Tag Archives: catalyst

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.

Beyond Search Engines: The Cooperative Extension Educator as Catalyst

Behind every early adopter is a catalyst, quite often a Cooperate Extension educator.

This has been the case from the beginning of formal Cooperative Extension work.  Seaman Knapp’s work with demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s introduction of Jesup Wagons serve as two of the earliest and most enduring examples of our longstanding role as catalysts.

We should never lose sight of this role or the value of it, especially amidst all this talk of Internet search engines and the dire threat they pose to the Extension educator’s traditional role as knowledge provider.

Granted, there is cause for concern: If presented by her English instructor with an assignment to write about some horticulture topic, my 16-year-old daughter undoubtedly would refer to her laptop rather than to her local Extension agent or Master Gardening for background information.

Yes, Internet search engines are steadily eroding the image of the Extension educator as an immediate source of knowledge — that’s the bad news.  The good news is that our longstanding role as catalyst is far from dead.

It’s one thing to impart knowledge; it’s quite another to act on it.

Just ask Beau Brodbeck and Eve Brantley, two young but seasoned Extension educators.

While trained in different fields, the work they do on a day-to-day basis is remarkably similar.  In terms of their disciplines, they are walking encyclopedias — effective knowledge providers by every standard of measure.  But they are also catalysts.  Like any effective Extension professional, they perceive their most important role as sparking collective action.

What they’ve learned through their own experiences speaks volumes about how Extension educators are viewed and valued in the future.

Brodbeck, an Extension urban forestry educator based in southwest Alabama, says he’s had little difficulty garnering agreement from community leaders about the value of trees.  After all, who doesn’t like trees?   Based on his experience, though, liking trees and adopting practices that promote them are two entirely different things, especially, as in the case of cash-strapped communities, where cost is involved.

Despite his immense knowledge of urban forestry, Brodbeck has learned that he’s valued more for demonstrating time and again the practical effects of his knowledge, showing communities how trees  secure long-term cost savings by reducing storm run-off and water pollution.

He’s learned that facts alone aren’t enough: They must be marshaled in a way that compels community leaders to act.

Brantley, an Extension resources specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of agronomy and soils, has had similar experiences encouraging municipal leaders to introduce sustainable water management practices into their communities.

“When I started work, there already were bookcases full of water quality and storm water management-related texts,” she says.

“The science has been there and continues to develop.”

Like Brodbeck, she’s learned the value of “buy-in.” Success in her job rest every bit as much on how well she convinces one or more influential people in communities to buy into the desired change — early adopters by any other name.

Brantley readily concedes that her lesson are not new: They originated with the pioneering work of sociologist Everett Rogers, who not only popularized the concept of early adopters and but also demonstrated their role in transmitting new ideas.

These are old lessons, yes, but lessons that nonetheless underscore an essential but egregiously underappreciated fact:  The role we serve as catalysts remains one of our greatest assets but also one that is indispensible to quality of life, if not the long-term success, of every community in America.

A local mayor, council or city planner may be equipped with all the information available through search engines, but it often requires a catalyst to provide the incentive to act on this knowledge — someone equipped not only to put the issue into sharper perspective but also to make a compelling case for change.

For this reason, the enduring value of catalysts should never be discounted.