Agriculture Future of America is celebrating its 25th year in 2021. During that time, AFA has provided more than 21,000 leader development experiences to college students and young professionals in agriculture.
But times have changed since the organization’s founding, and its young members are taking the lead in addressing some of the toughest conversations in society today.
This winter, AFA launched “AFA Bridge, Thriving Through Our Differences,” a five-session virtual discussion that delved into the hotly debated topics of racism, diversity, power and privilege, but with a focus on agriculture.
"Our students were really the impetus for the Bridge series," explains Katie Gaebel, AFA’s director of programs. The events of last year were influential in gathering support and momentum for the series, she says.
But rather than just present a webinar or have a one-off discussion with an “expert,” the students wanted to tackle subjects head on in face-to-face (virtual) discussions, she says. They wanted AFA to be a thought leader in diversity, equity and inclusion.
"They took the lead, and they stepped up and said, ‘Here is what we desire. We want to have these conversations, and we want AFA to help us have these conservations,’” she says.
Twenty-nine students took part in the series that covered the following topics:
racism in land-grant institutions
power and privilege in agriculture
allyship in agriculture
A fifth meeting was then set up for the students to discuss what they learned and to ask questions of each other.
Gaebel and a co-facilitator, Myron McClure, who received a master’s degree in agriculture Extension and education from Penn State, led the discussions and prepped each student with information on each topic before the discussions took place. They even modeled for the students what an uncomfortable conversation could look like.
Gaebel says that way the students could have informed conversations and not be afraid to ask questions even if the topic was uncomfortable.
“They would get out of it as much as they would put into it,” she says. “And we had a very intentional design in how we stepped into this. So, rather than making it kind of a webinar where they just tuned in and listened to facilitators give them information, we designed intentional breakout rooms.
“And we were very intentional about sharing with students that sometimes we don’t get the opportunity to pull up Google and say, ‘What are the most recent statistics on white women hires in agriculture and food industries vs. people of color.’ And so the idea of prepping is that we often enter conversations that are uncomfortable because we can’t take the time to necessarily do all the research we want to, and so how do we step into those with curiosity and not judgment,” Gaebel says.
The original schedule was for just four meetings, but the students, she says, wanted a fifth meeting to dig deeper into the topics and to have a casual conversation.
“There were moments where I had goosebumps just to hear, first of all, how comfortable the students were in sharing with others and with us about their own lived experiences in this space," Gaebel says. “Some students shared with their identities how difficult it was to navigate through some of these things. Ohers shared, 'Hey, I'm taking up this call to action, and I want to bring this back to my university. How can I do that?"
Onsang Yau, a junior studying animal science at Cornell University, and Paul Schlotman, a South Dakota State University sophomore studying agricultural and biological engineering, took part in the series.
They come from very different backgrounds. Yau was born in New York City but was raised in China before coming back to New York when she was 14. Schlotman is from Sioux City, Iowa, where he grew up on his family’s farm and participated in many ag activities in school, including FFA.
Schlotman says that he got a new appreciation of how people perceive issues in society and how important it is to listen to others.
“It's always just a new feel on kind of just being able to see how someone else may perceive it, and how that can be very different from my own just growing up in small-town Iowa, as I didn't have as much diversity perspective in my life," Schlotman says. “So it's a great opportunity to be able to see that and be able to understand how those people kind of perceive what they're seeing. That way, it really helps me to not only understand that but then be able to communicate with them and relate to them in that way as well, for sure.”
Having grown up in China and not coming from an agricultural background, Yau says she felt challenged and nervous about participating in some of the discussions, particularly the one about racism and land-grant institutions. “I felt distant for a moment because of the knowledge some of the other students had on the land-grant system and its history,” she says.
But as the sessions went on, she felt a kinship with others who were also uncomfortable in some of the conversations. That encouraged her to approach things differently.
“Instead of being silent about the topic, I learned to be more open to others, and being open to ask the right questions and share relatable experiences. So after that I felt like I’m more comfortable with handling these kinds of conservations handling similar topics,” she says.
Want to hear more? Gaebel, Schlotman and Yau are guests of this week’s Young Farmer Podcast. Grab those headphones and listen!
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