Riding the Red Tsunami: The Implications of the GOP Victory for Cooperative Extension

A torrent of deep red is washing across the political landscapes of Alabama and other states as the effects of last Tuesday’s electoral tsunami continue to play out.

I come neither to praise this change of political fortune nor to condemn it, only to discuss its implications for Cooperative Extension.

And make no mistake about it: there are implications, major implications, for Cooperative Extension.  We’re talking about one of the most far-reaching political trends in generations — a serious backlash against government occurring simultaneously with a period in history in which public revenue is scarcer than ever.

Borrowing Ricky Ricardo’s famous phrase, we Extension professionals have “got some ‘splainin’ to do” — ‘splainin’ to a new generation of legislators  and congressional members about why Extension still has a significant role to play in this nation’s future.

That prompted me to make a list — a list of the points we Extension educators should be driving home to these new caretakers — caretakers who hold the purse strings more tightly than ever.

1: We are an agency of empowerment

As the New York Times described it, the political road ahead has veered sharply to the right — at least, temporarily.

Actually, perhaps not so temporarily.  The acute fiscal challenges we face will not be resolved in this generation.   The American preoccupation with what presumptive House Speaker John Boehner recently described as the traditional American values of “economic freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility” will likely persist for a long time to come.

Fortunately for us, our own unique experiences with personal empowerment have singularly equipped us to survive within this prevailing environment.

But after all, empowerment, personal empowerment, is our business.  To phrase it slightly differently, we are an empowering agency: We have always assumed a significant degree of personal responsibility on the part of our clients. And as government searches for cost-effective solutions in the midst of these acute fiscal challenges, the role we serve in empowering people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are out there telling our story.

2. We are human infrastructure

We Extension professionals should bear in mind that we also comprise some of this nation’s most valuable infrastructure — human infrastructure.  

Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman discussed the significant strides the Chinese and Indians have made in recent years developing communications infrastructure through which higher volumes informational exchange can occur — exchanges that he believes may propel these countries to the forefront of economic leadership within the next century.

We Extension professionals provide a similar kind infrastructure through which valuable intellectual, social, cultural and economic exchange occurs.  We constitute an older informational infrastructure, yes, but one that already is undergoing modernization as growing numbers of Extension professional master social media techniques.

I truly believe that what emerges ultimately will be regarded as another quantum Extension leap, one that equips us with a significant comparative advantage over other players within this crowded and flattened knowledge landscape.

3: We are catalysts

This only scratches the surface. We are catalysts too. Many of our clients, already fully wired, are as readily exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking as Extension professionals.  And, yes, many of our clients already have adopted social media tools and can exchange information as quickly and as readily as we can.

But many of them still need catalysts — trained experts who not only can see the larger picture but who also can point them to cost-effective solutions that have not been fully explored or considered because of time constrains or other factors.

4. We are synergists

We are synergists too.   Our long-time experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among disparate groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.  Time after time, Extension professionals have provided the impetus that enables ideas to move from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user. 

Parting Words

I only scratch the surface, I know.  My intention here is to spark a dialogue.

I’ve pointed out more than once in this forum how events that have played out over the past few decades uniquely position Cooperative Extension for the future.

But these opportunities will not fall onto our laps.  We have work to do informing our policy makers and other stakeholders of the enormously valuable role we play in this age of austerity.

Yes, we’ve still got some ‘splainin’ to do — and the sooner we start, the better.


5 responses to “Riding the Red Tsunami: The Implications of the GOP Victory for Cooperative Extension

  1. 5. We are neutral conveners, coalition-builders, and community mobilizers, able to bring unlikely partners together for mutual learning and action.

    (Good stuff, Jim!)

    • I could expand on this point, and probably will, Jim, but it’s off to a critical-reading workshop for volunteer writers. Can’t be late!

  2. MissionExtension

    Many thanks, Peg. I plan to write extensively about this very issue in an upcoming post.

  3. Maybe we should crowdsource a white paper expanding on these and other irreplaceable public benefits Extension provides, pass it around. (I noted with both surprise and delight that you didn’t once drop the phrase “researched-based” and only once referred to Extension “experts.”)

  4. Hi Jim,
    I have worked in various models of Extension in at least two countries, and studied some other models. With dwindling human and capital resources in university-based Extension, I think ‘train-the-trainer’ Extension system is evolving rapidly worldwide because Extension is becoming more efficient in reaching to clientele via indirect channels. Instead of being competitors with private companies for information or technology transfer, we have to become partners with them and play a big role there. Note that our contact hours with clientele (who came to Extension meetings) is somewhat decreasing every year too. I am also saddened by the weakening of Extension in the land-grant institutions due to lack of funds, despite the fact that Extension is one of the three pillars of land grant mission. What do you think about these issues challenging the existence of university Extension?

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