The saying, “Empower a woman. Equip a child. Give the gift of education and the tools for life,” sits atop the homepage on Field of Hope’s website. Something that the organization truly believes, embodies, and implements on a daily basis.
Field of Hope is a Christian organization that was founded by Mike and Cathy Hafner, as well as Brandy Young in 2011.
After Young visited Uganda on a mission trip, she saw the potential for agriculture and the lack of food security that plagued the country. Uganda was still recovering from civil war; in Northern Uganda, most people farmed or relied on farming for their food and economy.
As a result of the civil war, the generation that primarily farmed and supplemented the economy had passed. Those that were left did not have the knowledge or technology to farm and sustain the agricultural presence of the country.
The Hafner family and Young decided to start this non-profit after Young’s visit to Uganda. Over the past decade, Field of Hope has blossomed into an organization that has a plethora of volunteers around the country and from universities in Texas.
Alexa Major Wilcox, executive director of Field of Hope, was the first official university student to receive a fellowship. While she tried to find a topic for her masters’ thesis, she knew that she had a passion for women’s empowerment. Wilcox began to learn about the pivotal role women play in agriculture in Africa, which eventually led her to Field of Hope. Through mutual connections, she came in contact with Mike Hafner.
“I researched more about women in agriculture in Africa and what that looks like. And I was shocked to find out that over 80% of agricultural labor done in Africa is done by women,” Wilcox said. “So, I got in touch with this board member and he was like, ‘you need to call Mike and talk to Mike who's one of the co-founders.’ So, I cold-called Mike one day and I just said hey Mike, my name is Alexa Major this is what I want to do and I think we were on the phone for probably 30 minutes and by the end, he was like ‘yeah, I think you just need to go to Uganda with us.’ “
After accepting Hafner’s offer to visit Uganda, Wilcox lived there for two months and worked with women in those communities through Field of Hope to gain insight and conduct her thesis research.
“I just kind of did some stuff for them while I was there; I would say like an informal internship is basically what that fellowship was, in addition to my thesis research and was able to formalize some of the programs and processes for them,” Wilcox said. “I just had a blast. I probably had been there for about five weeks and I was talking to my husband … and just said, you know, I just think that God wants me to do this as a career like I really think that I can do something here, I can help make a difference; and really just help these people both in the US and Uganda, make what they're doing have a bigger impact.”
Since then, Wilcox became head of the leadership team at Field of Hope as the executive director. In her position, Wilcox oversees and implements the services that Field of Hope offers to Ugandans. These services range from smallholder farms to officials in the government to promote agriculture in the youth and the government.
“We developed a curriculum, if you will for secondary agriculture classes and have built [in] teacher training off of the curriculum. So, we work with over 230 teachers across Uganda, we give to them this curriculum that has updated content, more relevant content, and innovative ways of teaching,” Wilcox said. “We take them from rote memorization into a classroom where it's learner-focused and experiential-based; experiential learning is [a] really important [part] of our curriculum. So, then we take those teachers and train them twice a year on just improving their teaching methods and how to utilize that curriculum to the best of their ability. So that at the end of high school, secondary school, those students can be proficient in agriculture and if ever they needed to, they would be able to provide food for their families at a high level.”
Field of Hope employs three Ugandans full-time so that the cultural bridge between the organization and the people remains strong. As part of their mission, Field of Hope focuses on developing leadership skills in Ugandan citizens, starting with their full-time staff.
“We really focus on developing the leadership within Uganda and Ugandan agriculture. Starting with our Ugandan staff, we have three Ugandans who are on staff full time,” Wilcox said. “We invest a lot in them; we take them to conferences; we pay for them to participate in international conferences and then we have specific leadership development training for them.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the people in Uganda felt the impact just as everywhere around the world did. For those teachers and citizens who rely on Field of Hope’s resources and work, it was challenging for them to sustain normal life without being able to go to the market to sell their products. The main source of income for many Ugandans was impacted greatly by the pandemic. To help combat their hardships, Field of Hope shifted from their long-term strategy to one that met the immediate needs of the Ugandans.
