On March 4, Cornellians gathered in Stocking Hall to hear from the Under Secretary for Rural Development of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small, who discussed the initiatives she has led to foster development in rural American communities.
A New Mexico native and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants employed as farmworkers, Torres Small cited her background as her passion for rural development.
“I’m so grateful to get to work at this time, to invest in rural communities and to build true partnerships with people living in rural communities,” Torres Small said. “And that’s grounded for me in my experience of rural opportunity.”
Torres Small was also the first woman of color to represent New Mexico’s second Congressional District, holding the position from 2019 to 2021. She was succeeded by Yvette Herrell (R-N.M).
After earning her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Torres Small went on to earn a law degree from the University of New Mexico’s School of Law. She also holds an international baccalaureate from Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa.
In her talk, Torres Small discussed how the work happening in rural American communities supports, feeds and fuels the entire country. She stressed that understanding the connection between rural, suburban and urban communities across the U.S., is an important step in overcoming the barriers that these communities face.
“I get to see ‘rural’ all across the country and just how diverse it is, and also how connected we are,” Torres Small said. “If we want to make sure we’re solving the challenges that are most persistent today, we have to do it together.”
Since she began serving as Under Secretary, Torres Small has led initiatives to expand drinking water and wastewater access in rural areas. She harnessed funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — a federal investment that aims to improve various national infrastructures, including clean water access — and EPA state revolving funds, which provide financial assistance to water infrastructure projects.
Torres Small said that improving water access is essential to improving resource equity in rural communities.
“If you want to talk about equity as luck, there’s not much more specific than if you still have to haul your water or you can’t flush your toilet,” Torres Small said. “We’ve been able to start [improving water access] in a few areas, and I’m really excited to continue to work on partnerships that will reach new communities.”
In addition to water infrastructure, Torres Small has worked to improve broadband access in rural communities. She noted challenges in coordinating with government organizations — such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communication Commission — as well as communicating with local engineers to construct utility poles and provide internet service. To overcome this barrier, Torres Small has collaborated with rural development employees who are experts in varying aspects of internet infrastructure and represent different rural regions.
Torres Small urged Cornellians to support rural America by forming true partnerships with its communities.
“That’s investing in those fair markets that will help take challenges like climate change or food supply chains and turn them into opportunities for people on the ground,” Torres Small said. “It’s identifying what their vision is for their community and helping make that a reality.”