National FFA maps road to greater inclusion, diversity and equity

Town hall session unveils Agricultural Education for All in the works since 2016.

On the final afternoon of September, Mark Poeschl and Ellen Thompson settled into seats facing a bank of cameras and bright lights in the National FFA Center in Indianapolis.

Poeschl, CEO of the National FFA Organization, and Thompson, project director with the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE), were about to lead a pivotal moment in FFA history. During a one-hour virtual town hall session open to FFA members, educators, alumni and other stakeholders, Poeschl and Thompson outlined the National FFA Organization Agricultural Education for All roadmap. Nearly four years in the making, the wide-ranging plan addresses strategies for greater inclusion, diversity and equity within National FFA.

“It’s time to begin using our voices to stand up for and foster behaviors that are inclusive, diverse and equitable,” said Poeschl. “We understand our role in nurturing the next generation of leaders who will change the world.”

National FFA’s Agricultural Education for All roadmap and platform are based on the principle that the organization should be a welcoming and safe place for all. The plan includes strategies for organizational structure; education, awareness and training; and processes, practices and procedures within National FFA.

Agricultural Education for All roadmap is detailed on the National FFA website at www.ffa.org/ag-ed-for-all. Example provisions include:

  • Creating a dedicated inclusion, diversity and equity staff position
  • Including additional gender options on all forms, surveys and applications
  • Relaunching the H.O. Sargent Award to recognize individuals who have achieved success promoting inclusion, diversity and equity in agricultural education and FFA
  • Delivering curriculum and online platforms to build empathy, respect and acceptance of others
  • Training agricultural educators to be Agricultural Education for All facilitators
  • Formally recognizing the history and contributions of the former New Farmers of America organization
  • Including more diverse musical selections and meal options at National FFA-sponsored events
  • National FFA will not condone fundraisers that depict the selling of human beings
  • Eliminating quad housing at National FFA-sponsored events

Laying the groundwork for change

The groundwork for the plan was laid in 2016, soon after Poeschl took over as CEO of National FFA.

“Our board and staff believed that, in order for FFA to continue to be a relevant organization, it should consider the changes in demographics in the United States, and the need for a broader base of individuals working in the field of agriculture,” he said.

National FFA formed a task force, brought in consultants, led focus groups and conducted surveys to help crystallize objectives and formulate a plan. The end result was the Agricultural Education for All roadmap affirmed in July by the National FFA board of directors.

One of the consultants who helped National FFA identify areas of bias and opportunities for improvement was Dr. Roger Cleveland, director of diversity and faculty development at Eastern Kentucky University.

“After working with FFA for a year and a half now, the leadership has moved from words and conversations to actions. This roadmap has a systemic focus that will transform the organization,” Cleveland said.

The plan is not without skeptics. Some believe the National FFA Organization Agricultural Education for All plan goes too far or too fast. Others say it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough to address diversity challenges within the FFA organization. Cleveland answered them by commenting: “People are at different places. We have to allow some grace, not only for individuals but for the organization.”

Throughout the town hall, Poeschl emphasized that National FFA’s Agricultural Education for All roadmap is not a project or an initiative, but rather a journey of continuous improvement. “We’re making this part of the fabric of our organization,” he said.

Addressing future ag needs

Poeschl said the endeavor is critical, not only to National FFA, but to the future of agriculture.

“The industry has a shortage of capable candidates and employees. It is National FFA’s aim to attract diverse young people to agricultural education and FFA programs that can help address talent gaps in the industry,” he said.

As the Indianapolis evening sun cast shadows across the town hall moderators, Poeschl closed the session by saying: “We know that our membership and our boards and really all parts of our profession can be more diverse. We will build what we believe will be a lasting culture and a framework for success in the future.”

Learn more about the National FFA Agricultural Education for All roadmap at www.ffa.org/ag-ed-for-all.

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