Author Archive for bobbertsch

Redefining Learning: A WDinExt Podcast

An important article came out in the June 2017 edition of the Journal of Extension.

Redefining the Concept of Learning in Cooperative Extension” is a thoughtful, challenging conversation starter. I recently discussed it with the NDSU Extension Innovation team, and it sparked several questions from the practical to the existential.

After that conversation, I could hardly wait to talk with the authors, and they were kind enough to oblige. Here’s my conversation with Steven Worker4-H Youth Development Advisor, University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources; Kristy OuelletteAssociate Extension Professor, 4-H Youth Development, University of Maine, Cooperative Extension; and Alexa Maille4-H STEM Specialist, Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension. I hope it gets you thinking.

What’s a Community of the Problem? – A WDinExt Podcast

The latest Working Differently in Extension podcast features a conversation with Dave Campbell, Community Studies Specialist in Cooperative Extension and associate dean for social/human sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California-Davis.

Dave says the goal of his work is “to deepen the practice of democratic citizenship in California communities.” That goal speaks directly to my interests in equity, engagement and collective action. It also speaks to Extension’s legacy of empowering citizens. We talked about whether that legacy still plays a central role in Extension.

We also talked about what Dave means by forming a “community of the problem.”  It’s really about turning a private problem into a public problem. Can people faced with the same problem come together to define the problem and work on it together? Dave is looking at that possibilities around the issue of food waste.

Here’s our conversation:

Backhauling to Connect Small Farms With Wholesale Markets: A WDinExt Podcast

Kathy Draeger and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota had a brilliant idea.

Every week or more a loaded semi truck arrives at every rural grocery store in Minnesota to deliver the food needed to stock their shelves, but all of those trucks return to the food distributor’s warehouse empty. Kathy and her colleagues wondered if there was a way to load those trucks with the garlic, potatoes and strawberries being grown on small and medium-sized farms near those grocery stores. It’s a powerful idea that could significantly impact the sustainability of the farms, while benefiting the grocery stores and the wholesalers. So they set out to do it.

I spoke with Kathy to find out more. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

How Extension Enabled a Community Foundation to Save Lives: A WDinExt Podcast

I had to hold back the tears in a small meeting room at Big Sky Resort. Jennifer Anderson, Montana State University Extension Agent in Rosebud and Treasure Counties, was wrapping up her incredible presentation, “Community Foundation and Extension Building Capacity Together: One Community’s Story,” at the 2017 NACDEP/CDS Conference. Her enthusiasm and sincerity had the room mesmerized. When she said, “We know our community foundation has saved lives,” the emotion in her voice had people leaning forward in their chairs. At the end, she quoted Devine Carama. At our general session just a hour or so before, Devine had said, “We are arrogant to believe we will see the impact of our leadership while we are alive,” and he challenged us to build a legacy that would live beyond us. As Jennifer ended her presentation, she said she knew this, the Community Foundation of Northern Rosebud County, was her legacy. I wasn’t the only one moved to tears.

Please listen to Jennifer’s inspiring story below.

Brokering Relationships Around Critical Community Issues: A WDinExt Podcast

Myra Moss, Ohio State University Associate Professor & Extension Educator, has been involved in helping Ohio communities plan for sustainable development. In our conversation (below), she shares her insights about and experience in that work, as well as her work building collaborative partnerships as the city of Columbus and the ag producers from outside the city try to understand each other’s concerns about the watershed they share.

Shaping Cities with Locally Sourced Capital: A WDinExt Podcast

Image: Fostoria 4 by Willy Nelson, https://flic.kr/p/9gcUdm, CC BY_NC 2.0

I met Partick Kirby at the 2017 NACDEP/CDS conference. He participated in a pre-conference session on Working Out Loud, and his contributions to the conversation were so valuable that I had to find out more about his work.

He presented at the conference on crowdfunding real estate development, which as you’ll hear below not only provides important funding for projects in rural cities, but can also give the community a sense ownership and pride in a project.

After hearing about that work, I knew I had to get him on the podcast, but later I learned he’s also directing perhaps the only legislatively-created, state-focused brownfield assistance center in the nation. In short, Patrick is doing important and innovative work, and he kindly shared some of his experience below.

Why We Suck at Conversation

In his post, “Principles for engaging human systems for wellbeing and innovation in a connected world,” Jeremy Scrivens shared what he has learned from Margaret Wheatley, including her 10 Principles for Healthy Communities.

