The People and their University: Extension Reconsidered in Minnesota

By Jeff Gorfine, member of the University of Minnesota Extension Reconsidered team

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

[The following remarks were delivered at the Extension Reconsidered session of “Thriving by Design II: Rural Design Conference” at the University of Minnesota-Crookston campus on July 30, 2014. Note to readers: The transcript has been lightly edited for easier online reading.]

Good late morning and thank you for this opportunity to share. I am honored, and indeed humbled, to be doing a wee bit of envisioning about the promise of Extension over the next 100 years.

Jeff Gorfine speaking at the UMN-Crookston ER event

Jeff Gorfine speaking at the UMN-Crookston Extension Reconsidered event in July.

This “Extension Reconsidered” effort is, for me, the beginning of the beginning of a great, long-term “thought and action experiment.” And if it turns out to be the end of the beginning of that experiment, then I must be honest, what we will have experienced is a PR campaign. We need continually to take the pulse of the People and that includes the University and other institutions. How we end up doing this on a continuing basis is both the promise and the challenge we face over the next 100 years. We are not here now to worry or wonder about form and function. We are here to dream! To imagine anew!

The Paul Brutlag challenge

In his 1992 book, Sacred Eyes, L. Robert Keck points out that the bottom line on sustaining relationships consists of three questions: “Is what you are bringing to the relationship empowering? Is the relationship empowering you? If the answer to either question is ‘no,’ then the follow-up question is: Do you have the courage to change it?”

As this millennium was upon us, Paul Brutlag (one of the grandfathers of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships) once stated to me that the most critical issue for Minnesota moving into the 21st century will be how the University of Minnesota fulfills its land-grant mission:




This encapsulation of the land-grant mission was carved in June 1936 on the facade of Northrup Auditorium. And let’s make no mistake about the meaning of these words: our manifest destiny as Minnesotans will be greatly guided and determined by the nature and quality of the relationship between The People and their University.

In the 1980s, Arthur Himmelman did research at the Humphrey Institute on public-private initiatives. A major finding of this research was that folks who organize to accomplish XYZ end up failing or not being as effective and therefore fading away, by not spending intentional time upfront and on a continuing basis discussing their philosophy and what they value about their endeavor—an essential grounding that we don’t seem to do a lot of.

Because of this truth, I call for us, for Extension, for the University, to revisit its land grant roots. To dig more deeply into what its values and philosophy are with being in relationship, in partnership, in public and civic engagement on a more consistent basis with smaller, more diverse concentrations of wealth for long-term interest — the People & the communities of Minnesota — rather than with larger, more narrow-minded concentrations of wealth for short-term gain. We must work to restore a more equitable balance to the imperative of serving “the welfare of the State.”

Advocating for an Engaged University

An August 23, 2001 Star Tribune Editorial stated:

A university that seems fixated on money making research and workforce development connects with a fraction of Minnesotans. One dedicated to helping average citizens solve public problems and govern themselves wisely has broader appeal — and, over time, may do more to secure the good life in Minnesota.

This to me is the great promise which Extension can help cultivate and nurture both within the University and within the citizenry of Minnesota. It is a promise that will yield fruit of unimaginable beauty throughout the countryside. It is also a promise which begs us to answer some questions about what we value and profess:

  • Why are you here in this room today?
  • Why are we here together exploring a “Reconsideration of Extension?”
  • What do you value and what is valuable about the work you do?
  • How does being part of a land-grant university inform and mold Extension’s practices?
  • How is Extension meeting the needs of the small towns, small businesses, and small farms of Minnesota? And how are we all taking care of and being with Mother Earth?
  • What is and what has been Extension’s public value and impact? (Scott Peters)
  • And how and why does it matter? (Scott Peters)

In its May 2012, “Ten-Point Plan for Advancing and Institutionalizing Public Engagement at the University of Minnesota,” the Office of Public Engagement stated:

At a time of diminished public support and novel intellectual and practical challenges, the Engaged University holds the promise for a constructive new era in higher education in which civic responsibilities and public contributions become central institutional priorities affecting research & scholarship, teaching & learning, outreach & partnership…

How will Extension help all of us realize this “promise for a constructive new era in higher education?” And how will Extension help establish and make stronger these “institutional priorities” of “civic responsibility and public contribution” so that the common good becomes rooted deeper, much deeper into the heart and soul of the body politic?

Do we, as advocates for an Engaged University, truly understand that engagement is “something that goes well beyond Cooperative Extension and conventional outreach…and even beyond most conceptions of public service?”

Can we make a promise to work hard to replace “our inherited ideas (of engagement which) emphasize a one-way process of transferring knowledge and technology from the university – as the source of expertise – to its key constituents,” with an engagement ideal that has “…embedded (within) it a commitment to sharing and reciprocity (and envisions) partnerships, two-way streets defined by mutual respect among the partners for what each brings to the table?” (These quotations are from the 3rd report of the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, “Returning to Our Roots“, February 1999.)

By doing so, won’t the research and scholarship, the teaching and learning, and the outreach and partnerships arising out of such a process be more beneficial for the long-term welfare of the state, and as a consequence, build greater capacity and competence for everyone involved?

Looking into the crystal ball

1) I see Extension becoming a phalanx within the culture of the University advocating for change in the way the University goes about doing its business of research, scholarship, teaching, learning, outreach, and service to the commonwealth. In the beginning of this advocacy I see Extension as being viewed as an apostate to the status quo, but when the dust finally settles and the final analysis is made, Extension will be known and cherished as the “loyal heretic.” For it will be clearly understood and embraced that the change Extension brought up for discussion, deliberation, and action was the very change that was needed during this time and place of our experiment in democracy and of our unending search for truth. And it will be seen as a change that made Minnesotans more vital and more resilient in our capacities to work through the challenges and opportunities of all of our future presents.

