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Promoting acceptance in agricultural education

Ken Fuelling (he/they) had already been accepted into graduate school to work with Sarah LaRose in the Department of Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication when he came out as trans. He sent an email to ask if LaRose would still accept him, if she would call him “Ken,” and if it were okay to ask members of her lab to use he/him and they/them pronouns.

Fuelling had been out as queer for a while and had faced their fair share of not fitting in, of other students refusing to sit next to them. Graduate school presented a whole new community, and with it, more anxiety over acceptance.

“What really made me want to stay in agriculture were some of the professors,” Fuelling said. “Dr. LaRose openly admitted there was racism in agriculture. She taught us that there was importance in acknowledging that history, including the messy parts, and that we have power as educators to do better moving forward. We have the power to shape the world that we live in.”

As Fuelling began their research with LaRose, they often had to be warned about sliding out of objectivity and getting “preachy.” But Fuelling knew personally how those subjects were barriers to so many students approaching agriculture. And so he decided to research the impact of diversity on agricultural education for his master’s thesis.

 

 

I know agriculture isn’t a safe space for everyone, and I thought if I researched that, maybe I could do a little bit to change it.”

- Ken Fuelling, graduate student in Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication

Through a series of interviews with students and educators, Fuelling collected data on how the sense of belonging in a program affects learning. 

“In the predominantly minority communities I’ve been interviewing, there isn’t always a sense of belonging in agriculture,” Fuelling said. “Students can see themselves in marketing campaigns but don’t always feel welcomed. Some students report feeling like they’re not allowed in the conversation and can’t speak out about the problems they see.”

Fuelling’s research included the critical pedagogy of agriculture, a method of teaching that uses the concepts of specific places, ecological sciences and Indigenous cultures as lenses to inform agricultural education. By giving attention to these topics, classrooms can look critically at the past and see how it affects the present and future of their region.  

Applying the critical pedagogy of agriculture allowed Fuelling to see how a system that is more community-focused and open to discussion changes the sense of belonging for students in agriculture.

“There’s a real benefit to letting students have conversations at school that they might not be allowed to have at home,” Fuelling said. 

Fuelling found that programs which encourage expressing family values and allow students to talk openly about their identity and politics create trust. Students felt welcomed in a place where they could ask questions and express their opinions safely.  

Fuelling, himself, had previously felt isolated from other students in agriculture. They didn’t see it as a safe place where they could belong. It wasn’t until he befriended a forest ranger that he realized the power of having open conversations himself.

“He really showed me the importance of caring for the small things out in nature, like bugs and plants. And, he is a big part of my chosen family that helped me become much more open-minded and accepting in agricultural topics and in changing my own mindset,” Fuelling said.

Fuelling hopes the data from his research will positively impact school-based agricultural education. “I think agriculture could empower a lot of students, but schools will have to let teachers talk about uncomfortable issues.”

There is a power in building community that can generate change, something Fuelling has seen both first and second hand.  

“There’s a space for everybody in agriculture,” Fuelling said. “We succeed in educating others when we show them that we’re here to grow with them.”

Ken Fuelling sits in a classroom chair and stares thoughtfully out a window. Empty chairs fill the background Although their own experience being queer in agriculture had its ups and downs, Ken Fuelling sees light in the future of agricultural education.

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