One-year check in on our anti-racism pledge

By Sarah Evanega

June 3, 2021

A year ago, reminded anew by George Floyd’s tragic murder of the shocking injustices that people of color face, we vowed to do our part — and do better — in fighting systemic racism.

Though Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota police officer who callously knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, was convicted of murder and three other officers await trial, our own wheels of justice haven’t moved quite so quickly.  We’ve made some progress, but quite honestly, it’s been a slow and inadequate response.

Addressing a problem starts with identifying and acknowledging it, and we did add our voice to those who raised the cry for justice, institutional reforms and a thorough examination of the roots of racism in our society. It’s essential for people of conscience to speak up and speak out against racism in all its many forms. If we remain silent, we are complicit in these acts.

We also moved to educate ourselves about the issue, convening a working group of staff and Global Leadership Fellows, many of them Africans, to identify shortcomings in our own organization. We learned that racism, diversity and inclusion mean different things to different people, and that the response demanded in the United States and other Western nations is not appropriate for Africa, for instance.

From there we went on to examine the role that funders and global development organizations like our own inadvertently play in perpetuating racism and colonialism in the nations and populations they seek to assist. Lauren Reese, an international development and peacebuilding specialist, led us through that process, which solidified our decision to relinquish power, resources and decision making to our colleagues in Africa and Bangladesh.

Rather than function as a top-down, centralized, US-based organization, the Alliance now has autonomous affiliates leading its activities in Bangladesh and Africa. Arif Hossain has assembled an able team of Bangladeshis to identify and implement the work there through Farming Future Bangladesh, while Ugandan Patricia Nanteza is leading our training and engagement in Africa from a new office established in Nairobi. She will soon be joined by a communications director who will complement her work and ensure that AfS activities on the continent are African-based and African-driven.

We are pleased with the overall diversity of our team and will continue to ensure that any new hires reflect both the people we serve and our own commitment to inclusivity. Since the medium continues to be the message, we have also taken steps to ensure broad gender and ethnic diversity in the panelists who appear on our AfS Live webinar series. As Patricia Nanteza so passionately cried, “Let Africa speak for herself.” This is also true for the people of color in the US and Europe, who are best equipped to speak about the issues, challenges and needs of their own communities.

We are cognizant of the undue influence that Westerners have in foisting their beliefs and values on those in developing nations. We will continue to amplify the voices of farmers and others who have a tremendous stake in deciding which crops to grow, what technology to adopt and which regulations to implement to ensure their own livelihoods, food security and environmental health.

We have also done our best to support AfS Global Fellows who are seeking advanced degrees through letters of recommendation, introductions to academic mentors and connections to funding sources. While we celebrate their achievements, we remain aware that many persons of color in the US are denied the opportunity to pursue undergraduate and especially advanced degrees in STEM. To help rectify that imbalance, we will be offering free, specialized trainings to undergraduate plant science and biotechnology students and early career researchers that will link them with the people and programs that can help them succeed. These trainings will be conducted over the next two years at 1890 land grant institutions —historically black universities that were established under the Second Morrill Act of 1890.

We would have liked to report more at this one-year accountability check-in. However, we recognize that dismantling racism and achieving diversity requires dedication and persistence. We’re in it for the long haul, and we’ll be back next year with another progress report. I urge you to join us in taking solid steps at your own institutions and organizations to end racism and initiate a transparent process of answerability.