Public relations professional Monique Farmer, owner of Avant Solutions and a former communication executive with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ConAgra Brands, and the Omaha Public Schools, grew up in the Southside Terrace Homes public housing project. Her musician father worked odd jobs when not gigging. One of Monique’s first jobs was on the cleaning crew her mother was part of at the 72nd and Grover Holiday Inn.
“I’m so far away from where I started,” Farmer said. “I attribute that to the power of what we focus our thoughts on and what we believe we can achieve.”
Growing up Black in North Omaha (until age 12), she had white teachers (Wakonda Elementary and Central Park). One accused her of plagiarism when a story Farmer wrote used language the educator considered beyond an inner-city Black girl’s capacity. Monique’s mother set the record straight, informing the teacher her daughter was already an avid reader with a gift for words.
“I’d sometimes get off the bus from school and read until 9 or 10 p.m., barely stopping for dinner,” Farmer recalled. “I always had a natural affinity for reading and writing.”
Her fifth-grade teacher Kathleen “Suzie” Klosterman noticed, even gifting her with a journal. “She told me to fill it up, and I did. It is so important teachers realize the integral role they play in a child’s life in terms of building confidence, helping identify their strengths. About a decade ago, I reconnected with Mrs. Klosterman online and we met for lunch because I wanted her to see what her encouragement became.”
Farmer attended Girls Inc. in South O, working there summers. She said, the LaFern Williams Center (now YMCA) “was a huge part of our recreational time,” adding, “I was part of a young leaders program that did a great job identifying our potential and exposing us to opportunities that would lead to higher education.” She wrote for the South High school newspaper. Her path seemed well-defined to others.
“I remember my mom saying, ‘You love writing, you’re probably going to college for journalism.’ Well, there was no money for college, but I ended up winning a full-ride scholarship from the Kiewit Foundation.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism (with an advertising-PR focus) from Midland College (now University) and a master’s in public administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Being a first-generation college graduate, she said, “changes the trajectory of what your family can be.” Family members followed her example, thus breaking a cycle of poverty that some families never escape.
A “naturally strong work ethic” helped Farmer excel. She got hired by the Corps even before graduating college, working in its Omaha office as part of the Northwestern Division covering a 10-state area. She was among few persons of color in its ranks. “It was very difficult early in my career to identify anyone who looked like me as a mentor.” Due to that exclusionary experience, she said, “I always make myself available to young Black women who move into this career field.”
She considered her longtime Corps boss, Kevin Quinn, a mentor. “He took time with me one-on-one to help me become a better writer and he was always supportive of my professional development.”
Farmer, a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Leadership Omaha graduate, ultimately got trained by the Department of Defense as a Public Affairs Qualified Officer. She became expert in tactical communications, systems, and processes.
“I completed that training as an honors grad in 2010.
It was at Fort Meade, Maryland. They took us through an intense program to prepare us pretty much for anything we might run into leading communications from a public affairs perspective, whether military or civilian. I have never been through any training that truly could match it.”
She applied all she learned leading a team of crisis communicators flown in from around the U.S. to manage the Missouri flood of 2011.
“It was 16-hour days for one month straight. Then, four months in the recovery phase and all the public meetings, media interviews and everything that came along with that. I prepped the subject matter experts for interviews, facilitating hundreds of them.”
Many times, she found herself in closed door meetings with Corps colonels and generals “getting their buy-in about why it’s important for us to go before this editorial board session or to release this information now or to do this interview,” she said. “It can be an internal struggle where it feels like you’re beating your head against the wall. But you just keep working on it, especially when you know the public has the right to know information and that the transparency of sharing information helps build a mutually beneficial relationship between the organization, the media, and the public. It sounds easier than it is. Sometimes there are things that just cannot be shared and that’s always difficult to work around.”
As tough as managing the flood narrative was, the hard work paid off when her team’s efforts won the Oscars of public relations – the PRSA Silver Anvil Award in 2012.
Rewarding as the job was, this wife (she’s married to Omaha Fire Department captain John Farmer Jr.) and mother of three balked at relocating to Washington DC in order to advance her Corps career.
Instead, she left for ConAgra Brands in Omaha. “Quite frankly, I was ready to find something outside of the federal government just for growth purposes because up until that point that’s all I knew.” She found a mentor in Teresa Paulsen. “I learned to be a strategist under her with the ability to think through a comprehensive plan from research all the way to measurement of success or failure.” Though fulfilled in federal and corporate spaces, the cultures didn’t accommodate her life outside work.