2) I see Extension as that vanguard within the Culture of the Academy advocating and continuing to show by example how to employ and value the principles, methodologies, and practices of public scholarship–especially of the interdisciplinary variety–that not only can cross-fertilize with other departments, centers, institutes, colleges and university campuses, but can also more strongly undergird the applied research efforts needed for the health and viability of the many, many communities of interest within Minnesota.

The need for the methodologically rigorous generalists is profound. Our information, economic, industrial, agricultural, and natural resource sciences’ technologies & techniques, and the advances in highly specialized fields of knowledge (not to mention our production/consumer crazed mentality and money driven infatuation with control & power) are far outdistancing not only our ability to make sense of who we are in relation to each other, but also to make sense of the actual long-term good we are doing together.

3) Ralph Nader once said,

“Until unstructured citizen power is given the tools for impact, structured power, no matter how democratic in form, will tend toward abuse, indifference, or sloth…Building a new way of life around citizenship action must be the program of the immediate future (built upon) a commitment to citizenship as an obligation, a continual receivership of our time, energy, and skill.”

I, therefore, see Extension as playing a major role in not only revitalizing the democratic ideal within the Academy but also reinvigorating democratic practice throughout Minnesota. I see Extension more forthrightly supporting the essential need for active citizenship, which calls on us to think first and foremost as citizens with a commitment to working through challenges and exploring opportunities in citizen-driven, community/university partnerships. I see Extension building exquisite relationships by solidly constructing the two-way roads of inreach and outreach. And this construction will be done with voices from all walks of life asking the right, down-to-earth questions important to them. Such questions and two-way roads will enable us to more accurately identify, analyze, develop solutions for, and work through local, regional, and statewide environmental, social, and economic issues and problems. And we will be unswervingly committed to the ethic:

“If you disagree with me, you have something to give me; if you are sincere and seek the truth as best you may, honestly with modest care, your thought is growth to mine, you deepen my vision.” — Dom Helder Camara

4) An observation from the 1951/1952 book, The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Technical civilization stems primarily from the desire of man to subdue and manage the forces of nature… Technical civilization is the product of labor, of man’s exertion of power for the sake of gain, for the sake of producing goods… Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space… yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

I see Extension cultivating a new way of doing business for the University and beyond, a way that better balances our actions in time and in space. By helping us to put into clearer perspective the notion of the marketplace university, Extension will help to enable us to build a more viable land-grant mission and civic engagement force within our State. We are woefully off kilter with our expectations of, belief in, and the value we place upon the marketplace.  We delude ourselves in thinking that it and it above all else will deliver us to the promised land of prosperity, justice, and equity, as well as to an equal and fair distribution of goods and services.

So, in conclusion, I see Extension Reconsidered as the “the beginning of the beginning,” as a never-ending process of renewal, of what Pete Seeger called “the folk process.” And in this spirit, I’d like to close with “A Farm Boy Remembers”, a poem by the Minnesotan, Leo Dangel:

Saturday was for cleaning barns,

forking out tons of manure.

There are more significant ways

to spend a Saturday, when the snow

is melting, but this was ours.

Throw out the shit

and put down clean straw.

Renewal has never since been so simple.

Thank you.

About the author: Jeff Gorfine is a native of Virginia who came to Minnesota in 1980 as a Community Mental Health Specialist to work at the Mahnomen office of the Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston. He has also worked in the fields of community action, corrections, and education. Jeff is presently semi-retired, working as a Learner Advocate in the Adult & Family Literacy Program of the Community Education Department of the Rochester Public Schools and serving on the Minnesota Extension Reconsidered statewide team. He served as the first Chairman of the Experiment in Rural Cooperation, the Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is a Vietnam veteran.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at] to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

The world is going digital: Where is Extension going?

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Greg Hutchins, Associate Vice Chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Extension

A well respected provider of content, with more than a century of success, but also an organization looking for ways to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world – that could describe Cooperative Extension, but it also describes the New York Times.  The recently released “New York Times Innovation Report” provides a fascinating self-analysis of a premier news organization trying to keep up with change – and perhaps it also provides important clues to what Extension needs to consider as it tries to sustain its relevancy.

The New York Times, the third largest newspaper in the U.S., has experienced a decline in subscriber numbers in recent years – a common trend in print media.  While it continues to provide great journalism, it’s losing readers.  Meanwhile, other news organizations are more aggressively embracing the digital age and remaking themselves to more directly respond to consumers’ preferences for a digital delivery.  Given this environment, the New York Times recently committed ten of their most forward thinking staff to a six-month study of the paper’s operations, both print and digital, and to a careful look at their competition.  The conclusion was that the paper must continue producing quality content – but that content is not enough.  It must also pursue new strategies for growing its audience, and that requires a new “digital first” philosophy.

Is this relevant to Extension?  I think so.

Cooperative Extension has taken great pride in the high quality of its research-based content, and its close relationship with its core audience.  But University Extension is no longer the only reputable source of information in many of the knowledge areas it’s been well known for, and most people have more frequent interaction with Google, YouTube and Wikipedia than they do with Extension.

Yes, Extension does offer a digital presence, and some Extension professionals do maintain bright, engaging websites.  But that’s not the norm.  And where is Extension’s mobile footprint?  Is the Extension YouTube and Instagram presence sufficient to satisfy a public who now sees video as their constant companion – the place to find both entertainment and education?