Principle #3 struck me, “Conversation is the way human beings have always thought together.” It makes sense. We’ve been talking to each other for 1.75 million years, give or take. So why do we suck at it?

A couple of years ago, Steve Judd put me onto a paper that highlighted how bad we are at conversation, why we’re so bad, and what we can do about it.

Ed Gallagher is a professor in English at Lehigh University. A dozen or so years ago, he hoped that online discussion boards would solve his students’ inability to talk to each other. He found that the technology alone did not magically make his students competent social communicators, but he did find a way to teach them conversation.

Gallagher’s paper, “Teaching Students to Talk to Each Other: Improving the Discussion Board,” is full of great insights about conversation.

Gallagher explains why we suck at conversation: “our culture almost exclusively values, practices and rewards closure and competition and winning, precisely what should be suspended in discussion.” Just today, in the midst of a rich conversation with a colleague, I apologized for being unproductive. I felt if I wasn’t clearly moving us toward the stated goal of the meeting, then I wasn’t adding value. We want to achieve closure, to produce a result, to check the unchecked box. Deep conversation may not generate checked boxes, but it does foster creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Gallagher combated the values of the predominant culture by growing a new culture built around the idea that “Conversation makes us colleagues. Community is job one.” How would such a vision change your organization? What would happen if our relationships to each other were more important than the unfinished project of the unfiled report? Jeremy Scrivens shared that Margaret Wheatley led him to the insight that how we relate to each other is actually the most important thing, “It was Meg who opened my eyes to see enterprises – not as hierarchical constructs or work processes with people as operators of these processes – but as living human systems in relationship with each other.”

“The art of writing on the discussion board is to keep the conversation going,” Gallagher wrote. He used the metaphor of an noncompetitive racquetball game to explain this to his students.

Instead of a typical racquetball game where each participant is trying to win, Gallagher asked his students to imagine a game where each participant’s only goal was to extend the rally as long as possible. In the discussion board, students were encouraged to avoid behaviors that would end the “rally.” Comments like “Great point!” might be validating but they don’t extend the conversation. Neither do replies explaining how the previous post was completely wrong. The point is not to hit the unreachable shot in the corner, but hit a shot that stretches your opponent but allows the rally to continue.

Gallagher offers some strategies for giving discussions “legs:”agreeing (The improv tenant “Yes, and” should be kept in mind. The point is not just to agree but to agree and add on), questioning, enhancing, answering, building, disagreeing, weaving, re-directing and re-thinking.

So let’s stop sucking at conversation. Let’s use some of the strategies Gallagher suggests. Let’s start avoiding, rather than seeking closure. Instead of focusing on our ideas winning, let’s try to extend the rally. If, as Margaret Wheatley said, “…very great change starts from very small conversations, held among people who care,” our future depends on it.

Metamorphosis

Image: Arthur Blythe at a Concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1989 with “The Leaders” by Alephalpha (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arthur Blythe died this spring.

He was a saxophonist who easily jumped between more traditional jazz and the avant-garde. His recording Lenox Avenue Breakdown is considered a near classic, but he was no superstar. He was best as part of the collective.

I was introduced to jazz through the neo-classicism of Wynton Marsalis, so when I stumbled into the stacks of LPs at my college radio station, I gravitated towards the classics of swing and bebop. That changed in 1990 when I heard Metamorphosis.

Arthur Blythe released the world music-inspired album as part of the World Saxophone Quartet, It was a critical disappointment, but it opened my ears to a style of music grounded in collective improvisation. It was music not exactly with no rules, but with new rules. A year later, Don Cherry released Multikulti which eventually led me back to his work with new jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman, and my worldview officially changed.

Like so many American boys, I had been steeped in the culture of the hero, the exceptional individual, the lone genius. Despite it’s roots as an ensemble music, jazz had not challenged that view. It’s supreme soloists and tortured geniuses have largely overshadowed the story of jazz as the most collaborative of musical genres. The story of jazz is based in the belief that the community is more important than the individual, even the individual genius.

Metamorphosis revealed that to me. Along with Milman Parry’s  oral-formulaic composition theory of epic poetry, it planted the seed in my mind that would grow into my interest in human networks, cooperation and collaboration.

The music of Arthur Blythe, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman is the music of flocking birds. In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown writes, “There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move toward each other.”

I’m not sure there is a better description of collective jazz improvisation or of collective action networks.

Youth and Community Development: A WDinExt Podcast

Neil Klemme‘s belief in the abilities of young people is rooted in 4-H. Neil’s a 4-H Youth Development Educator in Iron County, Wisconsin. He grew up in 4-H. His mom and his sister also work in 4-H. He’s acting on that belief by getting 4-H members involved in community development in their county.

