Tuskegee University has partnered with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide our students with opportunities in water, nutrition, resilience, and agriculture programming work in the USAID. Furthermore, this will create external opportunities such as internships, fellowships, research programs, and additional career opportunities. This partnership will also aid in furthering diversity within the USAID, underlining the Biden-Harris Administration’s aim to increase Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA).
On November 11, 2021, representatives of USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS) visited Tuskegee University’s campus to celebrate the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The RFS was represented by Dr. Jim Barnhart, Assistant to the Administrator for USAID, and Ms. Alexious Butler, Acting Assistant Administrator in RFS and USAID Foreign Service Officer. They had the opportunity to experience Tuskegee University’s beautiful campus and see a glimpse of its historic heritage. Dr. Barnhart and Ms. Butler also visited the university’s reputable Goat Farm. Afterwards, Dr. Barnhart and Ms. Butler along with other prominent university figures such as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Channa Prakash and Dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences Dr. Walter Hill, attended a student panel held in the Thompkins Ballroom. Dr. Rhonda Collier, professor of English and Modern Languages and director of the university’s Global Office, organized the whole event.
Observing the engagement of Dr. Jim Barnhart and Ms. Alexious Butler with the panelists, two points become expressively clear: Tuskegee University has exceptional students – whom deserve more opportunities to highlight their talents.
The student panel consisted of five incredible black women who discussed the complexity and importance of the fields of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences. While each panelist brought a unique perspective, the perspectives were weaved together to display the intersectionality of these fields and black identity. Two student panelists, Zipporah Sowell and Candace Clark, demonstrated their passion for their studies during the discussion. Zipporah, a USAID national scholar, spoke of her study abroad experience in Jamaica where she aided local farmers in building their portfolio. She explained the importance of farming in Jamaica for the economy there and also for the families. Zipporah says it was “really cool to connect with local farmers,” and that the experience is “something that will always stick with [me].” Candance speaks with an enthusiastic tone and explores the connection between agriculture and the African American community. Discussing the history of Tuskegee University, she says “Booker T. Washington was a cofounder,” of the university, highlighting how he was called on by the Tuskegee community. She continues to uplift black students in the field of Agriculture based on her conviction that “young black students have a lot to offer.”
Student panelists were joined by members of faculty. Dr. April Jones, Chair of the Social Work Department, underlines the unique connection between Social Work and Agriculture. She alludes to community gardens and the importance of mental health in the African American community. Another panelist is Ms. Febreu Holston, adjunct professor of Social Work, who is referred to as “a jewel” by Dr. Jones. Ms. Holston aims to address food security in the Black Belt by merging it with her studies in Social Work. Ms. Lucy Asare-Baah, a student in the Integrative Public Policy and Development PhD program (IPPD), also participated in the panel. Originally from Ghana, she provides her perspective on agriculture by comparing how agriculture functions here in the United States and in Ghana. In terms of rural farming in the Black Belt and Ghana, Ms. Asare-Baah states that there is “not much of a difference in limitations”; the main difference is that here, unlike Ghana, there are policies that help direct farming. She also has a “keen interest in food systems” and concentrates on food loss and food waste.
One could not help but feel the intense passion each panelist demonstrated for their studies. The panelists’ passion, along with the historic significance of our university and the momentous MOU, displays the importance of taking action when the university is offered external opportunities. This attitude is expressed by Dean Walter when he asks Dr. Barnhart if he is “capturing the essence of this place.” Dean Walter maintains that “love is action,” and makes a distinction between “generic speech and action.” Dr. Barnhart responds by saying that he is “feeling the energy and drive to change the world” from the university and that he is “inspired,” by what he is seeing. Ms. Alexious adds “don’t let us slip,” and that the importance of this MOU is for “something tangible [to come] out of this relationship.” As a person of color, Ms. Alexious says she doesn’t “see enough people that look like [her]” in her field, urging for more diversity in the Foreign Service. Dr. Barnhart agrees and says there is a need for “[breaking] down power dynamics.” Yet, Dr. Barnhart aims to be “intentional,” through this newfound relationship between the USAID and Tuskegee University by making sure “the right people are at the right table.”
The interactions between Dean Walter, Dr. Barnhart and Ms. Alexious created a professional but casual atmosphere where there is understanding from both sides. This sort of interaction is exactly what Tuskegee University needs: we have bright and devoted students here on campus, and such MOUs provide great opportunities for them to prosper.