[Note: This was prepared as a resource for Extension professionals searching for ways to explain our continued relevance to our diverse audiences and stakeholders during our centennial celebration. This may prove especially useful as the basis for newspaper op-eds.]
The digital demands of the 21st century present Cooperative Extension with a host of challenges —small wonder why Extension educators in every state are revamping their outreach methods, making greater use of online technologies to ensure that they continue to serve our clients in the most relevant and effective ways possible.
Yes, our methods are changing, but we remain true to the core principle of Cooperative Extension: to provide our diverse audiences with working knowledge, showing them how to use knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in their everyday lives and work.
Respect, Openness and Creativity and Innovation
This core principle encompasses other values that underscore life in this increasingly interconnected global society: mutual respect, openness, creativity and innovation. All of these values have formed the bedrock of Cooperative Extension work from the beginning of our history.
They were first affirmed in the farm demonstration efforts of pioneering Extension visionary Seaman Knapp, who encouraged feedback from and sharing among farmers participating in his crop demonstrations in Louisiana.
We’ve contributed our share of creativity and innovation, too. One notable example is the Extension-sponsored boll weevil eradication efforts in the South, which led to many other advances, including crop entomology, crop dusting and crop scouting, to name only a few.
Our outreach efforts spawned other advances — the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, soil conservation and community economic development, to name only a few.
We Are Human Infrastructure!
We hear a lot about how infrastructure — roads, railways and airport terminals — has contributed to our material progress. We have even seen renewed emphasis in recent years on the need to build more of this infrastructure to keep pace with the mounting challenges of the global economy.
The types of human infrastructure that Cooperative Extension has routinely provided for decades through its dense network of grassroots educators will be more important than ever in the 21st century as farming gears up to feed a projected 9.5 billion people by mid-century. The challenges farmers face are daunting: They are being called to meet these new demands even as they expected to develop safer, greener production systems with more emphasis on organically and locally grown foods.
But the enduring value of Cooperative Extension is not limited to farming. Nutrition educators are working to address one of the most serious health epidemics of the 21st century — rising levels of obesity among Americans of all ages and the chronic diseases that typically accompany it. Their counterparts in food safety are striving to educate Americans about the risks of eating from an international table comprised of some foods that are neither produced nor processed in accordance with the hygienic practices commonly taken for granted in the United States.
Forestry educators are equipping landowners will the tools to deal with increasing threats posed by invasive plant species to forestland understories and, ultimately, to trees.
Collaborative Knowledge and Our Role in It
Extension work in the early 20th century also foreshadowed the sorts of open-sourced, shared knowledge that is being adopted all over the world today.
But we bring another critically needed asset to the table. Despite the seemingly inexhaustible sources of information now available online, we still provide our diverse audiences with knowledge in deep, enriched contexts. And we show our audiences how to use this knowledge to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways — back to that core Extension principle: working knowledge.
We continue to succeed because we walk in the footsteps of the earliest generation of Extension pioneers who strove to be knowledge enablers — change agents who add value to knowledge by demonstrating how practical, meaningful and lasting use can be derived from it. They strove to be agents of working knowledge.
This is the proud and enduring legacy that we will carry through the 21st century.