It is not often that one person humbly touches the lives of thousands of people. It is rare that a person’s words captivate their listeners and live on by inspiring good work for many years to come. Such were the accomplishments of a woman who passed earlier this year, Mrs. Kathryn Waller. In an effort to share the impact of Kathryn’s work with RAFI as well as some of her words of wisdom, we have culled from old Rural Advancement Fund newsletters, The Rural Advance, annual reports in which she had a hand, and photos from our archive. Kathryn Waller founded the North Carolina Hunger Coalition in the early 1970s and went on to serve as Executive Director of Rural Advancement Fund from 1978 to 1989, and later served as Board President of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). Knowing her background and concern for issues affecting rural communities, Kathryn’s long-time friend and colleague Dr. Raymond Wheeler encouraged her to apply for the position of Director of the National Sharecroppers Fund/Rural Advancement Fund (NSF/RAF). The NSF was founded in 1937 to improve the living and working conditions of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. NSF created the nonprofit organization RAF in 1966.
Our organization, RAFI, later formed and then became an independent nonprofit in 1990. Shortly after her passing, our staff members sat down together to learn about how Kathryn so deeply affected the lives of RAFI staff members who were lucky enough to work with her during her years at RAFI. We gathered to listen to a recording of Kathryn from 1980 in which she read from a piece that she wrote titled “In a Land of Plenty.” In the recording, Kathryn spoke of how her work on hunger issues led her to work with farmers to address the roots of rural poverty. In the late 1970s, Kathryn was hired into an organization that was faltering under heavy financial debt. She helped transition NSF/RAF to a grassroots model of organizing and ultimately succeeded in addressing its financial challenges. Debts were paid off and a new organizer was hired who established an initiative to bring interracial groups of farmers together for the first time ever in North and South Carolina, the United Farmers Organization, or UFO. In the 11 years that Kathryn served as Director, she also helped establish a genetic resources program and an international program to address agricultural issues of developing countries, including the loss of plant genetic diversity throughout the world. Around the time that Kathryn was writing an introductory letter for the 1986 Annual Report, NSF/RAF was preparing to mark 50 years of advocating for family farms and rural communities. It was a time when enormous numbers of family farmers were facing financial crisis. Much of rural America was suffering due to the number of layoffs from factory closings and the ongoing challenges from the 1980s Farm Crisis, both of which contributed to arduous times reminiscent of the 1930s. In our 1986 Annual Report Kathryn wrote, “The message I want to bring to you now is the message of hope. The source of that hope lies in the hearts of the American people… not the high and the mighty, the rich and the powerful, although some of these are included, but primarily I see that source in the quiet, unsung heroes of our country who daily set their minds and hearts to the deeds that need doing.”
She wrote, “As you read this summary of our work this past year, look closely for a new awakening. I believe you’ll see the same spirit moving in different ways through different people. The wind of the future is blowing, bringing the promise of a more democratic future for all of us; a future that is characterized by mutual caring, cooperation, conservation, and moderation in all things. These are values long nurtured in rural America. They may yet prove to be rural Americans’ finest gifts to the future of our land.”
Twenty years later, in 2007, Kathryn quipped, “Occasionally someone will say to me, ‘I can’t believe you’re still working at RAFI-USA!,’ to which I always respond, “It keeps me young and involved in issues that I care deeply about. How could I possibly leave it?” She went on to express how proud she was of RAFI’s ability to “see beyond the present, to place itself on the cutting edge of crucial issues.” Just a few of the accomplishments that Kathryn contributed to in her time at RAFI, and those she felt most proud of, include our pioneering efforts to bring the issue of loss of genetic diversity to worldwide attention; our grassroots organizing with farmers of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds to change farm policy for the better; our ongoing work to give contract growers the opportunity to negotiate fair contracts; and the creation of the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, which continues to assist farmers transitioning from tobacco production to new farm enterprises. (The program still operates today under a new name, the Agricultural Reinvestment Fund.) Kathryn felt that all of this work was encompassed in our dedication “to a safe, just, and sustainable system of agriculture.” She sometimes remarked humbly that it made her proud to think, “I was a small part of that.” In the closing of her letter in our 2007 Annual Report, Kathryn wrote, “I am thankful for the privilege of being associated with the people that continue to make these things happen.” We feel exactly the same way.
Photos of Kathryn Waller courtesy of Rob Amberg.