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Granite statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr with the cherry blossom flowers in full bloom, Washington, D.C. Photo credit Tom Dorsz -

Embracing 2024 and Beyond: A Call to Listen, Learn and Do

Nifa Authors
Maurice Smith Jr, Ph.D., National Program Leader

As I reflect upon my career over the past 15 years in the agriculture sector and Cooperative Extension, I find immense satisfaction in being a servant leader with USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) as we address the needs of various communities and serve as catalyst for positive change among youth.

As we prepare for January 15, a day of remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my hope is my USDA colleagues, Cooperative Extension employees, 4-H'ers, volunteers and citizens will open their minds and hearts to reflect on life’s most persistent and urgent question.  “What are you doing for others”? – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

The profound dedication of Dr. King, a national and eminent leader who devoted his life and passion to serve as an activist in the civil rights movement, has opened doors for numerous people of color in the United States, myself included. Through his sacrifice and tireless efforts, equality has been brought to the forefront for many citizens and families across the nation. I can draw parallels between his inspirational journey and my own professional path, leading me to become a National Program Leader with NIFA.  

Through my matriculation at Virginia State University (VSU), an 1890 Land-grant Institution, I learned the true meaning and saw the impact of helping others. While pursuing my agriculture degree at VSU and immersing myself in the university's land-grant mission, I encountered dedicated and passionate faculty and leaders on campus. This exposure allowed me to witness firsthand the impactful work being carried out in numerous communities, particularly socially disadvantaged and underserved audiences. From my upbringing in rural southeastern Virginia to my educational journey at VSU, I developed a strong desire to forge a career in agriculture, aspiring to be a servant leader for communities and youth across our nation. 

My introduction to 4-H Youth Development at VSU prompted me to become a 4-H volunteer with local units across the southeast district of Virginia. This experience led me to serve as a 4-H Extension Agent and later as a 4-H State Specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension. In these various roles, I acquired valuable knowledge and insights, while also acknowledging that, much like the impactful work and service of Dr. King, there remains considerable work remains to address the needs of our communities. 

I am truly honored to be a NIFA National Program Leader and being a brand ambassador as I help carry out our mission of “Investing in and advance agricultural research, education, and extension to solve societal challenges.” My work as an NPL focuses on national leadership and supervision by demonstrating creativity, innovation and strategic thinking to address existing and emerging challenges in the food and agricultural sciences. My primary focus centers on the 1890 and 1994 Land-grants, as well as 4-H Youth Development Programs. I place particular emphasis on supporting minority-serving institutions and addressing the needs of underserved youth, which form a significant aspect of my work portfolio.   

Reflecting on Dr. King's life and legacy reinforces my belief that my earthly passion lies in serving others. Although much progress has been made, there is still work to be done to fulfill Dr. King's vision. The paramount importance of understanding others should guide our approach to both current and emerging challenges. I was privileged to collaborate with exceptional and dedicated leaders on the national curriculum, "Coming Together for Racial Understanding," a truly valuable resource. This initiative facilitates a dialogue-to-change process for communities, fostering new pathways for collaboration across racial and ethnic lines to build understanding and trust. The goal is to enable informed collective action for meaningful change. 

This model and its implementation nationally align with what Dr. King would likely be proud of, as it contributes to the ongoing efforts for equality, equity, diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging. In the spirit of Dr. King's question, "What are you doing for others?" I extend the charge to you, urging you to actively keep his legacy alive through the meaningful work you undertake. 


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