Agriculture may work with Shirley Sherrod’s nonprofit

Though Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was unsuccessful in his bid last year to lure back wrongly dismissed employee Shirley Sherrod, his Agriculture Department is in contract talks with her Georgia-based nonprofit to have her do more federal work on justice and civil rights issues for farmers.

Sherrod, the former Georgia director of rural development for Agriculture who was fired from her post in July 2010 amid a controversy over remarks she had made on racial issues, declined a subsequent offer to return to the department's Office of Advocacy and Outreach. But after Agriculture on May 11 issued a key report making a "civil rights assessment" along with recommendations on delivery of financial and technical assistance to farmers, the department confirmed to Government Executive that it is in talks with Sherrod for a new role.

"As part of our continued effort to build a new civil rights era at USDA, we intend to cooperate with community-based stakeholders to review, assess and implement recommendations provided in the independent Civil Rights Assessment report," said Justin DeJong, deputy director of communications. "The three community organizations are experts in the field from the Southeast, Southwest and Indian country" and include the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education Inc., the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council.

Sherrod's Georgia Project, DeJong added, "is considered among the best Southeastern regional organizations focused on the issues and populations affected by this assessment and has a strong relationship and understanding of the work of USDA." Analysts producing the independent report for Vilsack interviewed staff at the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency.

Their recommendations, many of which are being implemented, included continuing the current emphasis on a "zero-tolerance policy" regarding discrimination, harassment and retaliation; holding managers accountable for diversity in hiring and loans; using flex-time hours and policies to provide service to clients on evenings and weekends; and seeking community-based organizations to help enhance the success of "existing program dollars that are not reaching socially disadvantaged communities."

A spokeswoman for Sherrod declined comment. The mission of the Georgia Project is to "focus on empowerment, assisting rural communities to work for change through education, advocacy and economic development," its website states. Its roots go back to 1961when its activists joined the civil rights movement as an offshoot of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Ten years later, Shirley Sherrod and her husband, Charles, founded the organization to "continue the work of empowering black families in Southwest Georgia."

In February, Sherrod announced she is suing conservative blogger Andrew Brietbart for defamation. The website operator had posted a heavily edited video of a speech Sherrod gave on race relations that led Obama administration officials to rush to demand her resignation.

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