Simply put, is Extension providing its excellent content to users in ways that they expect to find knowledge in 2014?  And is Extension positioning itself to still be relevant in 2024?  Is the classic retail style, person-to-person model of Extension education still affordable?  Can it meet the public’s expectation for services?

Readership on the New York Times website has shrunk, while sites like the Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic reading New York Times journalism than does the Times’ own website.  In an environment where digital media is exploding with innovative formats and willing investors, it’s not enough to generate world-class journalism and put it on the web.  The Times Innovation Report concluded that the “digital first” strategy was contributing to the growth of the The Guardian and USA Today, and noted that both the Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon) and the Wall Street Journal are both moving to remake themselves for the digital age.  “The realities of a cluttered internet and distracted mobile world require extra effort to get journalism to our readers.”

Is Extension putting extra effort into its digital presence?  Not nearly enough.

What might a serious commitment to a digital-first approach look like in Extension?  Extension professionals would have a much more visible presence in user forums, on social media, in real-time digital relationships, and especially with online video.  There would be careful attention to timely updating of websites, and continuous production of new material for digital consumption.  Experimentation with new forms of media would be on-going.  Audience development becomes a high priority goal for all Extension professionals – and all Extension Educators and Specialists would be active participants in this digital activity, not just IT professionals.

What would Extension hope to accomplish through a digital makeover?  It would expect to expand its audience, multiply the distribution of its content, create a greater public awareness of Extension and its value, and begin to position itself as a relevant and useful source for future generations who will be expecting digital delivery of just about everything.

This approach isn’t intended to immediately produce life changing transformative impact, but it makes it easier to attract users to a deeper look at our content, and allow for easy sharing of that content via user-to-user.  Can you learn nutrition in a 15 second Instagram video?  Probably not in a single video, but a well-developed series might be very instructive.  Bart’s Fish Tales is an example of what’s possible.  If you’re not on Instagram, you can also view the series on Facebook.

There are lots of arguments to be made against this proposition:

  • Broadband access is limited,
  • not everyone has a computer or mobile device,
  • there is no substitute for face-to-face trust-based relationships,
  • digital approaches are inadequate for leadership development and civic engagement,
  • the effectiveness cannot be evaluated, and
  • the impact cannot be measured.

You can make your own list of reasons why this is a faulty future for Extension.  Meanwhile, enormous investments of intellectual and financial resources are pouring into the constant development of the digital landscape and marketplace, and the public has an unquenchable thirst for more.

Broadband access will eventually become ubiquitous and affordable.  The public and the marketplace will demand it.  The spread of mobile devices is so rapid that citing statistics doesn’t tell the story – it’s constantly growing and it’s global.  Face-to-face via digital devices is becoming commonplace among friends, families, and colleagues. It’s easy to argue that digital devices have expanded and strengthened relationships rather than limited them.  Mobilizing civic action through social media has been more rapid and more extensive than any individual organizers on the ground could hope to achieve via one-on-one grassroots work.

To ignore the public’s appetite for all things digital, to continue to rely on “tried and true” educational practices, to discount the different ways future consumers (millennials and subsequent generations) will be expecting to get information and to expect Extension budgets to remain stable – that’s not preparing for the future. Extension needs to make a sharp turn towards digital, and accelerate.  Look forward – not backward.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at] to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Extension Reconsidered and the world’s first Arts Deliberarium

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Mary E. Arnold, Extension Youth Development Officer and Professor, Oregon State University Extension

Marion jumped up and said: “Let’s have a Deliberarium! Yes! A Deliberarium will be just the thing.”
None of us had any idea exactly what a Deliberarium was. Nor did Marion, as we came to find out.

Oregon State University hosted its Extension Reconsidered event on Tuesday April 15th.  The day-long event included participants from OSU Extension faculty and staff, other faculty and staff from OSU, and community members who were leaders in the arts. The day began like any other conference in the morning, and ended with a reception in the student lab theater. But what happened in the middle was magical.

Marion Rossi opening the OSU Arts Deliberarium.

Marion Rossi opening the Arts Deliberarium in Corvallis, Oregon. Photo courtesy of OSU Extension.

We knew we wanted the Oregon State Extension Reconsidered event to focus on the arts–not just because of the Imagining America movement, which focuses on arts and scholars in everyday life–but also because of an emerging opportunity perhaps distinct to OSU Extension. At Oregon State, Extension is part of the division of Outreach and Engagement, and as such has programs in most of the university’s colleges. Although a few Extension faculty have appointments in the College of Liberal Arts, there is no formal Extension programs that are part of the college. Shortly before the Extension Reconsidered initiative was announced, College of Liberal Arts and Extension leadership began conversations about the possibility of a partnership, so when the Extension Reconsidered opportunity arose, we were eager to participate with the express goal of engaging people around the possibilities for Extension in the arts, humanities, and design.

Knowing what you don’t want is sometimes easier than knowing what you do, but as we explored various options for the day, we agreed that engaging participants in the process was essential, and that we wanted to have an art component. After a few planning meetings that focused on the nuts and bolts of the event, we were graced with a sudden burst of creativity as Marion Rossi, the Associate Dean for College of Liberal Arts, jumped up and said, with a sure twinkle in his eye, “Let’s have a Deliberarium! Yes! A Deliberarium will be just the thing.” None of us had any idea exactly what a Deliberarium was. Nor did Marion, as we came to find out.

In the early morning of April 15th, Marion and his students stealthily backed a few trucks up to the student lab theater and quietly raided the set supplies. Within a couple hours they had transformed an ordinary conference room into a creative space, filled with trinkets, oddities, props, color, art supplies, images, and well…. assorted stuff for mucking about that formed the basis for the magic that followed.

