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.]