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Cornell Cooperative Extension sets path toward becoming model antiracist organization

On May 31, 2020, as the country wrestled with the tragic murder of George Floyd, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Director Chris Watkins sent an email imploring staff across the state to more fully embody the principles of equity and inclusion in programs and interactions with each other and the communities CCE serves. He also asked CCE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist Eduardo González, Jr. to form a statewide team charged with transforming CCE into a model antiracist organization.

“I feel as though this was an enormous and monumental charge in many ways,” said González. “It was a catalyst to really get us moving and organized as a system and has helped bring people forward to step up in ways we hadn’t seen before.”

As Watkins, González, and statewide leadership worked to define the goals and scope of the Diversity Equity & Inclusion Team, a call went out to staff in the CCE Community asking for volunteers. Last fall, the leadership team and consultative committee groups consisting of more 80 members were selected, representing varying levels of the organization — from county association staff to board member volunteers and Extension Administration leadership across the state.

Working on issues spanning people and culture, leadership development, and enhancing demographics, the Core Leadership Team was selected to represent the diversity of the organization and New York state. Consultative Committee members were selected to partner with ongoing systemwide projects while advocating for the specific needs and interests across identity groups — such as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled community members, minority genders, and others.

“The development of the DEI leadership and consultative committees is a huge step in the right direction,” said Watkins. “Together, we will work to create an organization that is recognized for being inclusive and available to all.”

“Our staff want to be part of the solution,” González explained. “And it’s not just because our director identified a goal, but because staff recognize that this is an important transformation that has to happen for our organization.”

Last fall, the team put together a statewide antiracism reading circle project that involved staff reading and meeting regularly to discuss five different antiracism books as well as one group that focused on shorter articles, podcasts and films.

The team also has been busy providing trainings and webinars for staff, engaging with partner groups on campus, and creating a DEI-specific newsletter for staff called Belonging @ CCE to highlight related professional development opportunities and resources at Cornell and across the state.

“I’m excited about the work happening right now at Cornell Cooperative Extension,” Watkins said. “It will only further our mission to deliver research and education opportunities to all citizens of New York.”

To support that work, Watkins dedicated funds for initiatives related to DEI, including a project by CCE Yates County Executive Director Arlene Wilson to provide Black Lives Matter coaching and mentorship to leadership across the state, and a 4-H project at CCE Ulster County and CCE Orange County that cultivates learning and discussion groups of racially diverse youth to talk about the effects of racism and bias and how to disrupt harmful stereotypes. Other innovative DEI projects are in the works.

The goals of these combined efforts are to create a culture of belonging at every level and make more resources available for all staff to engage with CCE’s mission of transforming into a model antiracist organization.

“Right now, we’re very focused on building internal capacity for this work and training staff so we can engage authentically and build those relationships and trust,” said González. “We’re learning and identifying the steps and strategies that we need to put in place at a personal, interpersonal, organizational, and even societal level to begin to really live into our vision and mission as an organization of serving all people across New York state.”

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