People wandered in, found a seat, were greeted by Scott Peters and OSU’s Associate Provost for Outreach and Engagement, Scott Reed.

Scott Peters at the OSU Arts Deliberarium.

Scott Peters at the OSU Arts Deliberarium. Photo courtesy of OSU Extension.

When the polite applause for these opening statements quieted down, Marion stood up, whipped out a newly purchased lab coat, and announced the start of the Deliberarium, which at that point he fully admitted was an experiment in true delight.

By the end of three hours, participants had created visual images of community art, written Haiku on the importance of the arts in communities, and debated whether encouraging art was a meaningful investment in community enhancement. Marion brought the group to silent attention as the morning wound down by asking, following a brief reading, how a person could ever grow up to injure another human being, if as a child they experienced the power of the arts to unite us and celebrate our individual uniqueness.

Participants were encouraged to think creatively about art, the community, and how extension can use art to engage.

Participants were encouraged to think creatively about art, the community, and how extension can use art to engage. Photo courtesy of OSU Extension.

The goal for the Deliberarium was to set the stage for engaging participants in the afternoon exploration of three questions related to possibilities for OSU Extension in the arts, humanities and design. As we left for lunch, ideas were flowing among participants, and a soft murmur was growing into a resounding Yes! OSU Extension and the arts, humanities, and design will be just the thing!

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at] to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

“Extension Reconsidered” in Choices Magazine

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Scott J. Peters, Faculty Co-Director of Imagining America

A few decades ago, Ernest Boyer (1990) argued that the dominant view of scholarship—original “discovery” research that is published in peer-reviewed academic journals—was too narrow. He believed that there were good reasons why we should reconsider it, particularly in relation to the challenge of improving higher education’s contributions to the work of understanding and addressing a host of urgent public problems. To communicate his argument and ideas, he wrote a book he titled Scholarship Reconsidered.

Following Boyer’s lead, in this article I argue that that the dominant view of extension—the dissemination, application, and transfer of scientific information and technologies for economic ends—is too narrow. We need to reconsider it, and the time is ripe for doing so.

Read the rest of Scott’s latest article in Choices Magazine here…

This excerpt of “Extension Reconsidered” is published with permission from Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm, and Resource Issues and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA).

The Art of Extension: connecting with the arts to build stronger communities

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Anne Rhodes, teaching artist and Extension Reconsidered community liaison

There is a rich history in Extension of incorporating the arts into the work that is done in communities. How can we build on this history and use the arts, design, and humanities to refresh and revitalize our work? And why are the arts possibly the best tool for the community-building work we want to do in the 21st century? Every problem we face will be easier to solve if we have inter-connected, engaged, resilient, creative communities.

Angel Alley

Photo courtesy of Lily Yeh and

Building and strengthening our communities feels to me like the most important task we have in order to meet the challenges of today and the future. Cultivating civic engagement, a sense of agency and legitimacy of leadership, empowerment, and skills for communicating and working together are important tools for building our communities. Why not use the arts to meet these goals?

Community arts are unique in their power to engage people and connect them to their creativity and to each other.  They provide a fun and effective way for all kinds of people to articulate and express their ideas about issues that they care about. The arts give people a creative voice, a path to leadership, a way to express shared values, and to create a shared experience working together toward meaningful outcomes. There is consensus among social scientists, historians, educators, and activists that it is exactly these kinds of experiences that helps to build community.  Working in and through the arts becomes another way to help people meet the economic, ecological and social challenges of the future.

Community and economic development are the focus of a lot of work in our communities. Our public agencies and organizations seem to be doing a pretty good job of:

  • Giving people relevant skills and information to be more self-sufficient.
  • Attempting to meet people’s material and emotional needs.
  • Creating recreational opportunities.
  • Providing assistance in crises.

These are all good and necessary interventions, but they focus mostly on the individual or the individual family. Very few of our public programs are focusing on bringing community members together to work collectively or collaboratively, or to solve problems together, or to create something meaningful together. Here is where I feel community arts are a critical missing strategy.

What are “community arts”?

If you are thinking about the arts as they are practiced by “professional” artists who create works of art to be performed or displayed in concert halls, galleries, museums, and theaters, you may be puzzled.  But I am thinking about skilled artists working in any medium – visual arts, dance, theater, music, photography, film, spoken word, story telling and other forms of narrative – who are not focused on primarily on their personal success as an artist or on what they personally have to say.  I am thinking about a different kind of art – community art. I’m thinking about whose needs are served by the art.

Community arts serve the needs of the community, like these examples:

    1. Residents of a struggling neighborhood in Philadelphia create a corridor of larger-than-life Angels on the sides of abandoned buildings, spirits that express people’s wish to protect their community. The residents have partnered with Barefoot Artists, an organization founded by Lily Yeh to strengthen communities through art around the world.  Yeh states, “Recognizing that creativity and beauty are powerful agents for healing and change, Barefoot Artists works with poor communities around the globe practicing the arts to bring healing, self-empowerment and social change.”
    2. A large crowd of community members gather in a school cafeteria to see the results of their storytelling about a local problem.  An eclectic group of 30-something volunteers presents huge story-board posters, utilizing complex and compelling graphics, that outline what they have heard from community participants, in order to spark dialogue. This is the Beehive Collective, an all volunteer activist arts collective from Maine. “We create these posters to support movement building and act as a catalyst for change ….”
    3. At the Civic Ensemble in Ithaca, New York, an audience laughs, cries, and even shouts out “That’s what it’s like!” as the group of parents present the play they have put together from all their stories about parenting.  None of the performers have ever been on stage before, yet they are engaging the community in a critical dialogue about the joys, responsibilities, heartbreak, and failures of parenting and what we might do in the community to support parents. 
The Beehive

Photo courtesy of the Beehive Collective.

