Author Archive for bobbertsch

Encouraging Civic Engagement: A WDinExt Podcast

I found out about the “Get Engaged! A Guide to Getting Involved in Your Community” program on Twitter. Eric Walcott, a State Specialist with Michigan State University Extension’s Government and Public Policy programs, was sharing his experience offering the program in Grand Traverse County, Michigan. Here are the 2 tweets that prompted me to reach out to Eric.

Our conversation for the podcast covers the “Get Engaged” program, but also Eric’s work talking with local governments about real engagement. As we talked, I was reminded of this Gapingvoid illustration:

A post shared by gapingvoid® (@gapingvoid) on

Eric referenced the Public Participation Spectrum from the International Association for Public Participation as a resource for increasing public engagement. I think it’s a great resource, not just for governments, but for Extension programs. Eric wrote a series of articles on the public participation spectrum. This is the first article in the series: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/public_participation_beyond_public_comment_at_open_meetings and here’s the last onewith links to all the prior articles: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/engaging_the_public_in_local_government_decisions_empower.

Listen to the podcast

Helping 4-H Kids Learn About Healthy Relationships

Alex Chan, University of Maryland 4-H Youth Development Educator for Prince George’s county, is teaching high school students about healthy romantic relationships. He’s a great example of bringing one’s whole self to Extension work, bringing his experience as a marriage and family therapist to his current work.

I found out about Alex’s workshops through this NPR Education article. Here’s our conversation.

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.