New FFA president embracing leadership

Breanna Holbert poses for a photograph on the Chico State campus.

Breanna Holbert, the first African American woman to serve as the National FFA Organization’s president, has embraced leadership roles since she was a young girl. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Breanna Holbert cringes at the word “can’t.”

She embraces failures as lessons. She enjoys meaningful, deep-diving conversations with strangers, as much for her own benefit as for theirs.

The newly elected National Future Farmers of America (FFA) Organization president, a 20-year-old sophomore from Lodi, knows many like to draw attention to the fact she is the first African American woman in FFA’s 90-year history. Both her ethnicity and gender represent minority demographics in agriculture, in actual numbers, and in public perception.

But the only label that really interests her is that of a leader. Holbert is inspired by uncovering the unknown—in herself, in situations, and in other people. An unyielding curiosity to unearth unrealized potential stands out as her most distinguishable quality.

That began within, as a child. Holbert learned to persevere at an early age when her father left her family. Her mother, suffering from heart disease, struggled to support five children on her own.

“As bad as all of that sounds, my biological dad taught me one thing before he left me and my family,” said Holbert, an agricultural education major. “You have a choice in life to stay where you’re at, or build yourself up and grow. But that’s only your choice. Nobody else will do it for you.”

That attitude has never left her. Always a conscientious student, Holbert’s foray into the unfamiliar world of agriculture began in high school, choosing “Ag-Physical Science” as her freshman year elective on the advice of her eighth-grade advisor who sold her on the pitch, “All you do is plant plants all day.”

As she stuck with the class, the teacher pushed her on the merits of joining FFA. Holbert’s first taste was a Leadership Development Event, “Creed Speaking,” in which students must recite the five-paragraph FFA creed from memory and publicly speak to its meaning and purpose.

Shy and nervous, Holbert bombed it.

“I was horrible. Probably last place,” she said. “But I walked out of it thinking, ‘I still just did that.’ And I knew I could do more.”

Since that day, Holbert stayed involved with FFA and strived to improve, both as a public speaker and a leader. She wanted to impact people in her life the way her teachers and advisors had challenged her.

“I get really frustrated when students get down on themselves,” Holbert said. “My skin crawls when I hear someone say, ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘I’m not smart enough,’ or ‘I’m not talented enough,’ or ‘Someone is better at this than me.’ It makes me mad, because it automatically puts a limit on them and they don’t want to do anything. It’s sad to me, because there is so much we can do if we just believe in our ability.”

Breanna Holbert poses for a photograph in her state officer's FFA jacket

(Photo courtesy of Breanna Holbert)

At an FFA conference during her state officer year, Holbert spoke with a student, Steven Cervantes, in the very back of the group of about 200 students. He wanted to be part of his family’s welding company, but FFA seemed to be taking him away from working with his hands and pushing him toward public speaking.

“I don’t like this FFA stuff,” Cervantes told her. “I don’t like the leadership stuff. I don’t like speaking in front of people.”

Holbert, herself a converted public speaker, could have shared her experience of learning to get past that fear. Instead, she told him how she burned a hole in her shoe during high school ag mechanics and quickly discovered it wasn’t her strength. She realized then she didn’t have to shoehorn herself into each facet of agriculture to play an important role, and neither did Cervantes. She encouraged him to nurture his own potential in the field he enjoyed.

“I told him I envied the ability he had, and that he’d be great at FFA if he applied himself in the things he liked,” Holbert said.

Just two months later, she saw him at the FFA State Leadership Conference. There, Cervantes was rewarded for a first-place finish in California for the Agricultural Mechanics Design and Fabrication Proficiency, a prestigious FFA honor for which just four of 88,000 students become finalists.

A big smile is audible in Holbert’s voice over the phone as she assesses their interaction.

“Our words can be powerful. There’s no limitation to what we can do.”

Ashley Person, a student success and retention specialist in the College of Agriculture, has worked closely with Holbert since before she arrived at Chico State, learning of her through high school FFA. Her rise to president has come as no surprise to Person, who has borne witness to dozens of one-on-one interactions that set Holbert apart.

“Leadership is a huge part of FFA. They put massive value on the idea that you are responsible for being a leader in your community, that you should take care of people who need your help,” Person said. “Well, Bre was that person already, even before FFA. I can’t imagine a more perfect fit.”

A peer advisor in the College of Agriculture, Holbert will finish her sophomore year in spring 2019, following her year of service in Indianapolis.

Breanna Holbert and three other students pose for a photograph with an arrangement of balloons

Holbert first struck up her curiosity in agriculture at Tokay High in Lodi, which remains near to her heart. (Photo courtesy of Breanna Holbert)

Her FFA presidency will test her. She’ll spend 300 of the next 365 days traveling, with 90 flights, 100 speeches, and 60 or so workshops. Holbert will rely on her passion for leadership in times she’s feeling threatened by burnout. While many national FFA officers place stress upon themselves to meet expectations, Holbert is naturally well-equipped for the challenge, Person said.

“Bre never once said, ‘I should watch this former national president,’ or ask, ‘How did this person win?’” Person said. “She is the most genuine person I’ve ever met, and so true to herself. Sometimes people try to act super professional or really play up a certain card in their life. She said no to that.”

“I do have to continue to work hard and to grow,” Holbert said. “But who I am is enough. I wasn’t elected to be somebody else.”

Holbert relishes the opportunity she has now as FFA president, particularly for encouraging girls and people of color to join and succeed in agriculture, a historically white and male-occupied industry. She said with FFA’s 13 percent participation rate for African Americans, the need for representation remains. But while she is proud of her heritage and ethnicity, she doesn’t want inclusion to be all that defines her presidency.

“A lot of the stuff on social media about me being African American, the ‘#blackgirlmagic’ stuff, that makes me uncomfortable,” Holbert said, referencing a popular Instagram and Twitter hashtag meant as a term of endearment. “Because I don’t like putting labels on people.”

“It’s important that people know FFA isn’t just for one type of person —it’s not just for a Caucasian farmer. Ethnicity and culture make us who we are, but they don’t need to limit us,” she added. “That’s why I feel that it’s special to break a barrier in our organization. But I’ve been elected as president to an organization with multiple ethnicities, and I’m here to serve all of them.”