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May 29, 2020

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Hamline News

Mr. Philbrook goes to Washington



Bud Philbrook JD ’83 never imagined President Obama would one day be his boss. Despite a varied personal and professional life, his only stint in politics was a year in the Minnesota House of Representatives, as a Democratic representative for Roseville and parts of Shoreview in 1975–76. Since then Philbrook spent some time as a lawyer, operating a private practice for 12 years after earning a JD from Hamline. He also became a husband and a father, raising three sons. And together with his wife, Michelle Gran MALS ’86, he founded Global Volunteers, a nonprofit organization that helps travelers volunteer in meaningful ways overseas. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the organization has sent 25,000 volunteers to 20 countries on six continents, offering services from teaching and medical aid to farming instruction.

It was his work with Global Volunteers that led Philbrook to Washington. Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, traveled frequently with Global Volunteers. When Vilsack was nominated as United States secretary of agriculture in December 2008, Philbrook called to offer congratulations.

That phone call started a series of follow-up conversations in which the two men talked about how to best create sustainable agricultural models in developing countries. Because of his long tenure with Global Volunteers, Philbrook had particular insight into the farming challenges faced by many poorer nations. Vilsack suggested he work for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The idea appealed to Philbrook who, in April 2009, became deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.

The Big Picture
Philbrook acknowledges the title is a mouthful, not to mention: what does it mean? “My official assignment is to promote United States agricultural exports and to help fight world hunger,” he says. He accomplishes this by representing the USDA in conversations with other federal agencies and with other countries. “There is significant interest within the Obama administration to address issues of food security, emergency food aid, and sustainable agricultural development,” Philbrook says. “It is part of this president’s vision that we address [global] poverty—not just hunger, but poverty.”

Food and nutrition are essential to human development and, as Philbrook points out, human development is necessary for economic development. “We have known this for a long time,” he says. “Yet 58 million children worldwide go to school hungry, and there’s another 3 million hungry children who don’t go to school [at all].”

“It is morally unacceptable to have billions of people, millions of them children, hungry or malnourished,” Philbrook says. Beyond that it’s foolish. “Children who don’t do well in school don’t grow up to be Mozart, Mandela, or Confucius because their brains aren’t fully developed. They can’t recognize their God-given potential and because of that they can’t help improve the human condition.

Challenging Circumstances
It’s overwhelming for most governments, let alone individuals, to determine how best to conquer global hunger. Donating to relief organizations such as the Red Cross or the World Food Programme is only part of the solution. “Writing a check is a valuable act if your money goes to something meaningful,” says Philbrook. “There’s always a need for emergency food aid for relief from a natural disaster or acute hunger. But developing sustainable agriculture takes money, too.”

Myriad issues arise when creating a sustainable agriculture model. Communities require quality seeds, soil, and fertilizers, as well as access to water and irrigation techniques. They also need access to markets so people can buy, sell, and trade their produce for items they can’t grow themselves. Additionally, governments in impoverished communities often fail to secure a steady stock of food for purchase at a price people can afford. “You can address any piece of the issue, but it won’t be sufficient unless we address it all,” says Philbrook. “Part of my function is to articulate this.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get all the right people in all the right governments to listen, to understand the extent of the problem, and to begin building a comprehensive longterm global hunger plan. “At Global Volunteers I knew what volunteers were doing in the field,” says Philbrook. “Something was [accomplished] every day. It was rewarding because it was immediate and tactile. Now I’m involved in macro-level policy, and I’m too new to the job to know how effective it will be.”  

Personal Touch
Philbrook is up to the challenge, however. “Twenty-five years is a long time in one role. This new job is invigorating. It’s a steep learning curve. I’ve never had to learn so much in such a short period of time,” he says, admitting to regularly working 12-hour days.

It’s a good thing he has an apartment in Washington where he can collapse each night. The transition, however, has been difficult, as it’s meant splitting his personal life between the East Coast and Saint Paul. Philbrook relinquished his position as CEO of Global Volunteers to his wife and now serves only as chairman of the board.

But Philbrook brings a touch of Minnesota and Global Volunteers with him wherever he goes. He handwrites thank you notes to those in Washington who’ve helped him along the way—a habit culled at Global Volunteers and one that’s left quite an impression on those who receive them inside the Beltway. “Midwest values have an earthiness, a practicality, and idealism to them,” says Philbrook. ”That’s unique to people here.”

By: Kelly Westhoff MALS '01