“We provided temporary teacher relief, salary relief for them over the period of COVID just to make sure that their families were being fed and that they were able to make it through. And then, in addition, we saw a shift to the virtual platform that we previously did not think would be possible,” Wilcox said. “We were able to shift the teacher training that we usually do in person for you know almost 200 teachers, we were able to shift that into our virtual environment using Zoom and Google Classroom and we had over 130 teachers participate. That was really exciting for us to see that they were very hungry for professional development during that time and in addition, like everyone else, they were hungry for connection.”
Wilcox being the first university fellow for Field of Hope gives her a first-person perspective on the value and innovations the students can bring.
“Most of them are masters’ students, or you know, towards the end of their degree and undergrad and they come to us with fresh ideas and fresh eyes. They're able to have a lot of energy for our mission and so they're able to kind of motivate the wheel again. Development work is hard work; it's easy to get burned out; it's easy for our Ugandan team to get frustrated and burn out too because you're constantly working against factors you can't control,” Wilcox said. “So, they're able to help us push the bubble a little bit on the ways to be innovative and find new ways to deliver the services that we want to deliver. They also ask a lot of questions and those questions are usually educated questions so they'll say, ‘why do you do it this way?’ That causes us to self-reflect and say ‘why do we do it that way, is there something better?”
Field of Hope welcomes fellows from across the country, but their largest connection in Texas comes from their work with Texas A&M University.
“Texas A&M is our largest connection. We have worked with the Borlaug center and then we've also worked with the ALEC (Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communication) department at Texas A&M quite frequently,” Wilcox said. “We are always open to research. You know, people pursuing research opportunities or even fellowship opportunities and even volunteer opportunities, we like to work with a lot of different volunteers with different skill sets … we're open to partnership at any level.”
Jessica Spence, marketing manager for Field of Hope, had a similar trajectory to Wilcox in how she began working with the organization. Her passion for women’s empowerment and mutual connections with the Field of Hope led her to conduct her thesis research in Uganda.
“Dr. Tobin Redwine first introduced me to Field of Hope by sharing some of his work with them in a Texas A&M class. He worked with Field of Hope to collect photo and video content all while volunteering for them. Ever since then, he's been on their board of directors,” Spence said. “When it came time to determine my master's thesis topic, I have always been very passionate about women's empowerment, and Dr. Redwine was my chair and connected me with Alexa and Field of Hope. He knew that the smallholder farmer population in Uganda was predominantly women and they're producing the majority of the agricultural product in Uganda. I wanted to learn more about that topic.”
What started out as research and volunteering to help with photography and filming, led to the start of a partnership with Field of Hope for Spence.
“Field of Hope really needed a photographer and videographer to go with Dr. Redwine to collect more photos and videos,” Spence said. “What's really interesting is that my whole mission on that initial trip was to create a ‘who-we-are’ video and explain who Field of Hope is, but through that trip, I learned and saw firsthand who they are and grew to appreciate them in every aspect of the work that they do. So needless to say, I was hooked.”
Without Field of Hope, Spence would not have been able to conduct her thesis in the manner in which she ultimately was able to. The connections she built in the Ugandan communities and being able to tell people’s stories of gender-based violence along with financial, physical, and emotional abuse.
“I was researching gender-based agriculture issues in Uganda. Field of Hope works with many women in Uganda who are smallholder farmers and a really key piece to any kind of research with a population like that is access to community leaders who can help me engage participants. Who am I to come in as a stranger from a different culture and country to ask people about their personal lives?” Spence said. “Especially with touchy subjects like gender-based issues. That's a really tough subject to be talking about and I could not have done my thesis without Field of Hope.”
As far as the future goes, more fellows and students will continue to work with Field of Hope to conduct life-changing research for themselves and Ugandans. Both Wilcox and Spence believe that the Field of Hope remains to grow by making sure the right tools are given to the right people. For their impact to last, Field of Hope must continue to empower Ugandans to control the mission for their country in agriculture.
“We [will] just continue doing what we're doing and just getting better at it [to be] able to deliver those services in a more efficient way, especially in the world of technology that we live in,” Wilcox said. “We just hope to grow, you know, on the same trajectory that we have been, but continuing to push the envelope and how to impact people through agriculture and allow them to achieve the level of livelihood that they hope for and that they strive for.”