Kimberly Graham still lives in the same Charles County, Maryland town where she grew up. Fifty miles south of Washington, D.C., La Plata is a small town where tobacco farms dot the landscape—or at least it was small in 1988 when Graham was a teenager embarking on her first job as a Clerk Typist with the federal government.
In March of 2022, Graham became the first African American to serve as Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA). Now a Senior Executive, she has held positions at every grade level in federal service, but she has not lost touch with the clerical start to her career.
“I came from very humble beginnings,” said Graham. “My marching orders were made very clear to me when I graduated high school in 1988. My dad sat me down and said, ‘You’ve got a few choices: you can go to college if you can get money to go, you can get a good government job, or you can go into the military service.’”
College wasn’t an option financially, and Graham didn’t want to go into the military. She believes it was divine intervention that USDA came to her high school to administer a civil service test to fill clerical positions.
“I took the civil service test, passed it, and about a month later, I got a call from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service – ASCS – Human Resources Division asking whether I'd be interested in coming in to take a typing test to fill a GS2 Clerk Typist position. I passed the test and got a job offer,” remembers Graham, who wouldn't have considered a career related to agriculture had it not been for USDA’s recruitment efforts.
“I ended up working in the Tobacco and Peanuts Division within the ASCS, which later became the FSA. I thought, ‘I'll do this until I figure out what I want to do,’” said Graham. “I had good mentors, I learned a lot about peanuts, and I tried to take on extra assignments. Even though I was in a clerical job, they allowed me to listen in on policy conversations and get to know folks in the industry. I wanted to be a part of the bigger USDA goal, and that’s what inspired me to stay.”
At the time, USDA had an Upward Mobility Program. Graham applied for and was accepted to the program, which involved intensive training and put her on a path to be promoted through the grade levels, eventually becoming a GS 14 Program Manager.
Along the way, Graham went to college and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Management Studies and a Graduate Certification in Project Management from the University of Maryland. She earned these degrees all while working full-time and raising three children with her husband.
Graham has seen her share of challenges. People questioned her qualifications, knowledge, and abilities because she didn’t grow up on a farm or didn’t work in a county office. When she began meeting with agricultural commodity groups, she was often the only African American in the room. She recalls, “Members of major agriculture commodity groups didn’t acknowledge my presence or position until I got up to give a presentation or spoke up to clarify farm bill policies or legislation.”
She continued, “It’s been a career-long journey of walking into rooms and spaces where I have always felt like I was at a disadvantage because of my skin color.” But for Graham that journey has served as her motivation.
“I overcame most of this through a lot of prayer and support from my family and mentors. I also did extra work to gain program knowledge and build confidence in areas where I knew I was lacking. I can’t change the color of my skin, but I can always grow, learn and get better at whatever I choose to do.”
During her tenure with USDA, Graham has witnessed improvements in equity. In the last year or so, she has seen the department focus more on equity, diversity, and inclusion in both staffing and programs. Program changes, she says, have led to increased benefits for underserved producers. She notes that this focus has also resulted in some firsts in USDA history.
“We had our first African American Deputy Secretary. We have our first Equity Commission and our first African American Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs…me,” said Graham, adding that improvements are still needed.
“We need to do a better job at recruiting staff in the field. We also have a lot more we can do in our programs to increase participation of underserved producers,” said Graham.
When asked what advice she would give young people of color who aspire to become USDA leaders, Graham said, “Give yourself some grace and see yourself as a leader at every level and in every job you hold. Don’t allow what you don’t see today – someone of color in that leadership role – to stop you from becoming what others need to see!”
Graham, who is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, says that many individuals and events in black history have influenced her life and career, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Richard Allen, founder of the AME Church to our first African American President, Barack Obama.
“Richard Allen was at a Methodist church kneeling in prayer at the altar and was told he could not pray simply because he was black man – a freed slave – in a white church. In something as sacred and non-violent as prayer, individuals can still find division. How can skin tone, race or religion cause anyone to treat people in that manner? I’m reminded of this saying, ‘Freedom without equality is not freedom at all.’”
“From a high school student who had no desire to work in agriculture to someone who is approaching 35 years of service and a Senior Executive with USDA, it's almost unbelievable to me. I couldn't have done it without being given opportunities. There were a lot of good people who saw something in me that I didn't even see in me,” said Graham. “I’m grateful to those folks who paved the way for me and helped me to believe that I could be in this position. I honor them because without them, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
“I’m mindful to make sure that I don't forget that other people need those opportunities, too. I want to make a difference here. I want people to understand that our programs are for all people. We all contribute; we all bring value. Until we see that, we're missing out.”
Diane Petit is a Public Affairs Specialist with the USDA Farm Production and Conservation Business Center in Bellingham, Massachusetts.