Monthly Archives: February 2011

Seven Reasons Why We Need Cooperative Extension in the 21st Century

Excuse the hyperbole, but I originally titled this “Seven Reasons Why Extension Will Survive and Thrive (and Possibly Even Save the Planet) in the 21st century.

I admit that would have been a tad too rhetorically overblown, but there is a ring of truth to it. Despite these looming budget cuts, despite all this talk of Extension having passed its prime, I still believe that we not only will survive in the 21st century but also carve out a lasting presence that not only will enrich millions more lives but also help make the world a safer, greener, happier place.

Here are seven reasons why:

1. We are Sustainers

Sustainability is taking on new meaning.

Many of the nation’s governors are using it to underscore in these lean fiscal times why Americans must become good stewards in all facets of their lives.

One example: Tightening budgetary restraints on the U.S. healthcare system are prompting more Americans to adopt lifestyle practices that safeguard against chronic disease.

Meanwhile, farmers are gearing up to feed a projected 9 billion people by mid-century with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being called upon to develop safer, greener production systems that emphasize organic- and locally-grown foods.

Even with online sources literally available their fingertips, people can’t solve these problems entirely on their own.

Extension is uniquely equipped to help people adopt sustainable practices in all facets of their lives.

2. We are Catalysts

One Alabama cattle producer underscored recently the invaluable role Cooperative Extension educators serve as catalysts — in this case, helping him install a GPS device to reap substantial costs savings.

“It’s gotten me started a little sooner than I would have,” the farmer wryly observes, admitting that it likely would have been years before he had discovered and installed the device on his own.

Through the Internet, farmers are as readily exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking as the rest of us, but they still need catalysts — trained experts who can see the larger picture and who can point to cost-effective solutions they otherwise would not have considered because of times constraints, professional preoccupations or other factors.

What applies to farmers applies to all of us.

3. We are an Agency of Empowerment

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen soberly observed recently, the 2008 stock market downturn followed more recently by severe federal and state budgetary cutbacks have left all American in a “different mental place.”

Likewise, as British sociologist Anthony Giddens has stressed, policymakers in this age of austerity are placing an increasing emphasis on dialogue and empowerment, approaches that encourage individuals and groups to address change by making things happen rather than having things happen to them.

A preoccupation with personal empowerment will persist for a long time. The good news for us is that personal empowerment is our business. We are an agency of empowerment.

As government searches for cost-effective alternatives in the midst of these budgetary restraints, the role we serve enabling people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are telling our story.

4. We are Human Infrastructure

We all know that in the 21st century, there is a strong emphasis on building technological infrastructure.  Small wonder why: It offers enhanced opportunities for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Let’s not forget that we are infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like high-speed rail or Internet connections — but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

Even in this wired age, there remains an enormous value in the dense network of face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

5. We are Contextualizers

The bad news: As flesh-and-bone knowledge providers, we cannot hold a candle to virtual knowledge sources, especially search engines — no doubt about that.

The good news is that we still possess something that search engines and other online applications lack: the ability to provide our audiences knowledge within deep, enriched learning contexts.  We help our diverse audiences not only understand knowledge within a wider learning context but, even more important, how to use it to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

6. We are Synergists

Our longstanding experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among diverse groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.

As our work in community resource development has underscored time and again, Extension educators have provided the crucial impetus that moves ideas from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user.

7. We are Collaborators

To an increasing degree, wikinomics, which emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning, is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Extension pioneers Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington anticipated this 21st century mindset more than a century ago: They didn’t view their clients as passive subjects; they considered them equals — more than that, they regarded them as active collaborators in their outreach efforts.

Wikinomics is written into our organizational DNA — a trait that gives us an enormous competitive advantage over other public and private entities that are just now coming to terms with new demands of the 21st century knowledge economy.

A Charge to Keep

I’ll close this by admitting to something — bias.  I love Extension work.  I feel fortunate to have served a quarter century in an agency — an educational movement — that puts knowledge to practical use.

Even in this cash-strapped era, we have a charge to keep.  In the midst of this gloom, I believe that our longstanding appreciation for dialogue, forging partnerships and empowering people uniquely equips for the challenges of the 21st century.

[Note: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the extent to which I have merely followed the tracks of one of this century’s true visionaries: Thomas Friedman, whose observations about the flat world and all of its sundry implications provided much of the intellectual basis for this piece.]

A Social Media Lesson

Perspicacious social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, who seems to be so right about so many things, has ignited a bit of a firestorm over his recent comments about twitter and other social media playing an inconsequential role in the recent Egyptian uprising.
Leipzig protesters in 1989.

Leipzig Protesters in 1989

Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Needless to say, many among the digerati already have weighed in, including the Nation’s Ari Melber, who contends that Gladwell misses the point entirely:

It is not a surprise that many Egyptians do not love their dictator — that is not what shocked Washington and the Arab world last week — it is that people managed to plan and execute such a massive public demonstration of that sentiment. So the “how” is more striking than the “why.”

Yet, he says Gladwell misses an even bigger point: The way new media work against the old. New media, by providing alternative views and criticism,  check a tendency among establishment media to “skew debate to disproportionally cover its favorite topics, which often includes itself.”

For me, that raises an interesting question: How different would the East German revolution have been today if, by some miracle, the beleaguered Socialist Unity Party had managed to drag along its decaying hulk for another generation?

For starters, I imagine the social discourse and, ultimatley, the political coalitions that emerged would be considerably more diverse. For that matter, perhaps there would be considerably more buy-in among youth. Likewise, the median age of the post-communist government possibly would be considerably lower. Perhaps instead of a Christian Democratic government, a Social Democratic/Green coaliton would have taken the reins.

Whatever the case, I think Melber is right: Social media fosters a deeper, more enriched understanding of the factors driving public events among participants and observers alike. But this is not only limited to current events.

Just yesterday, the New York Times’s substantial coverage of the Met debut of “Nixon in China” sent me keyword searching on youtube for old newreel footage of the historic 1972 visit.

I not only remember the event from childhood but also have read extensively about it. I recall reading how exhausted Nixon and his Chinese counterpart, Chou en-lai, were throughout the visit – the result of all those long hours spent consulting with each other and with staff as the historic Shanghai Communique was painstakingly fleshed out.

Raw press footage of the visit, stored in the National Archives and posted by C-SPAN on youtube, drove home that reality, affording insight I never gained through reading.  Meeting Chou one morning to begin the next grueling day of conferences and tours, Nixon pointedly asks the Chinese premier how much sleep he had gotten the previous night.

Chou holds up a single digit.

“One hour,” he replies sheepishly.

The footage drives home an observation that Ron Reagan once shared based on close observation of his father and other immensely influential people: that they grapple with the same physical and mental challanges the rest of us do – overwork, fatigue, stress and, as was readily apparently in several instances in the raw footage, running out of appropriate things to say.

In a sense, it worked to rob this grand event – for that matter all grand events – of the the sort of awe and mystery I experienced almost 40 years ago watching the grainy telecast of the Nixon visit on a black-and-white television  in Julia Summerville’s fifth-grade class at College Avenue Elementary.

Small wonder why social media are described as the transparent media.