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OTA Diversity Council Engages Staff and Members in a Commitment to Racial Equity

Each week, OTA’s Accounting Manager, Janet Martz, processes hundreds of financial and administrative transactions for the organization. However, she never had the opportunity to meaningfully engage with members or OTA’s programming until the establishment of the Diversity Council.

In 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world was forced into a lull, which created a lot of time for introspection. OTA used that time to survey its landscape and determine how we could continue to engage our membership and double-down on our mission. That exercise highlighted two opportunities: OTA had the ability to unify more voices and to expand the diversity of our membership.

With an added understanding and purpose, OTA’s staff and board launched a series of commitments, embodied in our Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) work. The commitments gave new measure to our mission, body to our programming, and a new place for members to engage. We are taking concrete steps to ensure that our successes promote diversity rather than perpetuate social inequalities. We are developing practices and creating opportunities that embed our JEDI commitments into the fabric of OTA and the organic movement. Those efforts begin with the Diversity Council.

Like Martz, our members’ Finance, Administrative, Operations, and Human Resources (HR) staff are active and prominent figures in their companies’ day-to-day operations and their own relationships as OTA trade members. Yet, as important as our work is, these key staff often do not get the opportunity to participate in ways that fully take advantage of the benefits of their OTA membership. The Diversity Council offers a place for members in a wide range of positions and from a wide range of backgrounds to connect. The council’s Vice Chair, Carla Balen, started as the Head of People at Organically Grown Company about a year and a half ago. She had many years of experience as an HR professional, but never in the organic trade. She immediately found value in participating in the Diversity Council. It is her first real engagement with the trade association, and she joins many other Organically Grown Company staff who have been deeply involved in our work for many years. “Where we place our resources and what we choose to have conversations about sends a strong message. Personally, not knowing that much about OTA, I would be disappointed if we didn’t have this council,” Balen says, underscoring the importance of creating a formal space to have important conversations about equity and inclusion.

The Diversity Council has the distinct mandate to lead work that is not dedicated to any specific business sector or trade issue, but impacts all parts of the trade. Because of that, its membership list includes staff with titles such as Inclusive Diversity Manager, Chief People Officer, Coordinator, and Accounting Manager. OTA’s Martz had no previous experience in the work of diversity, equity, or inclusion prior to joining this council. “I intentionally engage now, where I would not have thought to do so before,” she says after recounting her experiences while participating in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge with the Diversity Council. The challenge was facilitated by Food Solutions New England, with the goal of helping participants commit to deepening their understanding of, and willingness to confront, issues of race and equity. Many council members participated and used the challenge to examine food justice from their own organic sector lens.

Since its establishment, the council has guided some noteworthy work, which can be reviewed in the 2021 Annual Report. But our most exciting work is yet to come. 2022 has ushered in some very tangible opportunities for the Diversity Council to learn and grow. The outpouring of support from the OTA membership has allowed us to provide sponsorship for conferences specifically geared toward empowering BlPOC farmers and ranchers. We are preparing to conduct our Annual JEDI Survey, which keeps us informed on how we can best support our members’ JEDI efforts and build more coalitions. We are designing for more professional development opportunities for OTA’s staff, so that they fully represent the importance of this work on behalf of the membership.

There will be many impactful things coming from this council, so please consider this your invitation to join us!

Stephanie Jerger is the Vice President of Administration for Organic Trade Association.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.