Yes, tradition. And, change.
How to honor the past with the future.
“I want to change the world.” Have you ever had that thought? It feels like one of the ideals set out for each of us as human beings, even from a young age. We are told we can change the world, we should change the world, and we start to look for all the ways we believe things should change. Nobody wants to be remembered as a person who maintained the status quo. Right?
Maybe there’s more to the story. Perhaps we can leave the greatest impact on the world by discerning where things should change and where they shouldn't.
I grew up surrounded by FFA emblems—magazines on the bookshelf, jackets in the closet, pictures of old conventions in the family photo albums—that represented an organization I've come to deeply value. My late father had been involved in the 1950's and, at first glance, the FFA looks very different now than it did then. While membership used to be limited to certain groups of individuals, we now welcome any student who wants to be a part of our vision of agriculture and leadership—I myself am the direct benefactor of the amendment that brought women into national membership. Most members then were interested in farming as a career; now, we have future farmers, agribusiness people, scientists, communicators, and more. Agriculture used to be predominantly filled with farmers but now the industry is largely made up of people who work upstream (like plant breeding and input companies) or downstream (food processors and marketing companies) in the supply chain. FFA opportunities and awards reflect that shift. Perhaps the most evident is our name change in 1988, where the Future Farmers of America became the National FFA Organization.
That's a lot of change. We're better for it, too: not simply because we have greater membership numbers, but because we continue to serve the needs of agriculture by bringing a wide assortment of young people with varying perspectives together in a place where we can hone our skills and more effectively share our ideas. Each alteration was made carefully, intentionally, and, (although sometimes after debate), with relatively broad consensus across the membership base. It wasn't change for the sake of change; it was improvement on an organization that was already good, but could be better. While overhaul can be disastrous, continuous refinement in any system is essential.
The foundation for effective change
There are two keys. We must first understand what it is we seek to modify, and, this is just as crucial, appreciate what already is and how it came to be. It's just like with our personal growth—we improve ourselves because we love who we are, and we better improve ourselves when we understand ourselves. Externally, others may only see what we change; internally, we must understand why we change. If we try to reform something that we don't care about, we disrespect those who do. If we try to reform something we don't understand, we can easily make things worse. We should have personal stakes in the game if we want to have credibility, and we need to understand how other people are thinking, too. Even if we have the perfect plan for an improvement we believe should be made (and let's be real, none of us will have a perfect plan all on our own; it takes a set of different ideas from different people to create the best plan), it means nothing if others aren't on board with it. There are many ways to gain this understanding and appreciation. Here are three of my favorites:
Learn the history beyond basic dates and facts. Seek out conversations with members of older generations to hear first-hand accounts. Read articles from different perspectives. Be careful to not judge the past too harshly by current standards and instead understand what it was like to be a person in that time.
Intentionally engage with those who see the organization from a different perspective. Talk to members from chapters that are unlike ours, whether in size, demographics, or priorities. Ask what advisors think. Interact with sponsors or other ag industry professionals from a variety of areas and learn how they look at tradition and progress.
Test out ideas on a small scale. Sometimes we have to put something into practice to understand how it will work. Have an idea for an improvement you want to happen on a state or national scale? Try it out in your chapter, first. Putting in the work to make something happen often gives us greater appreciation for those who have built the foundation we stand on, as well as deeper understanding of how organizations actually operate.
Building change on tradition
The FFA has a strong set of traditions that guide who we are and what we do. We were founded on the premise of leadership through agriculture. We have ceremonial traditions, like opening ceremonies and state degree award ceremonies. We wear a jacket nearly identical to those worn decades ago. Perhaps our greatest tradition is best illustrated by the reactions of strangers who recognize the jacket or the emblem: if people know the FFA, they know it for our values. They know FFA members believe in respect, integrity, and hard work.
I was struck at just how much these ideals and values have remained true when I visited home last month. My mother had found a piece of notebook paper with my grandmother's (on my dad's side) neat cursive writing, apparently a speech she had given on behalf of all the FFA parents at the Earlville FFA Chapter Banquet around the year 1956. In this speech, she talked about the diverse interests of FFA members, how much it meant that each member had their own project to learn from, and how grateful she was for what FFA was teaching her sons. These are all sentiments I hear, in 2021, from parents of FFA members. My fellow members and I are grateful for these things, too. How we achieve the mission has shifted, but the core values haven't. This is crucial for us to understand if we want to make a positive difference in the world.
If the values are solid, the best way to honor them is to stay true to their spirit and intention while carefully innovating on how those values are made manifest in the world. We can stay true to the tradition of the values—whether it's innovation, integrity, strength, or otherwise—while progressing in how we live out those values. In fact, I think it's often the only way to stay true to the traditions. If the goal is to serve people, we cannot let ourselves be boxed in to serving people exactly the same way as we did 100 years ago, and we should not expect 100 years in the future to look like it does today. Yet, we must not be so eager to change that we uproot an entire system just because it is flawed in its execution. Many systems are built with years, generations even, of wisdom, and we must be humble enough to realize we probably don't understand enough about it to start over. The best place to start when we don't know much—and you and I both are well aware we don't know much at all in the grand scheme of things—is with the small things.
In the FFA, we value agriculture, so we ensure that our opportunities are reflective of the agriculture industry as it progresses. We value leadership, so we equip our members to lead in the digital world just as we equipped members to lead before the internet existed. We value people, so we continue to create opportunities for us to build meaningful connections with each other.
"I want to uphold strong traditions as I carefully make small changes where necessary" may not sound as exciting as "I want to change the world," but we can bet it will leave the world a much better place than if we overturn every tradition we find in order to generate attention. We’re better today than we were yesterday, and we’ll be even better tomorrow if we pursue careful progress above reckless change.
What is your favorite FFA tradition? Let us know in the comments or on social media by tagging @miriamrosah and @nffaevp and using the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.