He’s gotten youth involved in a community First Impressions survey, in creating a campaign for attracting and retaining young people to the county, and in designing the Iron County Regional Trail project. He even invited 2 of the kids to co-present with him at the NACDEP/CDS international community development conference.

Here’s what one of his 4-H teens said about him, “I was really surprised how (the others groups) were presenting on how to get youth involved, and some of them were doing longitudinal studies on how to get youth involved and what makes them want to be involved,” she said. “And here Neil is – we go up and present and we have youth there. Start to finish, youth was involved and this was the final product. That was really impressive. I just assumed everybody else did the things Neil did, and they don’t.” – Felicia Herlevi quoted in the Daily Globe (Ironwood, MI).

In the latest Working Differently in Extension podcast, I talked to Neil about Iron County, his work with youth and what a “charrette” is.

Standing Still

At the National eXtension Conference in 2004, Harold Jarche introduced me to the “triangles” exercise (sidebar: Here’s a panel session I moderated at that conference with Harold, Dave Gray, Jane Hart and Beth Kanter).

Here’s how it works. You take a room full of people (having more than 20 or so makes it more effective) and tell them to arrange themselves in equilateral triangles with a person at each point. Here’s the catch. They need to do it without speaking. Each person silently picks out 2 other people to make a triangle with, but those people don’t know they’ve been chosen. They are trying to make a triangle, likely with 2 other people they’ve selected. So as each person moves another person must adjust to that movement to keep an equal distance between them and a third person. Once they have formed their triangle, they stop.

It sounds complex, and it is. The main takeaway is that a group of people, with positive intent, can accomplish just as much or more through silent cooperation than by putting someone in charge. At a workshop in Nebraska, Harold, Karen Jeannette, Steve Judd and I, conducted the “triangles” exercise by putting one person in charge of arranging everyone into equilateral triangles, then having them do it again silently without anyone in charge. We did it at the end if day 1 of a 2-day workshop, and we didn’t explain why we had them do the exercise until the next morning. People were confused and some were a little pissed, which made me nervous, but Harold thought the uncertainty was great.

Last week, Karen Jeannette and I did the “triangles” exercise with the participants in our pre-conference workshop, “Working out loud: opening doors to personal and community change.” at the NACDEP/CDS Conference. As we prepared for the workshop, we talked about some of the other lessons of the “triangles” exercise.

  • Alignment: To make the “triangles” exercise work, everyone has to understand the task. If someone doesn’t hear all the instructions or doesn’t understand them, the exercise will fail. This is a powerful lesson for those of us seeking to collaborate with others. We need to have a shared understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, what problem we are trying to solve. We also need to have agreed upon rules. I was recently collaborating with 3 other people on the script for an ignite talk. We agreed on the content, but we had a really hard time deciding the best process. Should we write the script and worry about the timing of the delivery later or should we try write 15-seconds of text for each slide or should we try do both at the same time? We were aligned on the problem we were trying to solve, but we had not aligned on the rules and process for solving it. In the end, we just appointed one person to write the script.
  • Positive Intent: I’ve heard Harold Jarche point out during the “triangles” exercise that it works because everyone enters into it with positive intent. Any individual participant could blow the whole thing up by staying in constant, random motion, causing anyone who is trying to align with them to stay in motion, which in turn causes anyone trying to align with that person to keep moving and so on. Collaboration only works if everyone comes to the table with positive intent, and it helps if everyone can also assume positive intent from others.
  • Standing Still: As mentioned above, if someone just keeps moving, it’s difficult to align with them. In the “triangles” exercise, when you move slowly or stand still it allows others to adjust their positions and align with you. If we want people, especially those we don’t already know, to connect with us, we need to stand still. If you’re quickly moving from project to project, chasing the next item on your to-do list and putting out fires, how can people see where you are and connect with you ? We need to stand still to allow people to align with us. Standing still means declaring your intent and sharing who you are, what you’re working on and what you care about. Standing still allows others to adjust their position to yours and look for opportunities for connection and collaboration.

Like almost everyone I’ve ever met, I have a to-do list that never seems to be completed, and crises to address and avert, but I’m working on finding more time and ways to stand still.I’m trying to stand still by writing this blog. I also include personal “mission statements” in my Twitter bio and LinkedIn summary. I hope you can see me and, if you want to, adjust your position, connect with me and explore making meaning together.