Legacy of civil rights progress at USDA [Commentary]

Under Secretary Tom Vilsack's leadership, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has come a long way over the past eight years to improve our record on civil rights. We prioritized anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, diversity and customer service training for employees across the department — including targeted workshops for field staff and leadership in more than a dozen states. As a direct result of these efforts, the number of civil rights complaints has plummeted. 

Under the Obama Administration, USDA has consistently received the fewest complaints from program participants on record, with complaints from the Farm Service Agency — the USDA agency that deals most directly with farmers and ranchers — down by 70 percent. At the same time, complaints from USDA employees have also been drastically reduced. From 2001-2008, USDA employees filed 6,011 Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. Over the eight years of the Obama administration, 4,125 complaints were filed — a 31 percent reduction.

When we arrived at USDA in 2009, there was a significant backlog of discrimination complaints filed by customers and applicants for USDA programs and services. Through hard work and dedication, my team reduced the inventory of program civil rights complaints pending final agency decision in 2015 to the lowest level in five years and reduced the average evaluation time to accept or dismiss civil rights program complaints by 75 percent.

Overall, my office, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR), has reduced the average processing time for new civil rights program complaints from four years to 18 months. Moreover, we established an early Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) option for complaints of discrimination in USDA programs. Last year, 75 percent of program complaints reached resolution through ADR, avoiding the need for lengthy investigations and adjudication.

We have also made the program complaint process more open and user-friendly by creating a simplified form for customers and program participants. The new form helps expedite the process for those who believe they have experienced discrimination by USDA. By capturing all of the information needed to accept a complaint, the form will reduce the time it takes to process complaints moving forward.

We’ve increased inclusion across USDA, ensuring all employees and program customers are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability or age. Since 2009, OASCR has developed or revised a long list of civil rights directives and authorities, providing stronger protections and procedures for civil rights generally.

In 2013, OASCR formalized customer protections from discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression; and in 2014, we issued a departmental regulation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of national origin affecting persons with limited English proficiency in both conducted and assisted programs and activities.

Along with the new departmental regulation, OASCR provided guidance to make sure that every agency within USDA expanded its program operations to ensure equal access for those with limited English proficiency.

Under President Obama’s and Vilsack’s leadership, USDA has become a more inclusive workplace.

We have worked diligently to ensure that USDA is a place where there is equity of opportunity for all employees and where all employees are empowered to reach their full potential.

As a result, employees generally feel USDA has become a more fair, open and supportive workplace.

It has been my honor to be a part of our department’s progress on civil rights, helping to build a better USDA for our employees and all of the Americans we serve.

Joe Leonard Jr. serves as the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Secretary Tom Vilsack. Leonard is the longest-serving assistant secretary for civil rights in USDA's history and the longest-serving African-American Senate-confirmed appointee ever at USDA.

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