Why FFA Is Not Actually for Everybody

This will likely be a controversial post for some. I share this criticism with honor, respect, deep humility and a yearning for equity. I was a state FFA officer and studied agricultural education; my story is wrapped in FFA and the rural Midwest, and these pieces of my life have shaped who I am. If you are someone with a similar story, I hope you will be open to engage with this and sit in the words I share.

I also want to honor those groups of marginalized people who have already shared this sentiment individually, communally or publicly -- people of color, queer people, people with disabilities, religious minorities, etc. and those with varying intersecting identities. I am not going to pretend to have the authority to speak on any of this. While I identify as queer, I also identify as cisgender, able-bodied, Christian, white and male. I don’t have the right to speak on behalf of anybody other than myself.


FFA is not for everybody.

Really, it is not.

I know FFA is not for gender-queer people because we still hold onto a gendered version of Official Dress.

I know FFA is not for Black people because the New Farmers of America (NFA) did not “merge” with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), it was *absorbed.*

I know FFA is not for people with disabilities because the only time we see them on stage as speakers at National FFA Convention is for “inspiration porn.”

I know FFA is not for Latinx people because instead of celebrating their culture and agricultural contribution on Cinco de Mayo, National FFA posts a taco meme on Instagram that says: “I’m into fitness [taco picture] fit’ness whole taco in my mouth.” Because associating jokes about tacos with Cinco de Mayo is easier for white people to swallow than admitting our current agriculture labor is built on the backs of black and brown people.

I know FFA is not for people with intersecting identities because there is research indicating Black men, Hispanic men and white women hold chapter leadership roles at disproportionate rates compared to Black and Hispanic women.

I know FFA is not for women because we celebrate them on International Women’s Day and then start asking, “Where are all the men?” the next day.

I know FFA is not about body positivity because the current FFA jacket sizes available means that some students have to special order their jackets and are shamed for their body type.

I know FFA is not for indigenous people because at the Minnesota FFA Convention this year, the Minnesota FFA Foundation approved a commercial that was pro-Line 3, which is harmful to indigenous communities.

I know FFA is not for religious minorities because even while we ask others to “reflect in a way that is comfortable to them,” we still open our chapter banquets with a prayer to Jesus Christ from the chaplain and maintain selling chaplain officer pins on the FFA Shop website.

I know FFA is not for all people because the inclusion, diversity and equity task force I was on said, “If we want to do this right, we have to go slow.” Because going slow to bring on people with dominant identities is apparently more important than the access and inclusion for people with non-dominant identities.

Let’s be honest. No matter how much we talk about all the jobs available in agriculture, food and natural resources, FFA is not actually for everybody.

FFA was built by white men and was made for white men. Just look at FFA leadership across the country, in state FFA association staff, the National FFA Board of Directors, the National FFA Foundation Board of Trustees, the National FFA Foundation Sponsors’ Board, the National FFA Foundation Individual Giving Council and the National FFA Alumni Advisory Committee.

I know this seems extreme, but I am not talking about only individuals here; I am talking about an inequitable system. Clearly, we have had people from all of those previously mentioned groups break barriers in agricultural education, but the system has not been made for those people to thrive.

***

“We don’t know any better.”

Maybe we don’t. That’s why it is important we listen. Yet, we somehow are not doing that either.

I was one of 30+ people selected to serve on a National FFA Organization and National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) inclusion, diversity and equity task force in August 2018. While I am realistic about the progress of change and justice, I thought we would be able to brainstorm some solutions that worked toward a more equitable agricultural education and FFA. Honestly, I could write a whole blog post on the problematic nature of this task force, but I will spare the details.

In summary, instead of listening to the voices of marginalized people on the inclusion, diversity and equity task force, FFA and NAAE chose to have a “steering committee” of individuals with primarily dominant identities (meaning they all passed as white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied people) decide what the best solutions were.

It was not marginalized people or those who have been most disenfranchised by agricultural education making the decisions, and it was not even the people of the larger task force who made that decision.

