Diversity more than a buzzword at Alberta’s agricultural colleges

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Alberta’s ag colleges are growing the next crop of industry workers — and they’re trying to make that workforce more inclusive and diverse.

“In the ag sector, we’re in a lot of international markets, and being able to deal with all sorts of different people in all sorts of different situations is going to become a skill that’s really necessary in the future,” said Geoff Brown, dean of agricultural and environmental sciences at Lakeland College. “It’s something we’re really focused on.”

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The lack of diversity is an ongoing challenge in a sector dominated by men, mostly from European backgrounds, said Brown.

But as the industry changes, so too must the faces that make it up, with a greater number of women, people of colour, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, and other underrepresented groups being welcomed into the industry, he said.

“We’re going to need some really innovative ideas coming out of this (pandemic), and that doesn’t speak to traditional thinking — that speaks to having people come in that challenge the status quo.”

Businesses that do that will have a competitive advantage, Brown added.

“You’re not really paying attention if you’re not looking around and seeing the way business is moving out there,” he said. “It’s turning into an international marketplace, and there are all sorts of different people making up these companies.

“I think if you choose to embrace it as an advantage, you’re going to have a significant advantage over your competitors going forward.”

Part of that comes from having different perspectives at the table, said Michelle Derbich, incoming chair for the School of Business at Lethbridge College.

“Differences in perspective, world views, and the way that you might problem solve lead to the one word I just love that comes out of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that’s innovation,” said Derbich.

“Right now in Alberta, we need innovation more than we ever have with the challenges our oil and gas industry has experienced.”

A rainbow flag (a symbol of LGBTQ+ support and pride) was raised during Pride Month last summer. photo: Supplied

Diversity efforts

Lethbridge College was one of five colleges chosen to participate in the federal Dimensions pilot program that focuses on eliminating obstacles for under-represented groups.

“When we’re talking about transformational change, that starts with us re-examining and evaluating what Lethbridge College already does to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, and then identifying the areas within the institution that we can improve,” said Derbich.

“Then we can hopefully build action to be able to address those gaps.”

That comes with some challenges.

“You’re asking people to dig deep and tell you about their experiences, so you really have to build trust with them for them to be able to tell you about their experiences in a diverse population,” she said.

Some of those tough conversations are also occurring at Olds College.

“The Black Lives Matter movement last spring was an opportunity for us to hear from some of our students, including some painful stories of things that they’ve experienced,” said Peter Mal, the school’s associate vice-president of students.

“We were able to hear from them, learn from them, and move on together in a really positive way.”

Like Lethbridge and Lakeland colleges, Olds College has seen an increase in international students in recent years, nearly tripling since 2015-16.

“Agriculture and places like Olds have been kind of static for a long time, so when we’re seeing a lot of interest from all kinds of different students with different backgrounds, we have to respond,” said Mal.

The college has put in place a number of support services for international and Indigenous students, while less formal groups, like the Gay-Straight Alliance, also provide “safe spaces for students to share their experiences.”

“These are necessary steps for us to lead by example and to really support diversity and inclusion in a meaningful way,” he said.

The main benefit of these types of initiatives is that “students are supported,” he added.

“That’s No. 1 — when students come to campus, they feel welcomed and supported and that they can have success in their program. We’ve moved beyond talking about it. Things are happening. We’re doing it.”

Diwali (a festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs) was also celebrated. photo: Supplied

Culture change

That’s the real challenge of creating an inclusive and diverse agricultural workforce, Derbich added.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but it will be the actions you take that will speak louder than anything,” she said.

At Lethbridge College, those actions include Indigenization of curriculums, opening of an LGBTQ+ club space and international lounge, and a stronger connection to the local Blackfoot community.

At Lakeland, there’s a focus on building inclusive communities.

“We’re in a small town,” said Brown. “Usually when students come to college here in Vermilion, the classes are small enough that the students get to be pretty good friends, no matter where they come from.”

While the majority of the students are “farm kids,” the college is working to attract international students, and the student-managed farm is just one of the ways they’re doing that.

“In our student-managed farm model, it’s really heartwarming to watch when you’ve got international students who know nothing about western Canadian agriculture working as part of the team,” he said.

“It might not seem like a lot for a farm kid who’s pretty comfortable driving a combine or handling cattle. But it’s a huge accomplishment for international students and people who don’t have ag backgrounds to come in and see that they could actually do it. It’s a huge confidence booster.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been issues.

“We’re dealing with 18- or 19-year-old students, and if they have been in some of these small communities where there isn’t a lot of diversity, we always have isolated incidents that we have to deal with and coach,” said Brown.

“We try to be compassionate about that, but also really clear about our expectations around ensuring respect happens.”

That’s part of the process of building a more inclusive and diverse workforce, he said.

“In order to achieve that growth and adapt the innovations and technologies that we need to address these challenges, we’re going to need to have all sorts of different people putting their heads together.”

Derbich agrees.

“Agriculture, like every other industry in the world right now, is in a situation where it needs to think beyond what we’ve experienced in 2020 and 2021 and into the future,” she said. “That looks like a future where we see a lot of competition on the global stage. We need a forward-focused mindset as to how we can come out ahead of that.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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