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OFA striving for diversity and inclusiveness in agriculture


July 12, 2021
By Peggy Brekveld, Ontario Federation of Agriculture

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As a kid, I watched a lot of Sesame Street. Children’s shows have an entertaining way of teaching life lessons. Muppets still make me laugh when I think about crumbs in the bed and the fly in the soup. In between the skits were life skills. One had a catchy tune that I can still hum to this day – “one of these things is not like the others…” The screen would show balloons or shapes and challenge viewers to find the one that didn’t fit. Oftentimes, the outlier was obvious. From an early age, we are taught to look for differences.

But what happens when you’re identified as the outlier or the one that doesn’t belong? For most of my life, I’ve been lucky; I know what it is to fit in. I’m white, heterosexual, Christian and have Dutch ancestral roots. All of which is relatively common in the farming community, and readily accepted. However, I also know what it feels like to represent a minority in the sector. There have been many times where I was the only woman in the photo, or the only northern Ontario farmer on a conference call, or the youngest farmer in the room (although that is changing!) and sometimes the only farmer in a room full of government representatives.

This year, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture adopted a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policy to ensure we follow the principles and values necessary to help make our sector more inclusive. Our organization believes that we are stronger when we not only celebrate our many differences and values but listen to them, respect them and include them in our practices.

Many of us have grown up with privileges that allow us to thrive and blend in. Inclusiveness is not only an action but also a feeling. It’s making everyone feel welcome in the same space and being aware of how our language can impact others. It’s those who do not have the same privileges as we do that, we need to be cognizant of. We need to ensure the ones that do not have the same privileges we have are genuinely heard, respected and recognized in a manner that makes them feel included and represented as part of our dynamic industry. It’s important that we as an industry understand how our words, images and actions represent diversity and inclusion in agriculture.

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Being labelled as different can have its consequences. I know what it is like to be bullied, harassed and harmed because of who I am. Most of the time though, I can still blend in. Others cannot change their creed, colour, race, gender, sexuality, where they come from or who they are on the inside. I recognize that others experience so much more pain and discrimination on a continual basis. Recent events have highlighted our country’s long history of racism and discrimination that unfortunately continues to exist today.

All of us have experienced the feeling of not fitting in, which is why as a sector we need to collectively commit to making everyone feel seen, heard and valued.

For the past month, five OFA representatives, including me, have participated in diversity, equity and inclusion training hosted by the Beef Farmers of Ontario. We have considered how we identify others and ourselves, how to advocate for and support those who feel discriminated against for various reasons. We are learning updated vocabulary, what privilege means and how to identify it and how to honour and respect the history behind other people’s unique experiences. Our questions are being answered in a safe space as we continue learning and practicing new approaches.

If you have not taken DEI training, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. Our grassroots voices and boardroom discussions are stronger when they include viewpoints from differing backgrounds and life experiences. DEI training helps us learn how to see and understand differences as well as how to work with them effectively.

I’m often asked, “What factors led to your current role as President of OFA?” I am proud to say that I was encouraged by others who identified me as a leader, saw who I was and valued my different perspective. Not only did they identify me as different, but they encouraged my uniqueness and wanted my voice at the table.

Great things happen when people feel important, valued and accepted for who they are. I’m fortunate to have the role I do today because I stepped into an encouraging and welcoming environment. That type of surrounding made a world of difference in my story.

This is an evolving process as we strive to improve, model inclusivity and reflect the diversity of our province. We are actively listening, learning and growing our understanding and awareness of DEI. Our recent OFA policy and training are two steps the organization has taken towards a more diverse and inclusive industry.

As we approach OFA’s regional meetings and the fall director-at-large nominations, I encourage members to identify those in your community that have unique perspectives, backgrounds, opinions and voices to speak up and take on leadership roles.

Like our farms, our boardrooms and grassroots are more dynamic, resilient and sustainable when we diversify. OFA is committed to being a leader in this space and continuing to bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront of our industry. Everyone has a seat and voice at our table.