Artists and communities around the world are realizing the power of the arts to connect people to each other, strengthen and heal communities, restore a sense of belonging, and empower people to take on the issues they care about. For example, Appalshop in Kentucky states its purpose as “to support communities’ efforts to solve their own problems in a just and equitable way … through telling their own stories and listening to the unique stories of others … enlisting the power of the arts.” Another example is Eve Ensler, who has created a global movement to end violence against women, “…believes in the power of collective experience, the power of direct action, the power of people having an experience together in the street or in the theater.” [“Eve Ensler Rising” Laura Flanders, The Nation, Nov. 26, 2012]

Why use community arts?

The beauty of this approach is that everyone benefits: citizens who create works of art in their community, those who witness the works, and the artists who assist.  And the skills developed through these processes can transfer to other situations where we need to work together, accomplish something, or navigate differences-–such as pulling together to clean up a river, setting up alternatives to incarceration in order to break the school-to-prison pipeline, or helping build homes for people who have none.

Working together to create relevant, meaningful works of art is inspiring. It appeals to many who are uncomfortable with “protesting” or “politics”, two other ways that communities mobilize, but which focus on “taking sides” and competing with each other instead of collaborating.

So why are the arts in all their forms one of the best strategies for doing community-building work?  A quick review of the power of community arts:

  • Arts give people a voice. Individual voices and especially the collective voices of a people’s culture or our shared experience or values are elicited and magnified by the arts.
  • Arts tap deep, beyond language; they are inspiring, beautiful, healing.  Music heals; shared emotional experience heals.  This works better if we are face-to-face and sharing, rather than sitting in darkened theaters, facing each others backs, or talking in hushed voices in a gallery.
  • Arts are engaging, interesting, and encourage creativity. Think about how an audience responds to a lecture, a power point, a talk or report, versus a song, dance, story, or street theater event.
  • Arts connect us to each other, both in the making and in the sharing. Community arts actively encourage participation, and lessen alienation and isolation.
  • “Arts-thinking” requires many intellectual skills and habits of mind that benefit community work. In the process of  creating art, we must have willingness to approach something new, ability to clarify intent,  and skills of analysis, evaluation, and problem solving.  Since there is no right or wrong way to create art, there is an opportunity to think about what you want to say, to make choices, try something, see how it works, and revise.  These are all “arts-thinking” skills.
  • Creating art with a group builds community skills like communication, listening, honoring different people’s perspectives, seeing new possibilities, discovering what people care about and what we want to say, supporting collective decision-making, evaluating alternatives and making choices together, and becoming creative problem solvers.

From an artist’s point of view

After 9/11 I heard many artists and arts companies began to question the ways they were using their arts.  A prominent theater company in NYC led a discussion about how to respond to the 9/11 event.  One person said,

“Why are we presenting Checkov again, and yet again? Is this what our community needs to see now?”

There was a lot of soul-searching about why we do art, what is art good for, who these arts serve, how we are relating to our communities.  Since then more and more artists have committed their work to environmental protection, eliminating racism, eliminating poverty and homelessness, giving incarcerated and previously incarcerated people, or veterans a voice, raising awareness about issues, mobilizing citizens, and engaging whole communities.

Using the arts for community-building has given many artists a new relevance.  The roles of the artists who work in this way are not working in isolation or only with other artists. This new role requires a new set of skills; such as facilitating a community process, giving just enough shape to the project, sharing the technical tools and skills,  guiding but not controlling, teaching accessible techniques, creating a space for listening, where problems can be solved, communication can happen, collaboration will succeed. Strengthening relationships and nurturing leadership are critical components of this work.

Most of the artists I know who are working in this way report that this work is more fulfilling than it is challenging, that it has inspired and changed their personal art work in ways they had not anticipated, and that it becomes central to who they are as artists.

I am deeply inspired by the artists who are choosing to work in this way, and by the community members who are moving beyond what was familiar to them and creating amazingly moving works of art.  I look forward to seeing more stories, flash dances, songs, drumming, poetry slams, pop-up theater, radio and video works, life-size portraits, murals and mosaics, story quilts, clothesline exhibits, and many other expressions of community invigoration – maybe in your community!

Anne Rhodes is a Teaching Artist and theater artist, working to build regional leadership networks to meet the challenges of climate disruption and economic inequality.


Stevenson, L., & Deasy, R. J. (2005). “Third Space: When Learning Matters” (especially Chapter 3: Thinking in the Arts, and Chapter 6: Building Community), Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.

Savannah Barrett’s “Currency of Connection” ARTSblog post about Arts in Extension

For a list of artists responding to environmental concerns: “To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet”

To see Arlene Goldbard’s argument for arts and culture go to


Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at] to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.


CITIZEN U: Inspiring young leaders in New York State

By Andy Turner, Interim State 4-H Program Leader, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Reading Scott Peter’s original blog post for the Extension Reconsidered project led me to reflect on my own Extension “story”–a story that goes back three generations–but more importantly it led me to think about how critical it is to capture and share the Extension stories that are unfolding with a new generation.

I have been inspired and encouraged during my first few months in the role of State Leader for 4-H youth development to discover how our 4-H educators are finding new ways to connect with young people who have much to gain from the resources of Cooperative Extension and the land grant university system.

