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Where I Come From: At the 95th annual Illinois FFA Convention, discussions on the floor became unusually heated and emotional, as young people engaged on race, class and gender. Here’s how it all turned out.

Betty Haynes

June 21, 2023

3 Min Read
the back of Mariam Muhammed of Chicago High School for Ag Sciences FFA Chapter as she speaks at the Illinois FFA convention
ILLINOIS FFA: “Imagine the impact we could make if we just listened and showed kindness,” says Mariam Muhammed of Chicago High School for Ag Sciences FFA. Betty Haynes

Last week I attended the 95th annual Illinois FFA Convention, where thousands of FFA members gathered from across the state for three days of competitions, celebrations, decisions and professional development.

Illinois is home to FFA chapters ranging from the very rural to the very urban — from tiny towns to Chicago — and their chapters bring a diverse set of voices and backgrounds to the fabric of Illinois FFA.

On the final day, students from the Chicago High School for Ag Sciences FFA chapter in Section 8 introduced a constitutional amendment to the floor proposing to change the term “section” to “region” in the FFA bylaws. Illinois FFA chapters are organized by chapter, then section, then district — with sections numbered from north to south and containing multiple chapters. In the Illinois FFA, Section 8 encompasses chapters in Lake, Cook, DuPage and Will counties.

map of Illinois showing the FFA sections

The amendment asserted that the term “Section 8” carries a negative connotation due to “Section 8 housing,” or federally subsidized housing options for low-income families and individuals — a common term in urban areas. In addition, “Section 8” in the military refers to “a discharge from the U.S. Army for military inaptitude or undesirable habits or traits of character.”

Soon, the floor broke into a heated debate, bringing forth elements of class, race and gender. Emotions ran high as passionate FFA members from both sides of the debate made articulate, respectful arguments.

On what should have been one of the most fun weeks of the year, some made testimonies in tears and others cheered in victory.

Watching it unfold was intense, and it hurt my heart to see these kids carry the weight of such adult conversations. I wondered how many of the more extreme opinions echoed what they’d heard at home or if they were influenced by constant exposure to media? I hope they were formulating their own opinions, but I also know that as a teenager, I didn’t have the life experience, education or knowledge to really formulate my own opinions on such politically charged issues.

But man, did they handle the discussion well.

Mariam Muhammed from the Chicago High School for Ag Sciences FFA chapter made the case in favor of changing the term “section” on the grounds that FFA has been evolving for the better for decades. Most notably, she cited that until 1969, only male members were allowed to join.

“Without this change, I would not be here,” Muhammed said. “It is changes like this that have shaped us into who we are today as an organization. After 41 years of only males in FFA, it was time to begin a new tradition, and now we, both young men and women, have the same opportunity before us.”

In opposition, Gemini Long from Carlinville FFA cited this line in the FFA Creed: “with a faith born not of words but of deeds” — saying that instead of changing the verbiage, FFA members should focus on advocating for the term “Section 8” through their example as members.

“The term ‘section’ is just a word; it doesn’t reflect on the section,” Long argued. “What reflects on a section is its members and how they represent their section and themselves. In addition, changing the terminology from section to region would create confusion among FFA alumni.”

In the end, the motion did not pass. The term “section” will remain in the Illinois FFA Constitution. And as soon as it was over, the members turned to electing state officers, looking forward to the year ahead.

“No matter the outcome, it makes me so incredibly proud to see how the FFA members handled it,” said Rachel Hood, 2022-23 Illinois FFA president. “Even though I know under those blue jackets they had burning passions for their side of the motion, members shared their stories respectfully, honestly and emotionally.”

I think we can all learn a thing or two from this group of exceptional young agriculturalists.

Read more about:

FFAIllinois FFA

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Petersburg, Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty recently won the Emerging Photographer Award from the Ag Communicators Network during the 2022 Ag Media Summit and placed in the Emerging Writer category as well.

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