Before I was sworn in as Secretary of Agriculture, recent folks who had the job—both Republican and Democratic—suggested that it was important that I set a new, proactive course to move past USDA’s checkered and unfortunate history with regards to civil rights.
So I made it a priority for the Department to enter a new era for civil rights—to ensure that all our customers get a fair shake, no matter their race, color, sex, or age—and instituted a comprehensive effort to help get us there:
• We reached historic resolutions to past cases of discrimination brought against USDA by African Americans, Latinos and women farmers and ranchers.
• We announced the settlement of the long-standing Keepseagle v. Vilsack case brought by Native American farmers. In April 2011, the settlement was approved by the court as being fair and just and we are moving forward to resolve those claims and implement the settlement.
• We conducted a review of past complaints against the Department that were largely ignored in the previous decade and we are asking Congress to help work with us to find a route to resolve those with merit.
• We launched a Department-wide ‘cultural transformation’ to create a workforce that represents the diversity of America, and support them in their efforts to serve all of the American people. That has meant improving employee training and outreach efforts, as well as a large-scale plan to recruit, retain and promote employees who will lead the Department as a premier service-provider in the 21st century.
And our work has produced real results. Last year, we had the lowest number of program complaints filed against the Farm Service Agency since USDA began keeping track, as well as the lowest number of internal employment complaints ever filed against the Department.
This week, the Department took another step forward to write a new chapter for civil rights. In April 2009, I asked for an independent assessment of USDA’s program delivery. And we have just received an exhaustive Civil Rights Assessment that provides recommendations to help USDA improve field-based service delivery to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. It also acknowledged some areas where we have been successful—such as in our work to reach minority and other disadvantaged groups in our housing programs.
Of the more than 200 recommendations contained in the report, a significant number have already been addressed by our efforts. We are also taking the others seriously. I created an internal working group of both career and politically appointed employees to review, analyze and implement key recommendations so this Assessment acts as an effective roadmap to make the Department a more diverse, inclusive, and high-performance organization.
The recommendations, of course, cover a large range of suggestions. Some of them can be implemented administratively, or through policy or statutory changes—others will require the cooperation of Congress and new legislation. But our continued process to embrace a new era for the Department will make a difference for the American people whose lives we strive to improve each day.
USDA’s work encompasses much more than our efforts for America’s farmers and ranchers. Our nutrition assistance programs serve 1 in 4 Americans, 170 million people visit our National Forests each year, and tens of millions of rural Americans benefit from our work to strengthen their communities. Precisely because we touch the lives and livelihoods of so many, we must build a Department that helps all people pursue their dreams. But we can only do this if we rebuild faith and trust in a government that is open, transparent, inclusive, responsive and accessible.
From the beginning of his time in office, President Obama has asked me—and the federal government as a whole—to pursue those very goals. To re-connect Americans to their government and build greater confidence in the work we do.
I pledge to continue USDA’s progress so that fairness and inclusion serve as the foundation of everything we do at the Department, and that each employee and customer is treated fairly and equitably, with dignity and respect. The American people deserve no less.
Tom Vilsack is the United States Secretary of Agriculture and the former Governor of the state of Iowa.