems spanned the spectrum from academic to practical farming experience (for a full set of webinar descriptions and recordings, see the Youtube playlist “2021 UC SAREP Racial Equity in Extension Webinar Series”).

Lessons Learned

Over these next three blog posts, we will share the following three key lessons that emerged for us from both the internally and externally focused activity areas:

  1. Taking the time to build relationships of trust with marginalized communities is essential.
  2. It may be helpful to tailor communications about DEI work differently with different colleagues, to account for varying stages of awareness, understanding, and acceptance, while not diluting the message.
  3. Meaningful collaboration with racially and cultural diverse groups often entails working across worldviews and looking for knowledge and expertise in unexpected places.

Here we begin with the first lesson learned.

Take the time to build relationships of trust.  

Building trust is essential and takes time and effort, for both internal institutional DEI work and external-facing extension work. To illustrate how far we have to go, A-dae Romero-Briones, director of the Food and Agriculture Program for the First Nations Development Institute, shared that “in my language, we call extension agents ‘the people who kill the fruit trees’”. She was referring to a historical situation in which extension workers failed to account for a tribe’s full spectrum of diverse food resources in making irrigation efficiency recommendations. These recommendations included lining irrigation ditches with concrete, inadvertently cutting off access to water for some crucial fruit trees along the ditch.

Public sector extension workers can benefit from understanding and acknowledging that, whatever their personal orientation may be, they often enter marginalized communities carrying a particular institutional history, which may be perceived negatively by others. Building relationships that move beyond this historically-mediated perspective often requires allocating more time than one might expect. Moreover, extension personnel need to be prepared to do so initially with no expectation of immediate returns, in terms of conventional extension milestones. Since many institutions are set up to prioritize reporting and publishing of positive extension outcomes, staff may need to carry on relationship-building work with marginalized communities on the side while continuing to conduct other work through which they can attain necessary career and institutional milestones. More ideally, institutional career review processes could be amended to give credit to relationship-building work.

In parallel, we found that internal institutional DEI work may require a trust-building phase between top-level leadership and staff.  Due to past personal experiences, staff may initially distrust the intent or sincerity of institutional DEI efforts initiated by leadership. Bridging such chasms requires additional time and care devoted by top-level leadership to communication, and such communication needs to include actively listening to lower-level staff as a key component (see the lesson on collaboration below).  In short, transparency and open communication are necessary across the spectrum.

Next week, we will take up the topic of tailoring communications according to colleagues’ varying needs.


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council to the Vice President, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (2021). Charter.

Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues & Native American Student Development. (2021). The University of California Land Grab: A Legacy of Profit from Indigenous Land. A Report of key Learnings and Recommendations [Report]. University of California, Berkeley.

Photo by John Schaidler on Unsplash.