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NRCS National Civil Rights Advisory Committee to the Chief Awards and Recognition

The National Civil Rights Advisory Committee to the Chief advises the NRCS Chief on employees, partners and groups deserving of national level recognition due their impact on diversity, inclusion, and equality. 

Awards and Recognition, National Civil Rights Advisory Committee to the Chief

One of the main roles of the National Civil Rights Advisory Committee to the Chief is to advise the NRCS Chief on employees, partners and groups deserving of national level recognition due their impact on diversity, inclusion, and equality.

The awards process includes national level announcement through a national bulletin and a detailed revision for recommendations. The revision is conducted by members of the National Civil Rights Advisory Committee to the Chief and a select group of national leaders that provides a recommendation to the Chief. Employees interested to learn more about the Chief Civil rights and diversity awards should contact a member of the National Civil Rights Advisory Committee to the Chief.

Sheldon Hightower

State Conservationist, Nashville Tennessee 

Sheldon Hightower sits in front of the American flag.

2022 The Chief’s Workforce Diversity Award recognizes an individual who has made significant contributions towards achieving NRCS’s goal of building a diverse workforce to ensure that programs are delivered in an efficient, effective, and fair manner. Mr. Hightower’s detailed communication style assisted the state of Tennessee to enhance the agency services to historically underserved communities. His strategic vision to outreach drove him to take a more personal approach while engaging minority communities and interest organizations to strengthen communication opportunities.

Thanks to those efforts the state of TN has awarded 13 competitive funded agreements totaling more than $600,000 in three categories: Conservation, Urban Conservation, and Collaborative Outreach to target HU groups. Sheldon is innovative approach on how to fill gaps of diversity led him to embrace technology as part of the recruitment strategy. Sheldon recently completed a Recruitment and AgrAbility video through the Civil Rights Advisory Committee, as part of a series of video resources intended to enhance recruitment for Tennessee NRCS. Thanks to those efforts he had been able to attract a new generation of professionals in the TN NRCS workforce (7 black males, 4 black females, 1 Hispanic female, 1 Hispanic male, 11 white females and 37 white males). Black employees in TN has nearly doubled from 14 employees to nearly 30 since Sheldon arrived in 2018. His efforts far exceed onboarding of the employees as his interest also are with retaining the employees and ensure they grow as technical employees and leaders. This is evident through the inception of the tri-state Southeast Leadership Development Program that included 7 participants from TN: 1 female, 3 black males, and 3 white males.

Kefeni Kejela

Resource Soil Scientist, Bedford PA

Dr. Kefeni Kejela

2022 Individual National Civil Rights Award recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to NRCS in the civil rights program delivery. Dr. Kefeni Kejela, Resource Soil Scientist in Pennsylvania demonstrates honesty, integrity, impartiality, objectivity, unity, and diversity in his everyday work with customers. He has promoted these values and work ethic for over 20 years when arriving in the U.S. back in 1997 from Ethiopia. Dr. Kejela completed his Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Oklahoma State University and began his career as an NRCS Soil Scientist mapping soils in Maine. Then in 2003 he was assigned to Pennsylvania as a Soil Scientist, and then as a Soil Conservationist in several field offices.

Throughout his career Dr. Kejela’s efforts assisted Mennonite farmers, limited resource or beginning urban farmers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh better understand conservation and agricultural management concepts. He also fostered professional growth of new and minority professionals through a cooperation with the Ethiopian Soil and Water Conservation Society. Dr. Kejela held multiple collateral assignments including serving as the PA Black SEPM for six years. On that assignment he hosted annual "Unity" Black History Month Celebrations that had over 90 participants from USDA, Conservation Districts, farmers, County Commissioners, and project stakeholders on each of those pushing forward a more culturally sensible workforce. 

Arkansas NRCS’s South Area

Collage of the 2022 Group National Civil Rights Award winners

2022 Group National Civil Rights Award recognizes a team or group who has made a significant contribution to NRCS in civil rights program delivery. Arkansas NRCS’s South Area staff has provided exemplary service to the state of Arkansas by equally committing to the preservation of the legacy of civil rights, and conservation in the State. Arkansas has a reputation for surpassing the status quo for their minority and underserved producers, customers, and employees. Within a special project covering 18 counties located within the South Area, regular meetings and outreach efforts has taken place to address the needs as well as the desires of local Historically Underserved (HU) forest landowners. 

In 2021, members of the South Area worked with HU forest landowners to identify their concerns and objectives of the forest land they owned. Working through the current COVID-19 environment, South Area employees reached many of these customers through targeted outreach efforts and Zoom calls with community-based organizations (CBOs). With the work the South Area team has done promoting the Keeping it in the Family (KIITF) SFLR Forestry Project, a new buzz has been created among HU producers.  Many of these HU producer’s land is considered “heir property”. The South Area team and members from University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff also hosted “Estates Planning & Heirs Property Workshop” presented by Mr. Anthony Reed.  This meeting was a tremendous success, with a total of 104 participants who participated. Also, a Genealogy Workshop was conducted with 49 participants gaining awareness on starting a family tree and researching family history. As already mentioned, the partnership between Arkansas NRCS’s South Area, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the Keep It in the Family Initiative (KIITF) representative assistance is provided to forest landowners within 18 Arkansas Counties. To meet the needs of HU forestry producers, the project boundary has increased from an original target area of 7 counties in 2017 to the 18 counties today. Arkansas NRCS’s South Area obligated more than $283,000 to HU forestry producers through the KIITF initiative in FY 2021.