A good example of this is a project unfolding in Broome and Monroe counties, called CITIZEN U.  CITIZEN U transforms high school students into community leaders by helping them learn about, imagine, and carry out their own community development projects over a two-year period. It promotes civic engagement, workforce preparation, and asset development among youth ages 14-18.  Local teens submit applications to be accepted at one of the CITIZEN U’s “campuses” and are then enrolled in university-style seminars.  During the summer, the teens plan and implement community based projects they have identified as important, such as tackling obesity through the reduction of sugary beverages in schools, or addressing teen dating violence.

In Broome County, CITIZEN U partners with local grass roots organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Binghamton, the Roberson Museum and Science Center, faculty from Cornell University and Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement to offer the after school seminars and guide the community improvement projects.

The long term benefits to the students are many. During their time in the program, the teens explore challenging careers, build their resumes, and increase their likelihood of going to college.  And that’s exactly what has happened—100% of the CITIZEN U Teen Leaders who completed their two-year commitment to the program (2011-2013) and graduated from high school have gone on to two- and four-year colleges on full or partial scholarships.

CCE Broome County’s Teen Leader Nosa Akol has been given several opportunities recently to share her experiences in CITIZEN U as well as other 4-H opportunities in Binghamton and at Cornell.  Nosa’s participation in 4-H Career Explorations led to her being selected as New York State’s delegate to the 2013 World Food Prize in Iowa, an experience that quite literally set her life on a new course.  After researching her World Food Prize paper on how micro-farming in South Sudan could become a mechanism for helping women and young girls overcome gender-based violence, illiteracy and poverty, Nosa is now looking at studying international policy in college. 

On March 25, Nosa was invited to present at the Borlaug Symposium at the USDA in Washington D.C.  in front of an audience that included USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack.  As she began sharing her ideas on ways agriculture can be used to address the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, Secretary Vilsack interrupted Nosa, saying, “Wait a minute, my wife needs to hear this.” Secretary Vilsack soon returned with his wife to listen to Nosa present her poster, Achieving Human Rights through Education for the Women and Girls of South Sudan.  Nosa learned that Mrs. Vilsack has a special interest in South Sudan and is currently engaged in women’s empowerment projects there.

Nosa Akol (second from left) presenting at the Borlaug Symposium in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of CITIZEN U and Andrew Turner.

Nosa Akol (second from left) presenting at the Borlaug Symposium in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of CITIZEN U and Andrew Turner.

Nosa just learned that she is a recipient of a USDA Wallace-Carver Fellowship and will have a summer internship at the National Agriculture Library in Washington, DC this summer.  Additional photos and updates of Nosa (including Nosa with Secretary and Mrs. Vilsack) and other youth in action for CITIZEN U are published on their Facebook page.

This is a little snippet of the story of one 4-H participant from one innovative 4-H program in New York, but I present it as evidence that Extension is in fact already being not only “reconsidered” but also reinvented and renewed in ways that apply to the vastly changing landscape of the 21st century.  We have a long way to go to complete the journey but there are many stories like Nosa’s that need to be told and considered as we evaluate the viability and continued potential of 4-H and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Special thanks to June P. Mead, Ph.D., State Project Director, CYFAR/CITIZEN U, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County, and Nosa Akol, for providing the background for this post.

More information about CITIZEN U:
CITIZEN U uses CCE’S 4-H Signature Program, Youth Community Action, to promote civic engagement and workforce preparation among at-risk teens. CITIZEN U is a metaphor for creating a university environment in which teens are empowered to become community change agents and graduate successfully from high school prepared for college and careers. CITIZEN U was recently designated as an “Exemplary Program” by the Children, Youth and Families At Risk (CYFAR) Program.  CYFAR is a national program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Poetry of Community Food Assessments


The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Mark Winne, former Executive Director of the Hartford Food System nonprofit organization and expert on community food systems

How has our approach to understanding community food systems become like our approach to poetry? I took some instruction recently from a former United States Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive…

But all they want to do

Is tie the poem to a chair with rope

And torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

To find out what it really means.

The more I see of community food assessments – a process whereby researchers and stakeholders gather information about their food system in order to better understand its strengths and weaknesses – the more I worry, that like Collins’s over-zealous students, we are torturing the subject while never getting to know its essence.

Though there is some risk in comparing a food system to a poem, I find more similarities than not in our reliance on quantitative techniques and an obsession with wrestling the “facts” to the ground. Like the innocent poem that is pressed against a slide for unrelenting dissection, we are launching waves of graduate student drones over target zones, laptops programmed and grids drawn.

Couldn’t we float and flit for a bit, and like butterflies that light on meadow flora, sniff, touch, and taste the place for a while? I like to look at my surroundings through different lenses, hold them up for scrutiny in varying lights, and put my ear to the hive to check the buzz. When it comes to the community food assessments, we’re too much above it all and over-fueled with high-octane, evidence-based objectivity. The truth is on the ground where we belong, with our values and subjectivity fully on display.

Just as the imaginative reader of a poem holds hands with the lines and images until the molecules are absorbed through his skin, the food system investigator who opens up her sociological imagination might discover something unique, beautiful, and yes, often deeply disturbing. Instead of inducing rigor mortis with scientific rigor, as I have seen some community food assessments do, why not let the assessment process unfold slowly, even over a lifetime, by simply making it an everyday occurrence? And by “a lifetime” I certainly don’t mean that we twiddle our thumbs, waiting, as some groups have, for the data to tell them what to do. As a community food activist who should be immersed in your place, you will always be searching, asking questions, and keeping your ear pressed gently to the ground.

