Published in Food/Agribusiness
Poppy  Sias-Hernandez,  commissioner for USDA Equity Commission Poppy Sias-Hernandez, commissioner for USDA Equity Commission Courtesy Photo

Michigan director appointed to new USDA equity commission: A Q&A with Poppy Sias-Hernandez, commissioner for USDA Equity Commission

BY Sunday, February 27, 2022 06:44pm

Aself-described “west sider for life” who grew up in Muskegon, Poppy Sias-Hernandez continues to promote diversity, equity and inclusion through roles in the state and federal government. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Sias-Hernandez as the first-ever chief equity and inclusion officer in the governor’s Executive Office as well as executive director of the state’s Office of Global Michigan, which seeks employment opportunities for immigrants and refugees. Most recently, Sias-Hernandez was tapped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve on its newly established, 15-member equity commission that focuses on addressing historical discrimination at the agency and in farming communities. MiBiz caught up with Sias-Hernandez just before the commission’s first public meeting on Feb. 28.

What does it mean to be part of an effort that is designed to really transform the USDA and make it operate more equitably?

It’s a tremendous honor. I participated in the orientation with the 14 other commissioners the other day, and the talent that has been convened to think about and do this work includes folks who have doctorates in soil science and includes people representing the National Black Farmers Alliance. It’s just absurd the amount of talent that has been pulled together to think about these important issues. I feel deeply honored. 

How will your experience working for the state translate to this new commission?

My role as chief equity and inclusion officer has really been about thinking about systems-change opportunities at the state level. How can we make the state of Michigan, both as an employer and as an entity that has constituents, more equitable and inclusive? … The way that applies to the USDA equity commission is that, when we think about equity, it’s not happening in a vacuum. It’s really happening across all these systems that each of us encounter every day. The USDA is one of those governmental agencies that really touches almost every aspect of our lives. You sit down to the dinner table, the USDA was involved in that. I think my challenge and my actual appointment is tied to my expertise in change management. The challenge for me is: How do you apply an equity lens to the work of the USDA?

Can you discuss the historical discrimination within the USDA and some examples of how it
manifests throughout the country?

There are, I’m sure, countless examples of discrimination in our history as a country — we have a lot to answer for around our discriminatory practices. The role of this commission is to really think about what opportunities we have to do better and make some recommendations accordingly. I think the key difference about what this commission represents is that it’s a commission that is populated by the people. We have representation from all over the United States when you think geographical representation, you have ethnic representation, gender diversity — it’s really an opportunity to have some of the smartest and most dynamic people from across the country that are connected to the work of the USDA in some way, shape or form pushing and providing new ideas.

These are deep-rooted problems — is there any chance of seeing quick results?

(Agriculture Secretary Tom) Vilsack has asked us to make recommendations that are actionable. I think the administration is really looking for actionable items that we can begin moving on pretty quickly. The goal is to see some results soon. 

Based on your experiences in West Michigan, are there any specific types of changes you hope to see?

I can’t speak to what kinds of change I want to see specifically. I want to honor the integrity of that collaborative work effort. I want to be really respectful of that — I don’t want to go into the process saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ I have very strong West Michigan pride, so it will be a challenge for me. I do think, across the country, there is a desire to ensure that the people growing our food and the people processing our food and the people that are consuming our food — everyone on that food system chain — is encountering just systems.

When it comes to equity in food systems, how has Michigan done as an individual state?

I’m really proud of our history having very strong roots in agriculture. I do think that my role on the commission is to represent the entire state and really lift up how committed we are to equitable practices around farming and food. I think we really demonstrated that as a state during the pandemic. We had some of the most stringent safety mechanisms for migrant farm workers than in any other state. That’s because we had a really high commitment to ensuring that all Michiganders had access to food. … I think we Michiganders can be proud of what we’ve done in this area.

Read 1544 times Last modified on Sunday, 27 February 2022 13:48