RCAC presents a series of discussions with state directors for United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD). The series will provide a glimpse at USDA RD’s priorities and how state directors assist rural communities in our region.
In this issue, we spoke to Charlene Fernandez, Arizona State Director for USDA Rural Development.
Fernandez was born and raised in Yuma, Arizona. From childhood, she would read the Los Angeles Times with her father, which provided her an early opportunity to learn about social injustice and inequalities. These experiences shaped her trajectory and her commitment to service, and she became attentive to the stories of her neighbors and people in her community, realizing that true leadership starts with listening.
Fernandez’s public service journey led her to a number of accomplishments, including being elected to Arizona’s House of Representatives in 2014. As an impassioned advocate for sustainable agriculture and water management, she played a crucial role in the Drought Contingency Plan agreement in 2019. Fernandez’s dedication to her constituents shone through in her previous roles, working for Congressman Ed Pastor, Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, and as a liaison for Governor Janet Napolitano in the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. As USDA RD State Director for Arizona, Fernandez continues to champion the needs of farmers, ranchers, the environment and rural communities, with the vision of building a thriving, equitable and sustainable future for generations to come.
During our conversation, we discussed Fernandez’s background, including her experience in public service and her vision for ensuring that Arizona’s rural and Indigenous communities have the resources they need to thrive.
RCAC: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your leadership style and your experience working with rural issues.
Charlene Fernandez: I was born and raised in a rural Arizona community. Through my work in the field of public service, I have addressed the inequities that exist in rural communities.
I tend to lead by example. I work on my own scheduling and preparing my own agendas and in doing so I hope that those around me understand that we are all in this together and that everyone needs to contribute. I listen – actually, I think I was a born listener – and then I act.
RCAC: Can you describe your leadership style and how it will contribute to your success in this role?
Charlene Fernandez: As I mentioned before, I am a good listener. When appropriate, I share the stories I hear with others in the hopes of inspiring, motivating and impacting our staff. I am not a status quo type of leader. I am optimistic about the work we do and the pathway we are paving. I enjoy change and trying new methods to inspire. However, I am acutely aware that my success is dependent on those whom I lead.
RCAC: Looking forward to your tenure as Arizona State Director for USDA RD, what is your vision for promoting sustainable rural development and economic growth in the state?
Charlene Fernandez: My vision includes continued investment in our rural communities, particularly in housing, so that our communities can not only survive but thrive. My goal is to amplify the message that when our rural communities thrive, America thrives, and we all win. I look forward to the day when the private sector invests in rural communities not only because it is profitable, but also because it is the right thing to do. Our future workforce currently resides in rural communities; they are the future doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, contractors and so much more. But this cannot happen without partnerships and investment.
RCAC: In light of the ongoing affordable housing crisis in rural Arizona, what strategies do you plan to implement to not only encourage homeownership and community development but also address housing insecurity and improve living conditions?
Charlene Fernandez: Our goal at USDA RD is to assess the need in each rural community in a way that fits that community’s need. Housing is not a privilege but a right. Our rural residents need to understand that they have the right to safe, clean and affordable housing. This has been a longstanding commitment of USDA RD and this Administration has solidified this commitment by increasing funding for housing and housing repairs in rural Arizona. Our mission is to not only build up communities but to build them out with our many programs.
RCAC: In light of the serious threat that Climate Change poses to communities across Arizona and the U.S. Southwest, what actions do you plan to take to support rural areas in adapting to its impacts?
Charlene Fernandez: Climate Change is real and addressing it is a priority with this Administration. The Biden-Harris Administration is investing in new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food practices. There are loans and grants to ensure that rural communities have the same resources as urban areas to address Climate Change. Millions of dollars in funding for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements in rural communities are available. Our work is just beginning but with this Administration’s support we can be partners in addressing the most important issues facing Arizona.
RCAC: Given your longstanding commitment to sustainable agriculture and water management, what is your vision for how USDA RD can support rural communities in enhancing water infrastructure and building resilience to drought and other water-related challenges?
Charlene Fernandez: USDA RD shares the commitment of our agriculture community to address water management and sustainable agriculture. Our agency has a program for farmworker housing to ensure a skilled and reliable labor force for our agriculture community, which is critical to maintaining a stable food supply. High-quality, high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband is essential for promoting the technology needed for water conservation, water security and water resiliency practices. Through our ReConnect program, the latest technologies are available to our rural communities.
RCAC: What approaches do you plan to take in addressing the unique challenges and needs of Arizona’s Indigenous communities?
Charlene Fernandez: USDA RD touches the lives of all rural communities and Indigenous communities are no different. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA RD is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production; fairer markets for all producers; ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities; building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food and forestry practices; making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural Arizona; and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and assisting in building a workforce more representative of Arizona.
Also in this issue of Network News
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