Shirley Sherrod, former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, challenged attendees of the 60th Annual Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) Conference last week to be deliberate and persistent about diversity and inclusion at their co-ops.
The largest independent gathering of consumer retail grocery cooperatives in the U.S., the 2016 CCMA Conference brought together more than 400 food co-op board members, general managers and staff from June 9 – 11 on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. This year’s focus on inclusivity made Sherrod’s perspective particularly relevant.
Sherrod, who grew up on a farm in southwest Georgia, vowed early in life to leave agriculture—and the South—behind. That all changed in 1965 when her father was murdered by a white farmer over an alleged livestock dispute. No charges were ever returned against the shooter by an all-white grand jury. The effect on then 17-year-old Sherrod was profound.
“I made a commitment on the night of his death that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change,” Sherrod told CCMA attendees. “That was 51 years ago.”
During a career that spanned New Communities, Inc.—the first community land trust in the U.S.—to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sherrod made huge strides for minority farmers. She helped them fight back against inferior products sold by fertilizer suppliers and a governor who blocked development funds from the federal government from entering communities that needed it most. During her more than two decades at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, she helped countless family farmers—especially African Americans—retain and develop their land.
Southwest Georgia still battles racism, a lack of political influence and a declining population, Sherrod said, but she isn’t one to give up—a community radio station she first proposed in 1969 finally went on the air in 2011. And when New Communities, Inc. was forced to shutter in the face of drought and systemic discrimination, the ensuing class-action lawsuit awarded $12 million to former New Communities landholders.
“We could have given up, but we didn’t,” Sherrod said. “The money from that lawsuit allowed the organization to retain more land and really begin to do some of the things we started out doing in the 1960s. Do you all realize how many years that is? You can’t give up.”
Turning to co-ops, Sherrod stressed that change does not happen overnight or without effort. “Diversity and inclusion really need to be brought into the planning process. It’s not a feel-good exercise; it’s a do-good exercise. You may not see results next week, or even next year, but as you strive to become more diverse, as you look at being more inclusive, then you begin to see some of the changes that need to be made,” Sherrod said.
“Really think about the people around you and how you can not only lift yourselves up, but lift others up around you. You’d be surprised by what could happen,” she added.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle of Sherrod’s career came when she was forced out of her position as Georgia State Director of Rural Development at the USDA after blogger Andrew Breitbart posted excerpts online of a Sherrod address that seemed to imply that she had discriminated against a white farmer.
Sherrod was later vindicated when the full context of her comments came out, the white farmer in question defended her and the USDA apologized, but she moved on to the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, Inc., a grassroots organization that promotes social justice and economic development, where she continues to effect change as executive director.
“Things can get tough, especially when you’re trying to make a difference. Remember that,” Sherrod told CCMA attendees. “It’s one thing to stay in your little world and think, things are fine, but when you move outside that space and try to change things, it can get tough, but don’t give up.”