How I Lead: Kathryn Kelly on Conservation Leadership (After Retirement!)

Kathryn Kelly of southwest Minnesota retired in 2007 from a career as a professional educator. But for Kelly, retirement has meant spending even more time as a community leader with a passion for conservation -- a role she began in 2005 when she was first elected a supervisor of the Renville (MN) Soil and Water Conservation District. Kathryn received the 2015 Outstanding Supervisor Award from the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and fills a variety of other conservation-related leadership positions in the state. Read about her inspirations and priorities, ways of leading, and hopes for the future here. Kathryn and her husband, John, installed rain gardens at their urban home in Olivia, MN, as a visible demonstration to their community about how the practice works.

1.      What triggered your interest in conservation, and why did you originally run for office?

My parents were very involved in leadership positions in conservation, having held state office positions within the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (MASWCD) when I was a young child. They set an example! My father especially impressed on me the importance of being active in the community and in soil conservation. Thus, after I retired from a career as a professional educator, I filed for an open supervisor position and was elected.

2.      How are you engaged in leadership on this issue now?

I have served as vice president and president of MASWCD as well as serving as a voting delegate at the national level conference of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD). Presently, I continue to serve as a supervisor on the Renville County SWCD board and also have been appointed by [Minnesota] Governor Dayton to serve on the state Board of Water and Soil Resources. Through my engagement on these and other boards, I am able to stay aware of leading issues concerning soil and water and work to effect change. Recently, the farm my son Lee and I own was designated as a Minnesota Water Quality Certified Farm by the state Department of Agriculture and supported by efforts of  the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment.

3.      What are one or two of your top priority issues, and why?

Two top priority issues are ensuring water quality and preservation of soil through soil health. We must have pure water for humans, livestock, and plants in order to flourish. The responsibility for this falls to everyone, not one segment of the population. Generations depend on water to live and productive soil to provide food.

4.      What are your plans for the future, as they relate to leadership and elected office?

I will continue my work as supervisor on the county SWCD board and concurrent to that, on the BWSR board. In addition, I continue to mentor other women, encouraging them to become active in conservation and water quality issues.

Kathryn receiving her 2015 Outstanding Supervisor Award from the Minnesota Association of Conservation Districts. (Photo by Janet Cubat Willette/AgriNews.)

5.      Who is your primary mentor and why?

I have been fortunate enough to have many mentors my career. The traits I’ve noted in my mentors have been that they are knowledgeable about issues, forthright and willing to assertively state their views. In addition, my mentors have been actively involved in many community, regional, state, and national activities and boards.

6.      What advice would you offer to other women who want to become more effective leaders in conservation or healthy food and farming?

The key advice is to become involved to learn as much as possible about issues and topics in which you are interested. Then take an active role; align with others and seek out organizations with similar interests. Often organizations offer leadership opportunities and training, which is a plus. [Note: Visit WFAN’s Plate to Politics page for more on leadership.]

7.      Any additional comments to share?

Women in leadership positions often approach leadership with a different style, being inclusive and connected. Networking is necessary to maintain a balanced view and to incorporate ideas of others. Be yourself!