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.
Sara Axtell and Kari Smalkoski are two of the authors of the Journal of Extension article, "One Size Does Not Fit All: Effective Community-Engaged Outreach Practices with Immigrant Communities." When I first read the article, I immediately connected it to my interest in collective action networks. Community-engaged outreach practices prioritize relationship building, reciprocity and two-way sharing of knowledge. All of those priorities have a place in a networked approach to problem solving as well.
Cooperative Extension needs to do a better job of engaging the public, not just as audience members, but as co-learners and co-creators. As Sara said in the podcast, we need to think about where the ideas for our programs come from, what issues we are trying to address and about "partnering with communities and engaging with communities way before a program starts." Sara continued, we need to "remember that communities have their own priorities that might be different than our priorities." When we create programs first, without including the community in that creation, it's difficult to think of the community as anything other than audience, a group to be talked at and marketed to.
The book's central idea is that we have lost our tribal connection, our opportunity (willingness?) to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, and that loss has negative psychological impacts. The idea and Junger's argument in support of it are fascinating. I highly recommend the book.
One point that stuck with me is that our veneration of veterans and active service members might be hindering their reintegration into society. Junger writes about how "shared public meaning" of a war helps reduce the alienation soldiers feel when they return home by providing a context for their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the public. He goes on to say that the constant thanking of veterans and service members and the recognition they receive at large sporting events does not develop "shared public meaning," but may further alienate those who served.
Junger writes, "These token acts only deepen the chasm between the military and civilian population by highlighting the fact that some people serve their country but the vast majority don't."
Junger also points out that the American public is disconnected not only from the military but also from other jobs that directly support our culture of consumption, including farming.
As I read that, I was reminded of Facebook posts that read, "Farming is like any other job, only you punch in at age 5 and never punch out," or "During harvest farmers give up meals at their table, so we can have meals at ours." Given Junger's argument, do posts messages like those above help connect the public to agriculture or further widen the gap?
I think it's the latter. If we want to reconnect consumers and producers, service members and those they protected, or those who have become alienated in our communities, we need to focus on what we share, not on our differences.
I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how Extension professionals need to work as part of broad coalitions or networks, if Extension is going to be a part of addressing complex problems like health, climate or water. I have spent considerably less time thinking about the skills Extension professionals will need to be effective in these coalitions and networks.
If we expect Extension professionals to work with coalitions and networks (I think they must if Extension is going to stay relevant), then we need to make sure they have the skills to help build and sustain them. Community development and leadership specialists in Extension already have a lot of those skills, and are prepared to share them. They might be the single most important group to Extension's future.