In my role as a Well-Being and Equity Project Manager, I am working to co-create a process for youth and adults to promote equitable development in their community by partnering with Cooperative Extension. I’d like to take a moment to ponder some of the ways Cooperative Extension currently shows up in this movement for societal progress.
It is time we deeply question the ways we promote and discourage equitable development in our work, for perpetuating the status quo hurts communities and goes against our mission as Extension. These opinions are my own.
- Reach: Cooperative Extension has an office in almost every county across the nation. Operating out of the land grant university system, Cooperative Extension has a unique relationship with the public, private, and social sectors.
- Accessibility: CES increases the accessibility of research-based knowledge and services to strengthen the social, economic, and environmental well-being of people, communities, and businesses across the nation.
- Values: CES’ values promote the tenets of equitable development. CES champions positive youth development through 4-H - encouraging young people to learn by doing in STEM, the arts, communications, civic engagement, healthy living, and agriculture. Among many other services, we advocate for climate justice with farmer and rancher education; for robust healthcare with nutrition programming; and for strong individuals and families with financial wellness, emotional wellness, and personal/professional development classes.
- Relevance: Today, less than a quarter of agricultural production in the United States comes from small and medium-sized farms. Not only does ag have high barriers to entry, large corporations have control over the industry from the research we do at our land grants to the choices consumers have for fresh food. Due in part to corporate consolidation in agriculture and CES’ current and historical focus on agriculture, CES isn’t as relevant as it once was. CES was created to bring the latest agricultural research to farmers, and while that work is still critical in the face of environmental crisis and widespread hunger in our nation and world, the number of agriculture practitioners needing our services is smaller.
- Aspirations: Cooperative Extension is full of good people with noble aspirations, but often, our goals set us up for failure. The Gap Between Our Aspirations and Reality explains the gap between leadership’s vision and our ability for impact. Pursuing ambitious ideas is a waste of time, energy, and money when we fail to scrutinize our aspirations. There is a lack of bidirectional communication between all levels of Extension, and out top-down visions of progress do not include the perspectives of those doing the work on-the-ground.
- Sustainability: Our work isn’t always sustainable and/or regenerative. This can be explained by several reasons related to funding, buy-in, or otherwise, but planning programs that have financial, organizational, and community sustainability is important to spurring meaningful engagement and impact. One-off services and one-size-fits-all programs cannot be sustainable nor can they spur innovation in people’s lives and businesses.
- Wages: Many people in Cooperative Extension have been involved for several years. However, when it comes time for these long-time employees to leave and/or retire, their roles are often hard to fill and have a high turnover. Many factors contribute to this, but as plenty of us CES folks know, working for Cooperative Extension can be a labor of love, and passion for the job, fulfilling relationships, and meaningful memories help us reconcile with the heavy workload and incongruent pay. For those new to CES and/or those with limited financial mobility, being overworked and underpaid is irreconcilable. It is important to compensate our community of practice as best we’re able and ask people to work only as much as we will compensate them.
- Silos: Talking about “silos” within an organizational context means information, practices, and resources are not shared/communicated effectively. Silos are harmful to organizations because consumers receive mixed messages about the organization, cross-functional opportunities are missed, work is duplicated, and time, energy, and money are wasted. This is apparent across our state and county programs.
- Tradition: In a lot of ways, tradition is sacred, meaningful, and unifying. However, as time goes by, we come to realize that sometimes our most beloved traditions are not as efficient, respectful, or inclusive as they ought to be. These traditions, while motivating and engaging at one point in time, keep our organizations from valuing, trusting, or hearing each other. Tradition promotes loyalty entrenched in competition, and it creates in-groups and out-groups. Instead of working together or striving to build community, we remain resistant to change: holding onto tradition, prioritizing politics, and sacrificing generative growth. We maintain fractured relationships within our organizations and communities, and we hold ourselves back from potential innovation and collaboration. Ever heard, “Oh, we don’t do 4-H at THAT school,” or “What can FACS do for families that Ag can’t?” Tradition became ingrained in our work culture because, at some point, it added value to our work and mission. Some traditions need to be hospiced and done away with completely, but others can be composted and help contribute to something new - that’s just how change happens.
I grew up in 4-H and have worked with Cooperative Extension since I’ve been able to work. I’m excited for the work we’re doing across the nation and for what’s to come in the future, but I know a lot of progress will be unattainable until we look within ourselves and within our organizations. By your side, I look forward to continuing this conversation and one of possibilities for reform, refinement, and renaissance for Cooperative Extension.