By Dan Glickman

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

Five years ago, when I became secretary of agriculture, I discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was still struggling--as much of our society still is--to make racial equality an institutionalized and unshakable principle, one that is embedded in every action, every decision and every program.

I immediately made it a top priority to make the USDA a place where employees, customers and constituents are all treated with the fairness and dignity they deserve. It has been my goal to make USDA a civil rights leader in the government.

One of our most important steps in that direction was the settlement we reached last year in a class-action suit brought by a group of African-American farmers alleging discrimination by USDA. The settlement calls for debt forgiveness and payments to individual plaintiffs who can prove discrimination, even if it occurred as long ago as 1981. As of April 26, payments totaling $206.5 million have been made to 4,130 farmers.

As important as the settlement is, our civil rights agenda includes more than reactively making amend for past injustice. In 1996, I appointed a committee of USDA employees to examine the state of civil rights throughout the department and report back to me with suggested actions. After three months of exhaustive fact-finding, they delivered 92 recommendations covering everything from ways to save minority-owned farms to USDA hiring practices to disciplinary action for civil rights violators.

As we have acted on those recommendations, change has come. Over the last few years, USDA has increased the number of new loans to African-American farmers by more than two-thirds. We have strengthened our relationships with historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. And racial minorities are now better represented in the USDA workforce and on our Farm Service Agency's county committees, which help administer and implement our farm programs on the local level.

We also have established a new Office of Outreach, which will help get information about our programs to minority communities and socially and economically disadvantaged populations. Often, these communities qualify for USDA assistance without even knowing it. The Office of Outreach will serve as a central repository for information and assistance, helping ensure the fair distribution of USDA resources to people and places that have never before received them.

Every aspect of USDA's work is becoming more inclusive. We have worked to help small, minority farmers develop marketing relationships with local school districts. We have approved a new Pilot Export Training Program, which will help small farmers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi take advantage of opportunities in global markets. Our food safety arm has stepped up its outreach efforts, ensuring that its educational materials are disseminated in minority communities. And those are just a few examples.

Internally, almost all USDA employees have completed some civil rights training, where they learn about the particular sensitivities involved in working historically underserved communities. Many supervisors and managers have received additional training, to help them manage the diversity on their staffs. And our agency heads now are evaluated as much on their civil rights performance as any other aspect of their job.

We have introduced accountability, so those who do not follow civil rights guidelines can expect to bear the consequences. Over the last two years, we have issued 94 disciplinary actions, ranging from a letter of reprimand to 14 dismissals.

Overhauling an institutional culture is not an overnight job. It will take a sustained commitment and relentless vigilance over an extended period of time. We have yet to reach the mountaintop, but we have begun the climb.

President Abraham Lincoln, when he signed the legislation creating USDA, called it the "People's Department," because of its ability to improve the lives of so many different Americans, in so many different ways. With our vigorous civil rights agenda, we are beginning to live up to that name in the fullest sense. The "People's Department" is starting to make good on its obligation to serve all of the people.

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