People of dominant identities continually think they have to make decisions when it comes to inclusion and diversity, and FFA/NAAE once again reinforced that idea. All they had to do was develop a process that allowed people of non-dominant identities to step into their power, brainstorm and make recommendations (and preferably decisions) for the future of the organization. The people with dominant identities simply needed to step aside and listen.

Listening means yielding power to people who have the solutions for their own communities and experiences. As someone who identifies as queer, do cis-het people really want to yield power so that queer people like me can share our ideas? Do white people really want to yield power to people of color? To religious minorities? To people with disabilities? Or are we just looking to say “we tried” without actually listening?

Because if you want to listen, we can surely do some talking.
  • Let’s talk about all the FFA positions of power that are continually held by white men and restricted from people with non-dominant identities.
  • Let’s talk about our own form of FFA reparations for Black and indigenous people in our programs – specifically funds that help kickstart SAEs for students who are direct descendants of NFA and Future Indian Farmers of America (FIFA) members.
  • Let’s talk about all the assets of NFA that were swallowed up by FFA.
  • Let’s talk about how Farm Bureau is anti-LGBTQ+ in its policy and recently formalized a partnership with the National FFA Organization.
  • Let’s talk about how FFA “doesn’t advocate,” but still actually does advocate for GMO and conventional production, rather than non-GMO or alternative production.
  • Let’s talk about how FFA is “not partisan,” but the act of being complacent is political in itself and maintains social hierarchies.
  • Let’s talk about how our CDEs, SAEs, awards programs and events are classist and inaccessible.
  • Let’s talk about the indigenous land that we hold our conventions, leadership conferences and camps on and the continued existence of those people in our society that we continue to try erasing.
  • Let’s talk about an FFA acknowledgement of the historical injustices committed against black and brown people in agricultural education.
  • Let’s talk about non-gendered FFA Official Dress more than just allowing women to wear pants.
  • Let’s talk about inviting Trump to National FFA Convention to honor a “tradition,” rather than honoring the people in our organization he has harmed through sexual assault allegations, white supremacist comments and racist/xenophobic actions.
  • Let’s talk about a name change to become the Future Farmers and Agriculturists – a name that was thrown around as a new identity for the “merger” of NFA and FFA.
  • Let’s talk about how major agribusinesses that sponsor FFA are still colonizing food systems in global communities of color, perpetuating the white savior complex, and not being held accountable.
  • Let’s talk about environmental justice in agriculture and yielding space to those who are most disproportionately impacted by climate change at our conventions.

I love FFA and the experiences I had in it; yet, in the last couple years, I have been able to recognize the inequities we perpetuate. Only in deep admiration and respect is it possible to hold the tension of a love for this organization and also a criticism of it. I could hold back this criticism because it takes time for people to “change their hearts and minds,” but:

  1. We literally don’t have time. We don’t have time to center white people’s feelings or straight people’s feelings or anybody’s feelings who identifies with a dominant identity. There are literally people dying, and yes, our policies and practices are a part of the systems that are killing people.
  2. Gradualism is a myth. (Gradualism meaning we cannot implement ideas because “they are not realistic and not everybody will buy into them, so we have to make slow, gradual change.”) It is used as a scapegoat to make white people and people with dominant identities feel better about the pace at which we are working toward equity. Gradualism centers people with dominant identities at the expense of people with non-dominant identities.
  3. Scholars and actual research indicates equity doesn’t result from “changed hearts and minds,” but it does indicate that “changed hearts and minds” follow the implementation of changed policies and practices.

There are amazing things happening in this organization, and I would be happy to share those with you. However, this message is not the space for those words. This message is for accountability and truth-telling. This message is to expand those amazing opportunities to the most marginalized of our organization.
 
Let’s stop talking about how we want to be more inclusive and facilitate training programs that “change hearts and minds,” and let’s start talking about equitable actions, policies and programs.

If you are white or male or Christian or hold any sort of dominant identity and care about equity and access in agricultural education, now is the time to speak up. FFA is not hopeless, but it is only not hopeless if we do something about these things. Let's get to work.

Media Response:
Star Tribune
Shark Farmer Podcast
Agweek
Agweek Editorial Board