Uprooting Racism Groupshot

Sustainable agriculture extension is only as effective as the number of people reached and the quality of those interactions. In California, almost a third of farms and ranches are operated by persons of color, and many are recent immigrants, primarily from Latin America and Asia. Are we effectively engaging with those producers so that their communities, too, can benefit from the latest developments in environmentally sound and economically viable farming practices?  

A recent workshop organized by the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program in conjunction with Soul Fire Farm, invited extension professionals from across the state to explore this question. The workshop was funded with California state professional development funds provided by Western SARE. Held on May 31, 2019 in Stockton, CA, the workshop, Uprooting Racism in the Food System: A Racial Equity Training for California Extension Professionals, attracted a groundswell of interest from extension professionals, with 60 participants and many more who had to be waitlisted. The majority of participants work with Cooperative Extension and the University of California system, and NRCS. During the workshop, Larisa Jacobson, professional facilitator with Soul Fire Farm, walked participants through the history of racism in the food system broadly, as well as more specifically in the establishment and funding of the Land Grant and Cooperative Extension systems. She invited participants to reflect on their own institutions’ roles in perpetuating systemic racism and opportunities for improving engagement with producers of color. Six panelists from organizations around California also spoke of their successes and challenges in working with and being part of communities of color on topics ranging from urban gardening in the San Francisco Bay area to expanding access to traditional foods for California’s native tribes.  

“I never knew!” exclaimed one UC employee, expressing her surprise at learning that many land grant institutions were funded by land tracts taken from native American tribes. Another said “I wish we could spend more time on this” and hoped that the concepts and strategies for equity and inclusion that were introduced in the workshop could be better integrated throughout the work of Cooperative Extension. A simple institutional self-assessment tool introduced by the facilitator generated a large amount of discussion about where different programs stood along the continuum from “Complicit” to “Frontline Organization”, and many attendees felt there is much work remaining to move our organizations to a state where they are truly empowering people of color both within the institution and amongst the clientele. 

The workshop galvanized a broad-based group of University of California land grant and extension staff to re-vitalize an internal online discussion group on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and an upcoming meeting of this group is going to generate plans for more concrete action steps coming out of the workshop.