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The Collective for Health Equity and Well-Being

Cooperative Extension’s Collective for Health Equity and Well-Being is a community of Extension personnel and their partners united by their shared commitment to advancing health equity and well-being. Members work together to support the implementation of Cooperative Extension’s National Framework for Health Equity and Well-Being (2021) to ensure that all people can be as healthy as they can be.

Cooperative Extension: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


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.

The Good

  • 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.

The Bad

  • 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.

The Ugly

  • 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.

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Comments (11)

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Excellent synopsis of our current situation and suggestions for moving forward - thank you! This is right in line with the conversations my teams are engaged in as we consider our approach to systems level change.

Wow! You really got to the heart of Cooperative Extension in this thought-provoking essay. Our traditions can enrich our experiences but can present barriers to participation for others who are not part of our traditional audiences. I hope that we as leaders in this organization can develop a habit of reflection and self-knowledge that will allow us to adapt to a changing society and remain relevant. I am confident that we will do so.

Thank you so much for this article. I agree there is passion and dedication everyday within CCE. But the accepted culture and the inherent creation of silos prevents a lot of good things from happening. With many times, gaps being closely related to the lack of effective, inclusive communication leading to unwillingness to collaborate on projects, programming and mission.

I am relatively new to Extension and come at it from the Master Gardener Volunteer side. I will say that your article mirrors my experience with the organization very well. There are a lot of great people working hard to make a difference but the structure and culture of CES make that an uphill battle. I fear that if Extension doesn’t address these issues soon, their relevance is going to be diminished greatly. That would be a tragic waste of what could be a very good thing given some changes at the top which would empower those working in silos to tap their creativity and knowledge with support and recognition from management.


About the Extension Foundation

The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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