“My best day is a morning in the boardroom and an afternoon in the tractor cab.”
The personal mantra for Joan Lee, a farmer and Polk County, Minn., Commissioner sums up rural leadership, which is the focus of 100 Rural Woman.
The nonprofit 100 Rural Woman was founded by Teresa Kittridge, of Marcell, Minn. Kittridge’s goal is to host 100 meetings throughout Minnesota for rural women to build leadership through networks, mentorship, education and civic engagement. After gathering a board in 2019, she planned to schedule meetings and kick off fundraising last March. When COVID-19 hit and canceled all in-person events, Kittridge adapted and went virtual with free monthly “Breakfast Club Webinars” on Zoom, covering topics that concern rural women.
Though Kittridge never milked cows or planted crops, growing up she did de-tassel corn, walk beans and pick rocks on her uncle’s Butterfield farm. She and her husband have always lived on the outskirts of cities, even when Kittridge worked as an elected officer for 20 years in the Minnesota House of Representatives and later as vice president and chief operating officer of the Rural Policy Research Institute.
She also built and led an energy nonprofit and worked as a publishing. Currently, she serves on the Bigfork Valley Hospital Board. She decided to use her experiences to create something new.
“We need to listen to each other more,” Kittridge says. “How do we bring people together and lift each other up and get in decision-making roles, elected office, running community organizations and serving on corporate boards?”
While 14% of county commissioners are women, they are mostly in metro areas. Lee is one of the few rural commissioners and never thought much about being the first woman in that role in her county.
Growing up on a dairy farm as an only child, she was never told she couldn’t do something because she was a girl. She milked cows, planted and harvested crops. She continued these chores when she married Mark, and they took over his family’s McIntosh dairy farm in 1989.
Lee held leadership roles in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and 4-H, and hosted several Breakfasts on the Farm. She was on the board of directors and education committee for Farm Bureau and participated in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program, attending seminars in St. Paul, Minn., and Washington, D.C. She also traveled to Ecuador with her MARL classmates.
The Lees faced challenges in the dairy industry and switched to organic in 2007 until selling the cows in 2014, when she ran for commissioner and won. She is in her second term.
“I just wanted to be a voice for my area of the county,” Lee says. “Our end of the county didn’t always feel like we were being heard.”
In November, Lee learned about 100 Rural Women from her county public health director who sent a link to a University of Minnesota Extension survey about COVID-19’s impact. That led to joining Kittridge’s Breakfast Webinar with the topic “COVID: The Women’s Recession.”
“I like a group where you feel safe about talking about things; there’s networking and communication, and the ability to throw ideas out there,” Lee says.
That’s the tone Kittridge wants to set. While disappointed she hasn’t been able to hold them in person, the virtual meetings bring together women from across the state. With a contact list of about 800 people, she uses social media, webinars and associations with Region Five, Sprout, Sourcewell, U-MN and other groups.
“Going virtual with Zoom, we don’t have the physical barriers that you have to drive somewhere,” Kittridge says. “It also raises the emergency need we have for broadband [in the rural areas] to level the playing field.”
In addition to monthly Breakfast Club gatherings (covering rural economic development, local news, food sources and voting), 100 Rural Women has a virtual book club, mentorship program and features profiles of leaders.
Kittridge welcomes all rural women, including farmers, entrepreneurs, organization leaders, professionals and ordinary citizens.
“There are such amazing women doing incredible work. I’ve been surprised that women don’t know about each other [in the same community]. We are that connection piece for how we help and support each other to grow,” she says.
Kittridge plans to continue virtual meetings this year to begin her 100 meetings “to explore existing formal and informal networks of rural women” in different communities.
COVID-19 has made fundraising for her nonprofit difficult, so she is grateful for Winona State, St. Olaf and U-MN interns and graduate students, a pro-bono attorney, a design team, and a volunteer board.
For sustainable funding, Kittridge hopes to use her work experience in children’s book publishing and organizational leadership to create a social enterprise to support the work of 100 Rural Women. She also hopes to continue collaborating and teaming up with other nonprofits.
For now, she invites rural women to check out her website, 100ruralwomen.org, to sign up for future virtual meetings and view clips from past webinars.
Goerge writes from Parkers Prairie, Minn.