Colleen Callahan

Illinois Director, USDA Rural Development
Photography by Kira Kwon

I graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications. I then began my career as the agribusiness director for WMBD Radio/TV, producing and broadcasting agricultural programming. I served in that capacity for 30 years before starting my own business, Colleen Callahan Communications. I’ve been fortunate to always have the full support and encouragement of my family, from my parents on our farm in Milford, Illinois, to my husband and daughter on our farm near Kickapoo, Illinois.

Please reflect upon your major accomplishments of 2012.
My accomplishments and recognitions have not been “planned;” rather, they have evolved. My dad always told me that “you should let your work speak for itself,” and what would result would be a consequence of your ability and effort. He was right.

I could never have “planned” to be asked by two secretaries of agriculture in two different presidential administrations to assist in two different missions. To accompany Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman to Afghanistan and Iraq at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, and now to serve as the federal disaster recovery coordinator for the drought, at the request of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, are both expressions of confidence I did not seek. Nor did I anticipate the presidential appointment to manage and lead the $3.5-billion loan and grant portfolio of Illinois’ USDA Rural Development. My dad’s philosophy has served me well.

Tell us more about your current role as federal disaster recovery coordinator for the drought.
Last year, the administration approved a new approach to disaster/emergency response called the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF). It calls for improved collaboration, coordination and communication among federal agencies... not within just one agency, but across agencies. Since the drought has impacted two-thirds of the country, the president called for an "all-hands-on-deck" approach and the initiation of the NDRF for the first time. The USDA is the lead agency, and Secretary Vilsack asked me to serve as federal disaster recovery coordinator.

The NDRF provides a more flexible structure so that disaster recovery can operate in a unified and collaborative manner. The goal of this new framework—as well as the outreach meetings in Nebraska, Colorado, Arkansas, Ohio and with tribes—is to make sure the full resources of the federal government are brought to bear... and that communication is not a barrier.

These outreach meetings were designed by local, state and regional partners, as no one knows the needs and concerns of an area better than those who live and work there. They were problem-solving forums for federal participants to learn the "ground truths" and allow community-driven concerns and ideas to be shared with those whom they would otherwise not have an opportunity to meet. They were settings to share best practices, identify partnerships for recovery, and familiarize participants with applicable federal, state and other programs available to support economic recovery.

But this is just the beginning of the process. Representatives from the USDA, FEMA, Departments of Commerce and Education, Army Corps, Small Business Administration and other federal agencies were there to listen, learn and participate in the dialogue in an effort to take what we have learned as input into a long-term recovery support strategy for drought. Should current federal programs be adjusted to meet needs? Are there partnerships to develop? Should policy be changed? Developing the recovery support strategy is the next part of the process.

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
The key word is “balance.” What happens when the atmosphere gets out of balance? We have storms. What happens when our bodies get out of balance? We get sick. The same scenario exists within our own lives.

I enjoy work, and I do have a tendency to keep working beyond “normal” hours. But my husband, Dick, has shown me that “time away” is important. My mom and dad never took a vacation. So when Dick “announced” that we were going to Hawaii for two weeks to celebrate my 50th birthday, I thanked him… and then asked if we could go for just one week! He said it was non-negotiable.

While flying back, I realized that I felt differently—I had a different outlook. And the thought occurred to me… that’s why it oftentimes takes longer to confirm a doctor’s appointment than I would like! The doctor is taking time away, as I now recognize is needed. And I also learned that I want to see the doctor on his or her first day back… not on the day he or she is leaving! The balance of work and relaxation is a juggling act I’ve learned to appreciate and practice.

What is your leadership philosophy?
My leadership philosophy is one shared by those outlined in the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. That is, to “get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats on the bus and then decide where to drive the bus.”

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Life is not about your circumstances; it’s about your choices.

What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Be yourself. You can pattern your work ethic, attitude and philosophies after someone you admire, but only apply those qualities—don’t try to “be” that person.

In your opinion, is there still a glass ceiling for women in 2012?
Despite having recently been inducted as the first woman into the National Association of Farm Broadcasting Hall of Fame, I regrettably believe there is still a glass ceiling for women in 2012.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Three points I often make in talks and presentations:

  • My personal definition of experience: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”
  • “Worry is like sitting in a rocking chair. It keeps you busy and gets you nowhere.” Neither of the above statements is original to me. I read each while in college and recognized their ironic truths.
  • “To communicate is the beginning of understanding.” A statement made by my college advisor, Dr. Jim Evans. It has become my mantra.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
To help our daughter campaign for elected office.

How do you unwind after a long day of work?
When I’m home, it’s working in our flower gardens or just being outside with our dogs and livestock. When I’m at work (either in Champaign or Washington DC), it’s going for walks.

If you could have dinner with anyone past or present, who would it be?
Abraham Lincoln. I was born on February 12th (his birthday), and I’ve been a “student” throughout my life. It seems fateful that I now work for an agency that Abraham Lincoln created, the United States Department of Agriculture. He created the USDA during the Civil War, calling it the “people’s department.” iBi

 

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