It was sometime after my fifteenth year of running the Hartford Food System before I felt like I understood what was going on in that city and the state of Connecticut. We had learned from firsthand experience that Hartford’s food was more expensive than that in the suburbs; we discovered that the city’s bus routes didn’t take people to supermarkets which had fled to the suburbs; we found, after watching farms disappear for a decade, that Connecticut was losing farmland faster than anywhere else in the nation. With a prima facie case in hand, we swooped in, gathered the evidence, secured an indictment, and started the corrections job as fast as possible. But it took 15 years of living and working in a place – looking under the hood and scraping our shins on the truth – before we got it.

I want science to be ruthlessly rigorous when searching for links between tobacco and lung cancer, or factory livestock operations and antibiotic resistance, but when it comes to understanding the community experience, something softer is called for, something perhaps more intuitive and anthropological. You see, our imagination is central to our work. Without it we never would have conceived of this thing we call a food system in the first place. The connections between food, health, environment; the idea of a feeding web; even ideas like social capital and community would have remained isolated within their own disciplinary boxes if we hadn’t sought a bigger horizon, one not constrained by reductionist thinking. While I may be quirky in finding beauty in a food system, I do believe we all find joy in the connection between two or more previously disparate things.

When it comes to how we assess a community’s food system, listening is the most important tool we have. I was reminded of this at a recent Santa Fe Food Policy Council meeting where we were discussing our food assessment and draft food plan. One member of the community had come to the meeting to put forward some unsolicited ideas. But, according to our public testimony rules, we only granted her two minutes to speak, much of which was consumed by her trying to keep her two overactive young children from disassembling the muffin tray. Frustrated and pissed, she corralled me afterwards in the parking lot where she went on at some length saying, “if you want the public there, if you want poor people there, you better have child care….” I listened hard; I agreed with her, and tried to relate and repeat what she said. I suggested that she set up a neighborhood meeting where we could discuss the food plan and hear her neighbors’ thoughts. She is now organizing that gathering.

Time is a great oppressor, a dictator that truncates the human experience to digestible data bits and highly efficient exchanges – life reduced to a hashtag. Our task is to slow down and slow dance, make eye contact, and when necessary, give ourselves a wide berth from the rules, the clock, and the agenda. As the Zen master Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watchin’.”

C. Wright Mills, the great lefty sociologist and Columbia University professor may have written one of the best treatises on social science methodology, The Sociological Imagination. Published in 1959, it is worthy of a read by all food system researchers, assessors, and activists. Mills was an advocate of a more values-based approach to social science research and an early critic of the statistical slavery that was then overtaking his field. In one lashing he wrote, “The ‘empirical facts’ are facts collected by a bureaucratically guided set of usually semi-skilled individuals. It has been forgotten that social observation requires high skill and acute sensibility; that discovery often occurs precisely when an imaginative mind sets itself down in the middle of social realities.” While being overly harsh toward those we depend on for numbers, I have little doubt that Mills would agree with Billy Collins that a poetic sensibility and a sociological imagination are kissing cousins.

When I see our earnest food assessors serving their method before their community, I recall my favorite Mills’s admonishment: “Many…social scientists in America today…conform to the prevailing fear of any passionate commitment.” Trembling, unsure of which God they serve, the best and the brightest too often balk because the data has not reached their desired level of perfection – a bar they always push higher and often never climb over.

While the threats to our food system are far too urgent for us to succumb entirely to the sweet indulgence of poetry, I think there are lessons to be learned from those who desire more profound ways of understanding. If a poem sends an unfamiliar surge up my spine – whether disturbing or pleasurable – it has done its job, and I am now in a heightened state of readiness. While discussions of syntax, meter, and the poet’s sexual preference may provide a minimal amount of illumination, it is the generous beat of the poetic impulse that is the true torch.

To what end do we seek a better understanding of our food system? I suspect that it is for reasons more profound than simply producing the interventions that may follow. For if we have succeeded in establishing a food hub, or getting another serving of local vegetables on a cafeteria tray, have we truly done enough? If today’s industrial food system is guilty, as I believe it is, of feeding consumers to maintain their status as, what Mills calls “Cheerful Robots,” do we food advocates necessarily offer a qualitatively better experience? By adding more local and organic food to their diet, or securing a few more dollars to their monthly SNAP benefits, we may be doing nothing more than producing cheerier robots.

It seems that the task of any inquiry, including a community food assessment, should be the elevation of the human condition, not only through the addition of more and better goods and services, but by contributing to the growth of individual freedom and reason. “Freedom” as Mills says, “is the chance to formulate the available choices…and then the opportunity to choose,” a process that cannot occur without an enlargement in human reason. Spending more time interacting with people and their place – not more time refining the data – will enlarge everyone’s reason. This may make our work of understanding a food system a more difficult and longer enterprise, but it just may make it richer, more enjoyable, and in the long run, significantly more rewarding.

This post originally appeared on Mark Winne’s blog on April 8, 2014. It was re-posted here with permission from the author. See more at: Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at] to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Why reconsider? Why now?

An update from the New York State planning team for the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Paul Treadwell, distance learning advisor for Cornell Cooperative  Extension

In New York State, Cornell Cooperative Extension has recently celebrated its own centennial in 2011, and developed a new strategic plan for 2013-2017. Participation in the Extension Reconsidered project now offers a unique opportunity to build on those foundations, especially around civic, and university-community, engagement.

Our theme of inviting people to “join a conversation” signals the importance of inclusive engagement and the desire for this to be an integrated and meaningful dialog rather than simply another exercise in “data-gathering”. This conversation will continue beyond the immediate activities around Extension Reconsidered and contribute to the planning for Cornell University’s sesquicentennial in 2015 and the Land Grant Reconsidered initiative.

