OKEECHOBEE — Artha Jonassaint, an Okeechobee High School graduate who now attends Harvard University, was recently elected FFA Southern Region national vice president. Jonassaint served as the Florida State FFA president during 2018-19.
Having spent most of her life in Okeechobee County, Jonassaint considers Okeechobee her home. She attended Okeechobee County schools — North Elementary, Yearling Middle School and then Okeechobee High School, where she graduated as a member of the Class of 2018. She graduated summa cum laude and spent her high school years playing two varsity sports — volleyball and tennis — and was involved with the National Honor Society Beta Club. Jonassaint has always thought it important to give back to her community and involved herself in many projects to that end.
FFA was introduced to her by a middle school teacher, Buddy Mills, who taught agriculture. He approached her one day and asked her to try out one of the leadership development events (LDEs) offered by FFA.
“I was hooked ever since,” she said. “I was always a high-achieving student, and it was really cool for me to be able to apply my natural skills in that type of setting and to learn more about our agricultural landscape and food system.” She was excited to find out how she could play a role in this. “FFA taught me I could be a part of something bigger than myself.”
The leadership opportunities were also a huge draw for Jonassaint. Beginning in middle school, she went to leadership conferences and began honing skills she already possessed in regard to leadership. She was also excited to accumulate some new skills.
“Figuring out how to communicate effectively to different people about things that matter, particularly in regard to our agricultural landscape and our food system in the U.S.: What does it mean to have genetically modified foods on the market, or what does food labeling mean? How can we ensure that farmers and other agriculturalists are still profitable and products that are affordable to all people make it to the grocery stores?”
Jonassaint loves finding solutions to problems, and FFA allows her to do this.
At Harvard, she is studying government and global health and health policies, and hopes to go to law school eventually. Her goal is to do work with food and health law. She said her interest stems from growing up in agriculturally rich Okeechobee County and her involvement with FFA. She will be taking a leave of absence to serve as the southern region vice president.
“I’m enthusiastic about it, because I get to learn more about the institutional aspects of the agricultural industry. I get to advocate for agriculture and agricultural education.” She is also excited about meeting new people, networking and using this opportunity to become a better version of herself while she is away from Harvard serving in this capacity.
“I’m really thankful that Mr. Mills saw something in me all those years ago and got me into a blue corduroy jacket,” Jonassaint said. “Now, I’m one of six national officers.”
She said the coronavirus has revealed a lot of different institutional challenges in many different realms. “Looking at the agriculture industry, there is a need to figure out how to get the H-2A workers (temporary agricultural workers) that come here on visas, into the states and contributing to our food supply. Racial tensions in our country are as high as they have been in a very long time,” she said.
As a national officer, Jonassaint said she thinks it is important to be a reflection of the growing diversity in the agriculture industry. “There isn’t just one type of person in agriculture. We all, no matter what we look like or what we believe, benefit from American agriculture, because we should eat every day and have clothes on our backs. For these things, we are reliant on agriculturalists, so changing the narrative of who is at the table in the Ag industry is really important to me. It’s important that it not just be translated in rural America but also in urban areas.”
She has found that a lot of people do not understand the food system and the value supply chain. “I think I will play an important role in communicating that just as much as communicating diversity.”
Jonassaint is excited for the opportunity and said: “There have not been a lot of people who look like me in this capacity in regard to my race and my gender identity. It’s exciting that I get to wield that change and encourage students across the nation to play a role in agriculture and leadership and becoming the best version of themselves. We, as a country, need strong leaders, and that is what my job will be in the coming year.”