“I often felt like no matter what I did, it was never enough. The people I worked under were always adding to my load without removing anything or considering the need for a work-family balance. Sixty, seventy-hour work weeks were the norm.”
When ConAgra opted to move to Chicago, she again chose to stay put. With her career in flux, she was recruited to interview for the OPS communications director position and was hired in 2016. “It was appealing to me because I’m a product of Omaha Public Schools and my children attended Omaha Public schools.”
Coming from the Corps and ConAgra she felt ready for the challenge of district messaging to its constituencies. “There were a lot of similarities.” But nothing prepared her “for the level of politics involved and the fact that it’s right in my own backyard,” she said, “where it’s difficult to disconnect your work life from your home life.”
The most daunting campaign, she said, required “clearly and concisely explaining to OPS employees and the public how and why we needed to cut dozens of jobs and millions from the general fund budget while concurrently working to get a $410 million bond passed to build five new schools.”
She also led a district rebranding that won the Gold Medallion from the National School Public Relations Association. “It was archived as a case study for other school districts to learn from, similar to the Missouri River work,” she noted.
Her professional development continued when she completed Harvard Business School certification in Public Education Leadership.
Serving the district’s first female and person of color superintendent in Cheryl Logan “gave me a strong sense of pride,” Farmer said, “because I had never worked under an African American woman. Much less one so poised and confident and willing to support me. It was an honor.”
Farmer respects Logan’s reasons for resigning (effective in June 2023) to spend more time with family.
“These jobs are difficult. They’re 24/7. I could not go to the grocery store at seven at night without somebody asking me why school was going to start Wednesday instead of Monday. I’d be like, I don’t want to talk about that, I just want to get my groceries and go home – I’ve already worked a 14-hour day. So, I completely commiserate with the desire to get back to a healthy work-life balance.”
Things finally came to a head for Farmer.
“My daughter was trying to tell me something in the car while I was on my phone for work. I said to her, ‘Give me a second.’ When done, I asked, ‘Now what did you say?’ and she said, ‘Never mind, you’re always half-engaged anyway.’ It still makes me cry to think about it. That’s when I decided I have to do something different to change this.”
Farmer conceptualized Avant Solutions while still with OPS. Even after leaving its full-time employment, she did contract work during her successor’s onboarding. She was also part of a team that oversaw the creation of a mural celebrating the district’s history. Farmer was a full-time faculty member at the University Of Nebraska – Lincoln after her work at Omaha Public Schools from 2019 to May 2022 when she took on Avant Solutions full-time. She now teaches at The University of Texas at Austin, concurrently while running her firm.
“I love being in the classroom.”
She’s that rare educator who’s also a practitioner. For her consulting firm Avant Solutions, she brings clients everything learned in the federal government, Fortune 500, and public education spaces. Clients range across different industries and parts of the country.
“I just have a passion for the field. I love the ways in which we’re able to story-tell and support leaders. Often leaders are expected to know all the answers. They have a lot of stress on them. I enjoy being able to come into their space and take some of that stress off by providing a solid communication strategy or helping ascertain what their strategic message needs to be, or preparing them for a difficult media interview. Those things are my pleasure to do. I have a passion for helping other people be better. I’m not sure where that stems from, but I just take pride in being part of somebody else’s success.”
Even being her own boss, she said, there’s no escaping long workdays. What makes it more palatable, she said, is “the flexibility – that’s everything.” Added Farmer, “I can work from my home office every hour if I want. I can go out and take a walk to get my head together and come back. It’s different when you’re underneath somebody.”
Like other Black women in leadership, and entrepreneurial roles, she desires to “impact change” and to “build a legacy.” She is intentional about working with Black-owned businesses. As a Goldman Sachs Small Businesses Program (Babson College) graduate, she presented at the 2022 Minority Business Owners Summit in Nebraska.
She is a Project Harmony and EPIC for Girls board member, vice president of the Omaha Chapter of the Links inc. “proud member “of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
She cannot imagine retiring. “I don’t see not doing something connected to this career field for as long as I’m alive. It continuously and consistently challenges me.” Even if she stops doing PR-communication work, she’ll probably write. She’s contributed to national magazines.
“Once you get that writing bug you have it forever. I do love it when I get the opportunity to write.”
She said she may end up writing her own family’s history as a means of documenting and preserving it.