RAFI’s Kathy Zaumseil Retires After 25 Years


Kathy Zaumseil, Director of Administration, a strong and tranquil presence at RAFI, officially retired in March of this year after over a quarter century of service with the organization. She was always the first one at the offices in the morning, her bicycle the preferred mode of transportation. Kathy was responsible for all admin functions in HR, finance, and general operations, and she served as RAFI’s unofficial historian because of her long career that crossed over from the National Sharecroppers Fund/Rural Advancement Fund to what RAFI is today.

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RAFI’s Communications Coordinator VISTA Hayes Simpson met with Kathy shortly after her retirement to ask her about her years of working with RAFI and her plans for the future. Find out what she had to say!

HS: It is the first day of May, 2015 and I am sitting here with Kathy Zaumseil who officially retired from RAFI about 2 months ago. I will let her go ahead and introduce herself.

KZ: My name is Kathy Zaumseil and I am the former director of administration for RAFI. I started with RAFI in 1990 and had worked a couple of years with the parent organization, Rural Advancement Fund. I had been with RAFI for 25 years.

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HS: Could you please tell me what attracted you to RAFI?

KZ: I had found my way to Pittsboro from having been a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa where I worked in a small village with subsistence farmers. I found myself in Pittsboro looking for work and here was the Rural Advancement Fund in Pittsboro. One of the projects was the International Genetic Resources program that worked internationally with farmer organizations, particularly in the third world, addressing issues of genetic diversity in agriculture. Coming from Africa, I thought, here is this organization with international work right here in Pittsboro, this little town of Pittsboro! My couple of years in NC I had done some organizing work, helped to organize low-income communities in Durham to advocate for self-improvements in the neighborhood, and my work in Senegal had to do with community organization, working with the villages on organizing themselves and helping identify small community self-help projects to work on. So, I’m kind of an organizer at heart. One of the names associated with the Rural Advancement Fund at the time was Betty Bailey and I didn’t know her, but knew her name as someone who was doing a great job at organizing. She had worked on organizing citizens in Randolph County about the building of a dam, and in Durham I heard that she was working on the Farm Survival Project with Rural Advancement Fund. So, I was fortunate to be introduced to a couple of the people who worked for RAFI, (for Rural Advancement Fund at the time). Hope Shand, who worked with the International Genetic Resources program, was preparing to go on maternity leave. She really wanted to get someone in there who could keep up with the flow of communications and assist with research. She was working on a publication called the RAFI Communique and it addressed the early warning signals of the socioeconomic impacts of biotechnology on the third world and third world agriculture. She had contacts from around the world – Asia, Latin America, South America. Back in those days we weren’t doing email, so it was all letter correspondence. She wanted somebody in the office to keep up with the flow of communications, do research, and monitor some of the developments that were happening in regards to biotechnology.

HS: What is a fond memory that you have of your early days at RAFI?

KZ: At RAFI, there are many fond memories, but back in the early days when RAFI-USA had incorporated, there was a reorganization from the parent organization, Rural Advancement Fund. When incorporated as RAFI-USA, we had a three member board; the original Board of Directors was Kathryn Waller, Helen Vinton, and Dan Pollitt. At the time on staff, Betty Bailey was our executive director, I was the office manager, Michael Sligh was heading up the Sustainable Ag Program, and Mary Clouse was working on the Poultry Organizing Project. Hope Shand was working on the Biodiversity and Biotechnology Program, and John Justice was with us as the development officer. We were in very small offices and had no place to meet when the board would come together. Since we were just in our early years, the board was meeting frequently, at least once a quarter if not more than that. So, we would meet often at Dan Pollitt’s house. Betty Bailey would host us at her house. There were a couple times a month when we were over at my house. In those early years, just trying to regroup and rebuild the organization with a small group was very intimate and very family-oriented. I will always treasure those days.

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HS: What were a couple of your favorite projects or endeavors that you worked on at RAFI?

