Q&A with Theressa Cooper

Theressa Cooper headshotName: Theressa Cooper, Ph.D.

Title: Assistant Dean for Diversity, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University

What is your background and how did you find your way into the ag industry?

My roots run deep in agriculture. My great-grandfather three times removed, Grandpa Sol, was born into slavery in 1862. During the height of the Jim Crow South era, in a rural America that saw little value in the contributions of black folks, Grandpa Sol persisted. Over time, he purchased 200 acres of land in east Texas, using it to feed not only his family, but also the families of those who deemed him “less than.” Through my maternal grandfather, the ways of Grandpa Sol were passed to us: a sense of pride and respect for the land. My extended family still owns and works the land of my forefathers. All that I am, and all that I will become, is tied to the land. My connection to the land is what connects me to others in agriculture. My family also grew up in extension; my mom and her sisters were 4-Hers, from a very young age. My mom went on to become a county extension agent and raised me (and my siblings) in 4-H. Out of this experience grew my passion for increasing the visibility, recognition, and participation of people of color, more specifically African Americans in agriculture and the related disciplines. My interest in the role and relationship of people of color to the agriculture and food system led me to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural development and a master’s degree in agricultural education, both from Texas A&M University. My doctorate, in cultural studies from the University of Tennessee, enabled me to uniquely bridge my love of agriculture and culture; it allows for the exploration of multiple ways of knowing and strengthens my ability to share this knowledge with others.

After graduating with my MS, I went to work for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, becoming the director of academic success programs and outreach initiatives in the college of agricultural sciences and natural resources. I served in this position for nine years. I left the University of Tennessee to become the assistant dean for diversity in the college of agriculture and life sciences at Iowa State University (ISU CALS). I am the first person in the history of the university to hold this title. My current responsibilities include the coordination, management, and implementation of the college’s diversity and inclusion programs. One of the signature programs under her umbrella is the George Washington Carver Summer Internship program, which has been in existence for over 28 years. I also lead efforts to identify new opportunities to enhance diversity and inclusion goals to benefit students, faculty, and staff, and connect with minority serving institutions nationwide in terms of teaching, research, and outreach/extension activities.

Why is diversity important to you and your organization?

Diversity cuts across all facets of our lives, and it plays an important role in our ability to create an interculturally competent, equitable, and inclusive society. It is important because it creates a variety of ideas — ways of thinking and knowing — that can free us from the danger of “groupthink” and open us up to “possibility.”

What current diversity initiatives do you have planned or ongoing?

Within ISU CALS we are currently focused on building an interculturally competent community amongst faculty, staff, and students. Intercultural competence is even more important as we engage in a more globally diverse industry. Now more than ever it is important that individuals are able to communicate and work effectively across cultures. Individuals should be equipped with the critical thinking, communications, socio-emotional, and language skills to work collaboratively with their counterparts within institutions, the state, the region, the U.S., and the globe. Understanding and appreciating other parts of the world, different religions, cultures, and points of view are essential elements of global and cultural competence.

In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing happening in the industry currently?

I am very excited to see members of the Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities reclaiming history and space within the agricultural community and industry. The taboos and negative perceptions, perceived by communities of color surrounding agriculture and the related disciplines, are being diminished, and more members of these communities are taking advantage of the broad, diverse opportunities within the industry. There is now greater representation of the true diversity that exists in our industry. Though there is much work yet to be done to eliminate barriers to entry and success for people of color within the agricultural industry, positive impacts have been made.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” We rely on stories, examples, leaders, and images that inform us about who we are and what we have the potential to become. Without these visual representations, we are left unaware and unable to be that which we cannot see. Seeing people of color inside the industry begets more people of color entering the industry. I excitedly look forward to the continued growth and representation of people of color in our industry.

What is your vision for the future of agriculture?

I envision a transformational agricultural community that thrives on intercultural competence in all aspects of decision making; that values diverse beliefs, values, and ways of knowing — as key components that are foundational to the growth, success, and prosperity of our industry.

About Together We Grow

Together We Grow is an agribusiness consortium with members that include major agricultural commodities companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and others committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness. The consortium sponsors research and provides a platform to share best practices for building future workforce capacity; it will have its permanent home at the Spur Hydro building. For more information, visit twg.csusystem.edu.

About Spur: CSU System at the National Western Center

Coming in 2022: CSU System will open Spur, where innovative ideas and unforgettable experiences come to life at the National Western Center. Spur’s three buildings at the center of the landmark project in north Denver will ignite and fuel new ideas around water, food, and health and their impact on our lives and our world. Spur is where learning is open and accessible to all. Where researchers tackle the world’s most pressing problems around water, food, and health. Where art and culture challenge and surround you. Where rural and urban, local and global intersect. Learn more at csuspur.org.