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Secretary of Agriculture Promises Improvements in Civil Rights, Fair Share in Advertising

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By Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor-in-Chief –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has promised Black newspaper publishers that the department, with its long history of documented race discrimination, will do better at civil rights and the fair dissemination of advertising dollars in coming months and years.

Speaking to publishers of the National Newspaper Publishers Association during Black Press Week in mid-March, Vilsack reflected on what he described as “the unfortunate history that this department has had in civil rights” which has now prompted “the most comprehensive commitment to civil rights that … the USDA has needed for a substantial amount of time.”

He said among the first things he did upon appointment by President Barack Obama was to visit with a number of former secretaries of agriculture. “One of the things that the secretaries would comment on was the poor record of civil rights,” he said. “Agriculture took three significant steps in order to try to close that chapter.”

Vilsack outlined the steps as follows:

• To work aggressively to close the class action suit filed by Black farmers because of gross race discrimination. “We’re close on the Black Farmer case”, Vilsack said. “We need Congress to appropriate $1.15 billion that will then be distributed to thousands of farmers who were not treated fairly by USDA years ago.”

• The Second thing is to “do a better job internally in terms of promotions and hiring in order to make sure we are reflective of the diversity in America and specifically the diversity we find in rural America,” Vilsack said. He asked the publishers to help by getting the word out about internships that are available for college students who might be interested in long-term jobs at the USDA.

• The third and final thing was to “order an external review of all the programs that have previously been a part of the problem in creating these discrimination claims." He said a specialized firm “is in the process of reviewing all the activities in 14 states where most of the problems and issues occurred” and it will bring back recommendations in a year or so “to make sure these programs are not continuing to create claims of discrimination.”

He promised an in depth review:"Is it a training issue? Is it a personnel issue? Is it a program issue? Is it a lack of understanding about the application process issue? Or what precisely is it?”

Vilsack fielded strong questions from the audience from publishers who were not only concerned about how Black people will learn about the many economic and nutrition programs of the Department of Agriculture, but also concerned about the Black Press being overlooked as a means to that end.

NNPA Chairman Danny Bakewell told the Secretary that spending advertising dollars with Black newspapers could get the word to the audience he intends to reach. “We talk to 20 million Black people every week. We believe that we represent a significant market place and we want to make sure that we participate in the budgets and in the resources that are available,” Bakewell said.

Vilsack said although Agriculture works every day to fund small and Black businesses development, he was unaware of how much money is spent by the Department with Black newspapers: “Your issue is not one that I have focused on and I wouldn’t be able to tell you today how well or how poorly we’re doing. But, I appreciate you bringing it up and Chris we really need to think about the reallocation of our resources to make sure it’s fairly distributed,” he told a staff member.

Continuing to nail the issue, Richmond Free Press Editor/Publisher Ray Boone told Vilsack, “The greatest indicator of commitment is how you spend your money. I can look at your check book and tell whether you are serious,” Quoting civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer and Black farmers leader, John Boyd, he asked, “Where are your values?”

Vilsack said he would not pretend to know where every dollar has gone from the Department, but he said he has established a new Office of Outreach and Advocacy to make sure resources, including dollars and information, are getting to communities that need it most.

This writer asked Vilsack when First Lady Michelle Obama would speak directly to Black newspapers with her new “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. A White House press briefing with the First Lady and about a dozen publications early this year omitted Black newspapers.

Vilsack explained, “The First lady is introducing the obesity program to the country as a whole first. And then there will be targeted efforts over the next 12 to 24 months focused on specific communities.” He added, “I can promise you that we can take this message back to the ‘Let’s Move’ initiative and make sure the First Lady understands the need to reach out – not just to the Black Community and the Black Press - but actually in Spanish-speaking publications as well. This is a serious issue with minority kids. And so, there needs to be a targeted strategy. We will convey that message. I’m sure they’re aware of it. I’m sure they’ve got some thoughts about this … We will convey this message today.”

NNPA Foundation Chair Dorothy Leavell stressed that NNPA is not looking for one-time hit or miss strategies, but a long-term commitment.

“What I want is a real partnership with the Department of Agriculture,” Leavell told Vilsack. “Sometimes in the grand scope of things, we think we’re reaching everybody when we’re on TV. We think we’re reaching everybody when we’re on the radio. We think we’re reaching all of these people, but our people need to know that you’re talking to us. You’re not talking to us when you’re on TV. You’re talking to us when you’re in our publications…If we don’t get to the people that you are trying to reach; then we will have spent all of this money all of this time and we will still have the same problems.”

Vilsack sought to assure the publishers that he is serious about his respect for the Black Press: “Within rural America and in USDA, we get a much bigger bang for our buck - not with the News Weeks and the Times and the major publications. We get it with the regional and local publications. My view is that people read those local publications.”

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