KZ: My most favorite one was the deconstruction project and that started in 1996. RAFI had grown to the point that we thought that it was time to institutionalize ourselves, and we decided that we wanted to stay in Pittsboro, build a bigger base of support and have our own space so that we wouldn’t have to be renting. In 1996, through some planning and workshops, we decided that we would undertake a capital campaign to either buy or build our offices. In 1997, we identified by stroke of luck a 2.8 acre lot in downtown Pittsboro, and on it was a big old farmhouse. We bought the lot and at the time the house was really a liability. It had been vacant for a couple of years, and it was pretty much in a state of disrepair. We learned some of the history about the house, and it turned out that the original part of the house was built in the 1830s and it was the first Episcopal rectory in Pittsboro. In the 1890s, it was added onto to serve as a two family mission and in the early 1900s it was bought by a private family…[and] from the 1940s, I believe it was in one family, the Chester family, and during the ‘70s, I believe it was, there were actually trailers on the property used to house refugees from Central America, from El Salvador and Nicaragua.

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So, the property and the house had a long history and we thought about what we might like to do, how we would improve the property, knowing that what we wanted out of it was an efficient, low-energy, low-maintenance office building so we could get back to our work of helping farmers. We held a “charrette” that brought together architects, builders, county officials, town officials, family members from the Chester family, and community members. A day-long “charrette” was held on site to brainstorm the best use of the property and improve it, keeping in mind that everyone should understand the work RAFI does and what we want out of it is an energy efficient low-maintenance office building. So, what came out of the charette was acknowledgment that if we preserved the house, remodeled it, and renovated it, it would not serve our needs in the long-term. We made the decision to deconstruct the house and build something new. At that point, we were working with Alicia Ravetto who was working with the Giles Blunden Firm out of Carrboro. I had the good fortune to be introduced to Pete and Robin Hendricks who had been awarded the Recyclers of the Year award by the Carolina Recycling Association. Pete came out to the house and immediately fell in love with it. It was love at first sight. What Pete and Robin had been doing was taking apart old structures, reclaiming the wood and rebuilding new structures. They agreed to work on the old farmhouse and help us reconstruct it and they didn’t charge us anything, they donated their time and expertise. I was put in charge as the deconstruction manager. So, we assembled a regular crew of maybe six laborers who had an interest in doing this. Over the course of three months, we worked on deconstructing the old house. The first part of it was on the property. There were about six out-buildings that were full of junk from more than a century. So, that was the first job, just cleaning out and deconstructing the outbuildings themselves…We had a scrap metal person come by, and he hauled away a ton of this stuff, a lot of the lumber and tin. Then, we moved on to the house.

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Because it had asbestos siding and an asphalt roof, we had to bring in a demolition crew with all the gear, the toxicity gear, bagging up the asbestos siding and taking off the asphalt roof. They did all of that, and then what was left was just the wood-framed house. And that began the deconstruction of the house. We brought in Habitat for Humanity from Wake County. They came out and stripped out all the appliances and anything they could reuse and take to their ReStore. The crew of six guys along with Robin and Pete, worked on taking apart the house in the order that it would have gone up. All of the material that could be reused and actually the best material was from the original part of the house and was constructed from really beautiful wood. The flooring was heart pine and we took it over to Heartwood Flooring which is just south of Pittsboro. They stored it for us and then when we needed it, they replaned and remilled it and we put it down as flooring in the RAFI library and over at the Dan Pollitt Center. The house was huge and almost three stories. It had an attic that you could stand up in and really nice wood in the attic that was used as flooring. And if you look up, it was used up near the clearstory of the roof.

HS: How long did the whole deconstruction process take?

KZ: So the deconstruction took 3 months and it was all done by hand. We did the deconstruction in the fall of 1998. The only time that we used any kind of mechanical equipment, was at the very end when all that was left was the chimneys with the handmade brick. Pete brought over his little tractor and put a chain on the old chimney and pulled it down. Then we cleaned up all those bricks and used them in the building, in the office and in the Dan Pollitt Center, the brick wall in there.

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HS: What is one thing, or a couple of things that you are excited about doing now that you are retired?

KZ: Initially, when I was thinking about retirement and before retirement, one thing I have thought about is Peace Corps and doing that again. People are saying, what do you think you might do? And I thought, at some point, I might really want to do Peace Corps again. Steve, ten years ago he might not have wanted to do something like that. But in talking with him, he is interested. That is kind of something in the back of our minds at this point. Immediately, what I am excited about is just having time available to do some of the things that I have wanted to do, landscaping and gardening. Also, having the time to spend with my family, including my two nieces and my two grand twins.


About Hayes Simpson

Hayes Simpson served as RAFI's Communications Coordinator in 2015. She has a background in journalism, nonprofit communications, and agricultural production. Hayes holds a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from UNC-Chapel Hill and an AAS degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Central Carolina Community College (Pittsboro, NC).