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.
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.