Opening the Door

By: Charles Parker, California Department of Education, State FFA Advisor

It is exciting that we are, in some places, once again being allowed to join together. I know those conversations around the table, in the hallway, and outside the room are often the most valuable. I applaud the teachers for making the effort to provide opportunities to meet in-person as well as a venue for those that are not yet comfortable with in-person meetings. 

As an educator, our goal is to provide an opportunity for ALL students to learn and grow. I personally believe that through agricultural education and the FFA, we have the best delivery method for all students to experience success. It is through the many opportunities that you, agricultural teachers, provide to students that they feel welcome.

I remember, a few years ago, being confronted by teachers who were disappointed in a decision I had made. I know, this is not uncommon. But, nonetheless, earlier a teacher had called wanting to provide a meaningful experience for a particular student. This student, based on their religious beliefs, could not wear a logo. Thus, they could not wear what I coveted, the blue and gold jacket. As much as I wanted to require the student to wear the jacket, I knew deep down that was not what was best for the student or the program. In the end, I shared with the teachers that the activity was about engaging the student, allowing them to do their part in that particular activity, and in the end, to feel part of a team and welcomed. Wearing the jacket was important to me, but it was not as important as that individual student.

For those that know me, you know I bleed blue and gold, but, that evening, watching that student recite their part, I could not help but feel the right decision was made. It was most certainly an individual incident, but it began, in my mind, to set the value of being inclusive. 

Over the years, I have had to continue to make decisions similar to the one made regarding the logo. Allowing a student who was too big to fit into the largest FFA jacket made to stand on stage with the choir at the State FFA Leadership Conference and share her lovely voice, permitting a Hispanic student to recite the FFA Creed in Spanish, and letting a student wear a hat while competing on a judging team because of a medical concern are other incidents that I remember. Not because it was a popular decision, but because it was the right decision for the student. 

California has always been at the forefront of change. At the time, often the change was met with loud criticism. We know that change is not easy, but it is important. We must always look ahead at what we can be, not what we are.

As I reflect back, I am honored to be part of an agriculture tradition that has found ways to be inclusive, even when it was not popular. In 1952, Leo Clark, a black student from Foothill High School in Hayward, was elected to serve as the State President for the California Association. This was some twelve years prior to the merger of the NFA and the FFA. In fact, in 1962, Dan Chatman, another black student from Madera, was elected as the State Sentinel. Dan went on the next year to serve as the State President and even participated in the National Prepared Public Speaking event.

It is also commonly known, at least in the California journals, that girls were in agricultural education programs long before 1969. The story goes that prior to girls being admitted into FFA, advisors that believed the organization was for all students simply used the first initial of the first name along with the complete last name in filling out membership rosters. This technique allowed young ladies to participate, at least locally, long before a change was instituted at the national level. Although I was not teaching at that time, I can assure you that not all teachers nor fellow members were enthusiastic about girls being allowed to be members.

Then, in the late 1980s, a movement began to ensure that every student enrolled in an agriculture class was an FFA member. Wow – at sectional and regional meetings you would have thought that such an idea would be the downfall of the organization. Remarks such as “not all students want to be in FFA” or “why pay dues when they are not competitive” were quickly shared. 

In each of these instances, if the majority ruled, the change would not have occurred. But, through the leadership of CATA, our industry partners, and the Agricultural Education State Staff, the change did take place and our organization is better because of it.

I know we are in difficult times and each day we, you, and I, have to make tough decisions. I often get asked, when will it stop? Simple answer, never! We will always be confronted with a different idea, circumstance, or social issue. It is up to us, as educators of our youth, to find ways to include everyone in the conversation.

National FFA is embarking on a discussion on modifications to the various ceremonies so that they can be more inclusive. The delegates at the 2021 National FFA Convention will have a subcommittee that will develop recommendations for consideration by the National FFA Board. 

What other discussions should we be having? Are there other traditions that we have that tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive? Do we even understand what our students need?

Look at your classroom and the students that enter it every day. Each one is different and is looking for how to belong. Are we asking the right questions? Are we being observant of their traditions? 

A few sections and regions recently have begun to allow students to recite the FFA Creed and conduct the Opening and Closing Ceremony in Spanish. What else can we do to include all students?

I know, deep down, that we all believe that what we do in agricultural education and the FFA is for all students. That, if allowed, every individual that enters our doors will find a niche in our organization that will enable them to be successful and become a contributing member to our local community.

We can no longer simply state that our door is open. Through our actions, we must demonstrate that we care about the person, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what their personal views are, that they are welcome and encouraged to be part of our community.

This is not the first time a tough decision is made, nor will it be the last. Even an old dog like me continues to learn every day. As I stated in a previous article, you are my superheroes! You are there for everyone, no matter the circumstance. Continue to wear your cape with pride, being there for ALL who need you.

For more information about the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, visit http://calagteachers.org/

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