The summer of 2020 will be tied forever to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide marches and protests for social justice. The demonstrations raised our awareness of the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity — and all the places they’re lacking.
For years, FFA has sought to grow more in these areas. The organization took root in 1928 as a place that provided a sense of belonging for youth in farming. Nearly a century later, steps toward broader accessibility and inclusion have been taken. But it is fundamentally clear that FFA must continue the progress and take greater steps to remain relevant to students today.
Since 2018, an initiative underway by the National FFA Organization and the National Association of Agricultural Educators has sought to celebrate the diversity of students and educators in agricultural education. The initiative, called Agricultural Education for All, will provide results-orientated training to students, teachers and advisors alike.
As this initiative rolls out, FFA New Horizons will play a significant role. To kick things off, we’re highlighting three FFA members willing to share some of their experiences to promote understanding and awareness.
Sean Neal: On Being Treated Like Everyone Else
Former chapter officer, state officer, national officer candidate and president of his FFA alumni chapter, Sean Neal, (pictured above: center) a graduate of Washington State University, currently works in finance at an ag retailer in Washington. He’s also an author and motivational speaker. Neal points to far more blessings than burdens in his life’s experiences, including those in FFA.
As a child, Neal endured multiple surgeries and tremendous physical and emotional pain due to a neuromuscular disease; he’s used a wheelchair since he was 6. Yet, as a teen, joining FFA afforded Neal the chance to experience being a teammate and the thrill of competing (and winning) among peers.
“Without the opportunity to play sports, I didn’t have an outlet where I could express my fierce competitive nature, but FFA provided me that opportunity,” Neal says. “Being able to compete on an equal playing field was something I really appreciated, and my advisor was always supportive. Never hesitating, he was always like, ‘We’ll figure out how to do it.’
“Since a very young age, I’ve just wanted to be treated like everyone else and not have people see me as a person in a wheelchair, but rather see me as a fellow classmate and a fellow member of the team.”
As for his advice to others in FFA, Neal says empathy and understanding go a long way in creating an inclusive environment.
“People didn’t maybe realize just what it took for me to show up at school every day with my clothes on straight or that I was in my wheelchair correctly,” he says. “Most students just get up, take a shower, eat breakfast, put on their clothes and get going. But when you’re in a wheelchair, all that, in and of itself, can be a feat. You have to rely on a lot of other people for help.”
Not all struggles are visible, Neal reminds.
“We all have disabilities in one form or another. Some of us are just a lot better at hiding them,” he explains. “I happen to be just the opposite. Everybody can see my wheelchair. Not everyone can see someone’s depression or anxiety or brokenness at home or whatever it may be. I think we should try to understand and recognize that things go on outside of school. You just don’t know what baggage someone’s carrying.”
He says having empathy is part of being a good leader, and that FFA members should look out for others within their chapter, think of ways to connect with them and draw them into the group. “We all have different gifts or callings that we’re good at,” Neal says. “Treat the people with disabilities or differences just like you would anybody else and get to know who they are.”
HG Mann: On Role Models and Realities
Former chapter and state officer at Salem County Career and Technical High School FFA in New Jersey and past state alumni president, HG Mann (pictured above: right) now runs the state officer selection process for New Jersey’s state convention as its State Alumni Leadership chair.
“During the summer of 2019, I facilitated the Washington Leadership Conference, which was a super-rad experience,” Mann says, recalling reservations leading up to it. “Living in close proximity for an entire summer with 12 other people I didn’t know very well was concerning. Having experienced the FFA world in the past and knowing the proclivities and inclinations of a lot of the other people, I’m thinking I was fairly justified in being nervous going into those scenarios as a non-binary transgender person.
“But the staff I worked with was absolutely incredible. It wasn’t just because they had to; they did it because they genuinely saw me for who I identify as. I didn’t think I would ever get to experience this in an FFA environment. It also served to create a supportive and inclusive environment for our students over the summer.”
Mann believes it’s important for youth to have allies and role models who understand them. “I know some people talk about how they have an experience where they see someone, whether it’s in FFA or in another part of life, and they think ‘that person is like me, so I can do this.’ But there were never any state officers, national officers, national facilitators or anyone like that who looked, acted or felt anything like me.”
The students are out there; teachers need the training to teach them, says Mann. “I’ve seen the kids that this affects. I’ve met the closeted queer kids who can’t come out in their communities. I’ve met kids getting bullied by other kids at conferences for the way they look or dress and their orientation. I’ve met the kids searching for people who look like them. Those kids are out there, and they want to be in FFA,” Mann says.
“The focus needs to be creating environments where those students can thrive, because they want to be there, and they’re hungry for the resources and the opportunities of FFA — we just need to highlight them.”
Jasmine Coates: On Fitting In and Finding One’s Self
Former chapter secretary and treasurer at North Harford High School FFA, FFA state secretary and FFA collegiate member of Delaware Valley University, Jasmine Coates (pictured above: left) confidently shared with an auditorium full of FFA members how she finally quit trying to live up to society’s expectations for her. During her retiring address at the Delaware state FFA convention, Coates spoke of being one’s authentic self, because she found her voice and herself through FFA.
“I used to be terrified of public speaking, and I was originally really shy and quiet. Going into high school was really a weird time for me,” Coates says. “But once I got into FFA, it seemed like I fit in more, and the more I started competing in speaking competitions and trying to push myself, the more comfortable I felt in who I was as a person. FFA definitely helped me figure out more about myself.”
Coates says being biracial and a minority in a white community, and going to schools with very little racial diversity, exposed her to occasional racial comments or jokes. Often, she would laugh along or otherwise deflect them. Even last year in college, friends jokingly called her “gray, the color that comes from mixing black and white,” she recalls.
“I realized that even though my friends weren’t trying to be mean to me, what they were saying was wrong. I said, ‘I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but do you mind not calling me that? I don’t like how it makes me feel,’” Coates says. Enlightened and apologetic, they obliged, which she finds promising.
“I think making sure the new generation is educated on how to properly address race and gender will help, and hopefully, the younger p