Thinking of FFA as overwhelming rural and male isn’t rooted in reality, said executive director Austin Large.
Most of the state’s 130,000 FFA members are from urban or suburban schools, with girls comprising around 47 percent of the membership, Large said. Among the organization’s regional leadership groups — the state is divided into 12 areas — nearly two-thirds of the area officers from the 2018-19 year were young women.
“They are taking the organization by storm,” Large said. “They are often the ones who want to be at the helm — and we want them there, because they do incredible work.”
“Our mission is about developing leadership, personal growth and career success, and I think [young women] are able to make the connections a lot sooner, so they’re the ones who would raise their hand in the first day in ag class, when the teacher’s asking who wants to go to this contest or leadership conference.”
The fight to allow female membership, both at the state and national level, was a protracted, three-decades-long effort.
While girls sporadically participated in other states in the early years of the organization, an initial push to allow official membership at the 1935 national convention was strongly rebuffed. According to a resolution from that convention, state organizations would be excluded from national contests, awards and funding if girl members were on its rolls.
At the 1969 Texas FFA convention, also held in Fort Worth, delegates approved an amendment authorizing women to become members of the Texas FFA. That same year, the word “male” was struck from the national constitution, allowing girls to participate at the national level.
But entrance didn’t automatically mean acceptance — particularly among the upper echelon of the organization. While there were female state officers elected in the 1970s and 1980s, it took two decades before a young woman was elected to the state’s highest office.
Mansfield’s Erica Clark-Goode became Texas’ first female president in 1991.
Clark-Goode said she never felt as if she was breaking barriers. With her older siblings also involved in FFA, she had grown up around the organization, she said, so much so that her local chapter “was an extension of my family.”
FFA, she said, gave her a place to blossom, turning a shy, introverted kid into an assured public speaker.
“It gave me a level of confidence, and most importantly, it gave me a place that I belonged,” she said.
At the time of her election, Clark-Goode said, “I don’t know if fully understood the impact. In hindsight, in realizing what it meant for those who followed, it’s extra special. … So many female leaders got their roots in the FFA, and it’s been amazing to watch.”
Kari Garcia, an outgoing state officer from Eagle Pass, is following on that path.
An environmental studies major at Texas A&M University, with an eye toward going to law school after graduation, Garcia was drawn to the organization ostensibly because she wanted to miss a week a school to participate in the county stock show.
What she discovered was a love for science and agriculture policy, turning a “introvert in the back of the room” into someone willing to go through nine rounds of interviews in the state officer election process.
“What I love about FFA is how intentional the organization is,” Garcia said. “Everything we learn here is always supplemental to something that we learn in class.”
As a woman and a Latina, Garcia has been able to see firsthand the challenges the state’s FFA still faces. It’s not as diverse as it needs to be, especially for students who fall further outside the norm of a straight, white, Christian male.
“You can only be so different, otherwise you’re a hard pill to swallow,” Garcia said. “I feel like I’m an exception — but the more exceptions we have, the more the culture is changed. The more people who are willing to put themselves out there, the more people can feel they can do it too, as different as I am.”
Like all FFA presidents and vice presidents, newly elected Winfrey will defer entrance into college for a year, instead traveling the state to proselytize the FFA’s message.
While she said she’s excited to meet with as many members as she can, Winfrey is cognizant of what her election can mean for the future of girls in FFA.
“It’s really cool when you can see someone in that role and see yourself in their shoes,” she said.
Dallas will host the 2020 Texas FFA convention, from July 6 to 10, at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.