The U.S. Department of Agriculture — an agency that isn’t just about approving the quality of meat imported into the States. Here, among the winding halls and behind decorated doors, employees work in many different fields, starting from rural business and cooperatives, and expanding internationally with the Foreign Agriculture Service. I worked with communities. Under the branch of Rural Development, Community Economic Development (CED) was where I had the great pleasure of being placed. From this team, I learned many of things but the most valuable lessons I learned was the importance of language and partnership.
The CED division enhances the delivery of USDA Rural Development programs and services to those living in persistent poverty and in rural communities that have limited access to opportunities. The communities that I worked with were those a part of the Promise Zone Initiative started by former President Obama. From the first sounds of it, the Initiative seems like another top-down program where the government has programs, grants and loans available and gives them to the communities. Yet, this initiative is very different. Rather than the communities listening to what the government had to say, the government listened to what the needing communities had to say. And this is what I encountered on the daily as I walked down those stones hallways and into my room where my office mate, Chris, was already chatting with the community lesions, 9am sharp. I asked him once, “what makes this initiative different from all the other times the government has attempted to help poorer communities?” His answer, knowing their language. By this he meant knowing what they needed, hearing them out and helping them to find the perfect grant, program or loan to fit their specific need. I encountered this first hand.
I was put to work on a project creating an evaluation of the first round promise zone picks. The lead of this project, Kasey, had done all the qualitative research, interviewing the community lesions, desk officers, and partners from each area. I scored over the transcripts and listening to all the interviews in order to find common links in which showed how the communities had grown since being designated a Promise Zone. I can surely tell you, there was obvious improvement within these communities and one of the common themes that allowed them to see progress was using the same language. For example, coordinators would go on listening tours to their specified Promise Zone and answer all the questions and concerns communities had. “What does it mean to be a Promise Zone? What are these programs?” These tours would help the communities to understand the language of the federal government but more importantly for our employees to know the language of the people so we could better accommodate their needs.
Partnership was the leading factor that helped the Promise Zones to get all the assistance they needed. Not only were partnerships created between government agencies but also between communities and their fellow state governments, colleges and non-profit organizations. Another project that I worked on was taking over the monthly CED newsletter that went to anyone who was interested. In this newsletter, there would be information on upcoming grants, helpful seminars happening across the country and news about community development. All this information would go to the hundreds of individuals subscribed to get the newsletter. From the contact list it was obvious the number of partners we had, ranging from our own USDA employees to universities, to personal email accounts. Furthermore, there were plenty of interagency partnerships. I once sat in on a meeting with the Department of Justice because the woman wanted to know more about the tribal Promise Zones and how her department could be better acquainted with what we were doing. There was learning done on both sides as she learned from us, and we from her. The constant flow of information and sharing created these strong partnerships in which we take use of, asking the Department of Education about one of their programs or calling HUD to learn about some of their housing grants.
From this internship, I learned about having open communication to know each party’s language and also how partnerships can help to bolster the success of a community’s development. However, from both these lessons, I learned the importance of asking questions. Questions were asked in listening tours to open up the conversation that would eventually lead to a common understanding of words and questions were asked between agencies as we wanted to learn what they had to offer when it came to grants and programs. It all started with asking a question and this question then turned into actions which would help change the status of a poor, rural community to one that has more opportunities to thrive and reach the needs of its peoples.
Future fellows, do not hesitate to ask your questions because you, too, can begin by asking a simple question, which will then in turn create a future change in you. Use these resources at your fingertips to create a common language with your ILF intern fellows and your agency supervisor. Use the partnerships you created with the people you meet to advance not only yourself, but others around you as you journey into the realm of public service. If I learned anything at all, I learned that a simple question can spark the beginning of great relationships and bigger opportunities for all those involved.