Tag Archives: Jesup Wagon

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.

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Creep-Proofing Our Features — and Our Mission and Image

A couple of days ago, I promised that I would offer some suggestions aimed at resolving the feature creep challenge within Extension.

Summarizing my earlier remarks, I believe the longstanding Extension penchant for improvisation has been both a good and bad thing — good in the sense that it’s enabled us to bring our vast sources to bear over long stretches of time on seemingly intractable problems, such as the boll weevil; bad in the sense that our yen for winging it has tended to contribute to organizational feature creep.

And this feature creep, in turn, has contributed to a murky organizational vision and public image.

So what do we do about it? We do what Palm Pilot has done: we construct a wooden block — mentally speaking, that is — a block that will help us define who we are and, equally important, who we are not.

We do nothing less than creep-proof our features —and with it our organizational mission and our public image.

Granted, this requires some organizational navel-gazing — something we in Alabama have been doing as part of our marketing efforts.

So what defines our wooden block?  We believe it can be explained in two words: Working Knowledge.  This short phrase summarizes the mission of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System during the last century.

Since the early 20th century, we have empowered people through working knowledge. To one degree or another, every Extension educator throughout our history has empowered his or her clients by providing not just knowledge but knowledge with a practical understanding — working knowledge that enables them to improve their lives or livelihood in some meaningful way, whether tangible or intangible.

In a manner of speaking, our wooden block is the Tuskegee farm demonstration wagon, commonly known as the Jesup Wagon, which was equipped by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and sent to far-flung regions of the state to reach farmers who, for whatever reason, were not attending Washington’s annual farm conferences.

In equipping these demonstration wagons, Washington and Carver evinced an intuitive understanding of the working knowledge concept.  They didn’t equip these wagons with leather-bound transcripts of classroom lecturers but with simple items of immediate practical benefit to farmers — items such as a cream separator, a milk tester, a revolving hand churn, a one-horse steel power and a cultivator.

The movable school became a form of working knowledge on wheels.

Yes, the working knowledge concept is only that — a concept — though we do believe it is one with the potential of providing our employees with much-needed organizational clarity.

We consider it an effective standard for guarding against feature creep.

Every outreach effort, whether it involves a twitter or a blog, a field day or a workshop, a publication or a television appearance should be predicated on this question: Does it advance working knowledge?  Does it enable our clients to improve their lives or livelihoods — or those of their families — in some meaning way?