Congratulations, Shirley Sherrod!!
It was only a year ago that we were congratulating Shirley Sherrod on her appointment as Georgia State Director for Rural Development at the United States Department of Agriculture and the victory of New Communities in winning a substantial award in the Minority Farmers lawsuit (Pigford vs Vilsack).
Those achievements were the result of hard work, persistence, and dedication to rural people and the development of poor rural communities. Now Shirley, with her forced resignation from USDA and restoration of her reputation through the media, has a victory that is even more personal and visible. When she was thrown under a bus, she did not let the bus run over her. Although the initial attack came from just a fragment of video, the forces rolling over her and her reputation were large, weighty and full of momentum: major media outlets, the United States Department of Agriculture, the White House, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, public opinion. All had condemned her. Who would want to be associated with her after that? What kind of employment could she have found as a certified racist, the only person to be discharged from the Department of Agriculture for that offense even as the Department pays out billions of dollars for past discriminatory acts?
It was Shirley’s personal character that saved her – her forthrightness, her truthfulness, her confidence, her absolutely clear conscience, her genuine voice, her passion and composure. The unfolding story was riveting as new characters were added and the plot took new turns. The ending so far is happy. Thank goodness that CNN took the trouble to call and talk with her. Thank goodness that the Spooners, the white farmers she was accused of mistreating, were alive and spoke up for her with such firm and easy conviction. Thank goodness for networks of supporters who made calls and wrote statements.
(l to r) Ralph Paige, Executive Director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives; USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack; Shirley Sherrod; Rep. Sanford Bishop (GA) at the Federation’s Georgia farmers meeting Sec. Vilsack’s first out-of- town visit to a farm group after his appointment
The message that emerged from Shirley’s story is about the power of forgiveness, about hurt and the grounds for hatred being converted into “a life of service and love.” While she is a shining example of these values, others share them. We have found largeness of spirit, generosity and forgiveness among the grassroots leaders with whom we work. Many are uncommonly strong, speak well, and know how to create out of nothing new programs and institutions that they need and that others may take for granted. Many have experienced hardship, discrimination, poverty, and injustice. They are nevertheless working constructively to build their communities, thinking of others, of the big picture, following a vision of justice and shared humanity. Such people need a larger voice in our society. They and their plans and projects, coming from the bottom up, need financial support, whether or not they fit into an abstract philanthropic scheme.
We are proud of Shirley’s association with the Rural Development Leadership Network. She has been an RDLN participant, launching her on-the-ground work with a resource center for small farmers in Georgia as her RDLN field project, linking with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives as her Sponsoring Organization, forming cooperatives, finding markets, earning her master’s degree from Antioch as part of our program, going on to more regional economic development, remaining part of our family-style network over twenty-five years, helping to orient each new group of leaders at our Institute at the University of California at Davis, helping us to raise money. She was vice chair of our Board of Directors until she had to resign when she took the federal job. We were touched and grateful when New Communities made a financial contribution to RDLN in a generous act of giving back. We urge others to follow this lead.
RDLN Network members with Charles and Shirley Sherrod (4th & 5thto right of sign)during RDLN Assembly in Albany, GA
Shirley has expressed gratitude to RDLN for nurturing emerging leaders like herself, providing a supportive structure for study, and connecting people from diverse cultures, including Hispanic, American Indian, Asian and white, a connection she did not have in the black and white south where she grew up. Over the years, she has formed alliances and worked closely with people around the country from all different backgrounds, and she has traveled overseas, with RDLN and other groups, continuing to grow and to expand her understanding of the world.
Shirley would have risen from the ashes of this disaster no matter how the media and political story worked out, but we are glad that it unfolded as it did and that the world got to know one of treasures of rural America.
Click below to watch a video of RDLN's 2004 graduation ceremony, during which Shirley delivers an inspiring address on the merits of "servant leadership." Shirley is an RDLN graduate, who earned her master's degree in the RDLN program and was vice chair of our Board of Directors at the time.
The graduates include Suzanne Kinkade (bachelor's degree, Excelsior College), sponsored by Salish Kootenai College; Meredith McGee (master's degree, Antioch University), sponsored by Southern Echo; Doctorate, Michele Lansdowne, Union Institute and University), sponsored by Salish Kootenai College.
The video is dedicated to the memory of Eunice Keys (not shown), who sang "How Great Thou Art," to open the ceremony, as the group processed down the stone steps to the shaded glen seating. Also not shown are the comments of Margaret Eldred, Campus Writing Center, University of California, Davis.
In addition to the talk by Shirley Sherrod, there are comments by Isao Fujimoto, Community Studies and Development, University of California, Davis; Moises Loza, Chair, RDLN Board of Directors; Dave Singleton, Board Member; John Zippert, Board Member; Billie Jean Young, former Board Chair; and the graduates.
Copyright 2004 Rural Development Leadership Network