What was the moment in your life when you realized you wanted to explore public service?
I’d say there wasn’t a moment but my family always told stories about things our grandfather and grandmother would do for the community, or remind me “that’s the relative that did ______ for us __ years ago,” or a cousin would thank my parents for doing them a favor with job recommendations. You’re always supposed to help people out when they need it.
Beyond that, in middle school and high school I noticed racial, first-gen, and gender inequity and didn’t have a ton of guidance for examining it. It always bothered me when people minimized the struggles of my family because of my race, and I felt something was missing. I got the chance to investigate racial disproportionality and racial profiling happening at my high school through the student newspaper and learned about the school-to-prison pipeline. That detailing of social stratification connected with what I suspected about racial segregation through honors programs. From there I attended a ton of events to learn more and co-founded a student club as a “safe space for uncomfortable conversations.”
Eventually, when student government and building leadership teams were looking for students to join, I saw it as an opportunity to see the workings between administration and staff at my school and another way to center and target injustice.
What are your main responsibilities at your position? What are you looking forward to the most in your position?
I’m helping prepare for a Specialty Crop Conference in August, which is the thing I’m looking forward to most! At the Agricultural Research Services (ARS), there’s the National Agricultural Research Extension Education and Economics Advisory Board (NAREEAB). Part of what it does is it meets to determine whether current funds for studies at land-grant universities are relevant and adequate to the national priorities of USDA. One of its subcommittees is for Specialty Crops, so they address industry and stakeholder needs. They had listening sessions for stakeholders to speak at, and I’m compiling the top concerns for discussion at the crop conference.
Additionally, NAREEAB members must be replaced at least once every three years, so I will help solicit nominations for new members for different categories ordained by Congress. For an example of what this looks like, at a roundtable discussion, a representative for “National Consumer Interest Groups” advocated to abolish the “time-limit” for able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps (ABAWDs).
I’m also with the Office of the Administrator, where I prepare articles for publishing on the ARS website and am going to make a STEM booklet for a K-12 audience filled with photos of ARS employees doing their work/research with “Flat Stanleys” to make ARS’ work more accessible. Flat Stanley is a children’s book character who loves to travel and people can cut out and take pictures with him. Speaking of public service, employees post pictures of them doing work and have cute captions about why they love public service and how their work contributes to the U.S. and the world.
Did you find anything surprising about your internship or doing public service work?
I found out that a lot of the material I need for my work is legally required to be available online. Because of a history of closed-door meetings in the government, Congress requires meeting notes and other documentation to be published on the NAREEAB website for transparency. For example, you can find notes from the roundtable discussion here: https://nareeeab.ree.usda.gov/sites/nareeeab.ree.usda.gov/files/nareeeab/Roundtable%20Discussion.pdf.
These things are posted as required by the Federal Advisory Committee ACT (FACA), which made advice and activity by different committees accessible to the public: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/category/21242 The roundtable discussion was my favorite thing to read because it illuminated a dimension I was looking for: what’s in the way of racial and economic agricultural justice? One of them is accessibility.
What motivates you?
Typically, it is knowing that I am working for justice and that I am learning about what has been made invisible. I love learning about histories of resistance. RESISTANCE. Not resilience, but resistance. Discrimination does not exist in a vacuum, so every aspect of a person’s life can be affected by it. Food? That too. Who grows your food, who is hired to pick your food, who determines what the maximum residue levels of pesticides on your food, is your food grown at high resource/water costs, and where do you buy your food?
So when I hear community members or stakeholders speaking up on agricultural issues, or read reports about Michigan’s migrant workers living conditions, that the land the USDA grants to universities for research used to belong to different native peoples like the Algonquin people, how pesticides can and have led to long-term health issues for migrant workers, I remember why I fight. They are fighting to be heard among the different interests. I am also learning about how my liberation is tied with yours.
When you get off work, what do you do? What are your weekend activities?
If I know there will be an event that night, I will try to go to a museum on the way to where the event is happening. If not, I’ll go home!
So far I’ve gone to the Museum of American History, the Botanical Garden and the Museum of the American Indian where they hosted a Choctaw Music and Arts Festival! I try to go to events centered on people of color and intersectionality with gender, or environmental justice to connect what I’m doing at USDA to my affinity for advocacy. I spoke to a Choctaw photographer of traditional foods about how they’ve been granted funds from the USDA to make a seed bank for traditional foods, but that Natural Resources also tried to dictate how they farmed. So it’s really important to me to find connections so I’m not working in a vacuum. I’m trying to integrate different realities so I don’t forget what we’re facing as I continue figuring out my life interests.
For example, there was a DC Movement for Black Lives gathering at the Benning Road Library where they were talking about displacement by gentrification. I mean, it’s something we need to check ourselves about as interns because we’re part of a huge influx of temporary summer residents—how do we affect housing prices?
A Seattle native, Victoria “Vic” Vong is a rising sophomore at Seattle University and Pre-Major student. She has mentored elementary schoolers in literacy since high school thru college through Seattle Public School’s Team Read Program and Seattle University’s Youth Initiative Program. An activist for educational equity, Vic has led walkouts and written articles about the racial profiling at her high school, the school-to-prison pipeline, inequitable funding for public schools, and support for college faculty unionization. Looking forward, she is interested in sociology, political science, Asian studies, and public affairs. She hopes to combine these disciplines to research educational policies and their impact, and teach interdisciplinary courses. This summer she will be interning with the Agricultural Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in D.C. Whenever possible, she likes to find and pet shiba inu dogs (with permission from their owners.)
Meet all of our CAPAL Scholars & Interns here.
Posted by Felicia Wong
Felicia Wong is currently a senior at the College of William and Mary, double majoring in Neuroscience and Asian American Studies, and minoring in Biochemistry. She is president of the Filipino American Student Association, and current non-academic projects include creating films calling for diversity curriculums/requirements and establishing an official APIA Studies program. Felicia was also elected president of Global Medical Brigades to lead a sustainable healthcare program in rural communities in Nicaragua. She hopes to connect her interests in healthcare with the community she has found in her cultural background. Having lived in Germany for most of her childhood, Felicia makes yearly trips back to visit her family, providing opportunities for her to indulge in her greatest joys: touring castles, eating at cafés, taking fashion cues from strangers, cooking with her family. Non-country specific pleasures include: biking, watching live music performances, screaming because Game of Thrones.