For decades, Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald has championed access to quality education and other vital resources for children and struggling families throughout the rural south.
Her work has taken her from Mississippi to Washington, D.C. and back. She has had to grapple with “the realization that gains made over decades were rolling backward at warped speed,” and lean into her faith that the future holds promise.
We spoke with Fitzgerald this month about her connection to rural America, how she has overcome disappointments, and what she’s been reading and listening to lately. Read more below and listen to her speak about what most encourages her work.
Describe your connection to rural America
I was born into rural America by midwife in the Madison County, Mississippi, community of Farmhaven. One of eight children, with our mother and father, we formed our own economic unit. We raised our own food and farmed cotton and corn. My father, like my grandfather, owned a sawmill and pulpwood business. My mother was the quintessential rural school teacher active in bringing resources to our small, segregated underfunded schools.
After graduating from Tougaloo College I moved to Atlanta and worked at the Southeastern Public Education Program where a lot of our work involved access to quality K-12 education across the rural South. I worked for several years at Tuskegee University, followed by a stint at the Southern Regional Council (SRC). At SRC I organized in minority communities across the South in the mid-80’s to break barriers to minority electric power cooperative members’ elections to their local Electric Power Association boards.
Returning to Mississippi, I campaigned across the state’s rural second congressional district to elect the first African American to Congress since Reconstruction. And served as his District Director leading work on every aspect of rural life.
In 1992, I was appointed by former President Bill Clinton first as White House Liaison at the United States Department of Agriculture, followed by Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department.
In early 2000 I was among a small group of women to found the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) which works with women and young women across the agrarian Black Belt counties of Alabama and Georgia and the Delta in Mississippi. To learn more about rural trends, I joined the Rural Development Leadership Network (RDLN) and through that program received a masters degree focused on rural development from Antioch University Midwest, with program study at the University of California, Davis and Mississippi State University.
Tell us about a moment when you felt discouraged and how you overcame it.
I suppose if I were to look back over time to respond to a moment when I have been most discouraged, I would have to say that in today’s environment it is not any one moment – but the realization that gains made over decades were rolling backward at warped speed. Add to that the world has now been attacked by this COVID-19 pandemic. These things together could have been overwhelming but for my deep faith in a higher power and my determination to fight against and forge through any weapon formed against what is right and fair.
On the flipside of that question, what encourages you in your work?
My greatest encouragement comes from watching people and especially young people of all races and genders across geography stepping up and taking leadership to become change agents. To see the seeds of our work flourish and feel that the next generation got this!
Is there a habit or practice you subscribe to that keeps you motivated?
I practice faith. I believe that the work we do will live on in the lives and actions of a new generation. I practice encouragement and motivation not for myself but for others. I am driven by a mission that is constantly fed through spirituality, meditation, reflection, and study.
What are you reading/listening to?
I am reflecting on the autobiography and rural development treatise entitled “Barefootin” tracing the life of Honorable Unita Blackwell, the first Black woman Mayor in Mississippi and namesake for The Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice’s Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute. And Marian Wright Edelman’s “The Measure of Our Success”. I am listening to a lot of old gospel music including the unconquerable Marian Anderson and especially her “There is a Balm in Gilead.”