This is the third in a series of stories detailing actions CALS students, faculty and staff have taken over the past year to make our community a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for everyone.
Because Cornell AgriTech is an agricultural experiment station, everyone at AgriTech works with the public, underscoring the need for Cornell to serve as a leader in inclusivity not just on campus but everywhere, said Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate professor of food science and associate director of Cornell AgriTech.
In the past two years, almost every CALS department and unit has established or reinvigorated committees focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, including AgriTech, which launched its first-ever DEI committee in October 2020; the committee transitioned into a more formal DEI council in 2021.
“We need to be open and humble in understanding what our cultural norms are now, because if we don’t become aware of the invisible work that we’re making people do just to become part of our community, we’re not going to retain people,” said Mansfield, who co-chairs the DEI council. “I like to frame our DEI efforts in terms of accessibility, and that really ties into our mission as a land-grant institution, as extension folks and as Cornell, with its founding mission to provide any study for any person.”
The first task undertaken by AgriTech’s DEI committee was creating and administering an anonymous climate survey to assess whether members of the AgriTech community were experiencing discrimination, whether they felt comfortable and welcome, and if they knew how to report incidents of bias. The survey found that the majority of respondents felt comfortable and welcome, but when the data was disaggregated by race and gender, female respondents and people of color felt less satisfied than their white male counterparts, Mansfield said.
The survey also found that more than 50% of students didn’t feel comfortable reporting bias or didn’t know how to report, said Jess Choi, a doctoral candidate in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section and a former member of the DEI committee. Helping students understand that discrimination is unacceptable at Cornell and helping faculty and staff learn how to support inclusive environments drove Choi to participate in the DEI committee; she wanted to spare other students from the kinds of discriminatory incidents she has faced as a Korean-American.
During her freshman year at another institution, Choi was assigned to a group project when a classmate announced he would not work with her because she’s Asian. The instructor made no comment about the racial discrimination and simply reassigned groups.
“That was definitely the hardest part, that the instructor didn’t say anything or stand up for me in any way,” she said. “I wish that the instructor would have stated, explicitly, in the next class session, ‘Racism is not acceptable in my classroom.’”
In response to the survey findings, the DEI committee placed bias-reporting information more prominently on AgriTech’s website and organized a series of seminars focused on DEI topics.
For Rey Cotto, a doctoral candidate in entomology and a member of the committee, the most impactful seminar was one that explored the history of Cornell’s land grant being established through the forcible removal of native Seneca and Cayuga people. AgriTech’s Geneva campus sits on the site of the former Kanadaseaga Seneca village, which was destroyed by Gen. John Sullivan during the Revolutionary War. AgriTech is working with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program to contact the now-fragmented Seneca Nation to develop a land acknowledgment, similar to the Ithaca campus land acknowledgment developed with leaders of the Cayuga Nation, Mansfield said.
“One of the least things we can do is just acknowledge the land we are on and the history that brought us all to where we are now,” Cotto said.
Mansfield wants Cornell AgriTech to lead by example in helping not just Cornell but New York agriculture in general become a more welcoming, inclusive industry. Some of the efforts AgriTech is undertaking to achieve that goal include:
- Expanding the successful Summer Research Scholars Program to increase participation of underrepresented students.
- Hosting a community workshop on recognizing and addressing microaggressions, in collaboration with AgriTech’s MinGenSTEM group (Minority and Genders in STEM).
- Translating cooperative extension resources into Spanish so they’re accessible to more frontline agricultural workers.
- Ensuring that materials are available offline, so they’re accessible to Amish, Mennonite and other communities who don’t use computers.
“We’re moving from a majority white, male farming system to one with increasing numbers of women being heads of farms, immigrants and people from different cultures farming, and people growing different crops than we’ve traditionally seen,” Mansfield said. “We want to develop the proficiencies we need to serve all of these communities – proficiencies in science and proficiencies in diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
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