We are interested in hearing from people both within, and outside, Extension. We realize that “wishing does not make it so” and in order to facilitate diversity in our conversation we will be inviting participation through dialog, storytelling, mapping, and a variety of other methods. We are hoping to be surprised, and are interested in inviting participation that takes advantage of the full spectrum of creative expression, such as poems, paintings, songs and other art forms.  The pathways to participation will include face to face encounters as well as a range of technology enabled methods.

The story of Extension work as civic engagement is multi-voiced, informed by the needs, desires and aspirations of all participants. At times this chorus can be discordant, harmonies taken up and then abandoned or left uncompleted. These discords reveal tensions within the work – energizing tensions if they are attended to and the resulting energy put to work. We want to hear these moments (as well as the harmonious ones) with clarity. If we are hoping to have genuine, honest, conversations that will inform and strengthen Extension’s role in the 21st Century we must value the stories of tension, as well as those of harmony.

For example, we will be using a series of “What If” prompts with community members to spark reflection, dialog and sharing of possible visions around the future of extension, civic engagement and democratic practices. These prompts will be used in face to face conversation, in email messages, via twitter and so on. Opening these multiple pathways to participation should facilitate a robust and meaningful conversation, woven together through multiple media.

So, we are opening pathways for participation, facilitating engagement across the spectrum of participants, and preparing to hear what will be spoken.

The question that arises when we begin describing this project and process to others is, why? Or perhaps more cynically, so what? We can talk, orate, hell…even sing the songs of Extension til the cows come home but why does it matter, how will this be of value? We want to help ensure that our work is relevant, engaged, accessible and valuable for New York State’s communities. How will this project achieve that?

Accompanying us on this journey of story gathering will be partners from Civic Ensemble, an Ithaca-based theater company. We will be working with Civic Ensemble to create a public performance that will integrate elements from the stories we receive. This performance will speak to the diversity of extension work and civic engagement and point towards possible futures for extension here in New York State. We believe that synthesizing the material in this way may help us move even deeply into understanding the core issues and tensions that lay just beneath the surface. Presenting the ‘data’ as theater will also offer opportunities for different understandings to arise both during the performance and in discussions afterwards.

All of this proceeding work will help us in the process of naming and framing the fundamental issues we face. And this work will lead to our capstone activity: a deliberative forum, occurring here on campus at Cornell. This intentional dialogue will highlight differing perspectives that incorporate our strengths, challenges, innovations and potential changes – all to ensure that we are impactful, trusted partners with communities around the state.

One of our goals is to make the results of this process accessible to all who have an interest in the future of extension and civic engagement here on campus, and in our communities. This project is giving us the opportunity to enter into a conversation that has been going on for decades. The work of Extension is ever changing, always adapting to new needs, and new constraints. A quick survey of the history of Extension in New York State reveals many moments of reflection and re-imagination. We are looking forward to bring new voices and perspectives to this extended conversation – enlivening and energizing our civic engagement work as we move deeper into the 21st century.


This update was written with input from Rod Howe and Monica Hargraves, the team leaders for the New York State Extension Reconsidered team. Keep updated about the NY Extension Reconsidered plans on their new website: Read more about the national initiative at or on the blog series and Twitter @ExtRecon.

On Loss: Contemplating the land grant mission in a changing landscape

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

By Kathryn Draeger, Statewide Director of the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, University of Minnesota Extension

[Note: This blog post originally appeared March 2013 on Kathy’s blog, A View from Here: Resettling Big Stone County Minnesota. It is posted here with permission.]

Glaciers gave way to mammoths
Who gave way to Clovis People
Who gave way to the Plains People and buffalo
Who gave way to immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany
Who are giving way to ___________

Image courtesy of Kathy's blog.

Image courtesy of Kathy’s blog.

With each turning there must have been great grief. Each marked an end—some terminal. Like the last mammoth that was felled. Elders recounting to their grandchildren how it was in their day, a time of abundant mammoths. There have been people on this very landscape for more than 10,000+ years. Their remains found and named Brown’s Valley Man and Minnesota Woman.

It is -20F this morning. That’s not counting the wind chill. And thankfully the wind is not blowing. It makes me wonder how our Dakota forebears and forerunners lived and thrived on this land before radiators/central heat.

I don’t know, but I imagine that the native people still living here live with the deep grief of seeing their world and culture give way. Prairies: gone. (News last week of another 1.3 million acres of marginal/prairie remnant plowed under between 2006-2011). Language and culture: disappearing. Hanging on through the good souls that take a stand to preserve and protect those traditions.

Uncle Mick, now in his late 80s, talks about how the many changes he saw in his lifetime brought more comfort and were welcomed. He moved to the Big Stone County farm (he still lives on) with his father, mother, and a couple of baby siblings in a horse drawn wagon. They went from farming with horses to tractors. The tractors went from metal wheels to rubber wheels, which were so much less jarring to the body and hurt so much less to ride on. Rural electricity came. A heater that wasn’t fueled by corn cobs. Running water. Pesticides helped save a wheat crop from being overrun with weeds.

Some of those changes were the result of Cooperative Extension and the land grant university. The land grant system was created by President Lincoln in 1862 and established in every state to conduct research (largely agricultural), educate all of the nation’s people, and provide outreach to bring practical knowledge and civic structure to every corner of our nation: think the University of Minnesota, 4-H, and county Cooperative Extension agents.

And so here we are in 2013. Granted, it is a bitterly cold February day when all the land is devoid of all relief and color. Blankets of white and brown. And too cold to do anything but huddle against the dangerous cold. So maybe my thoughts are also huddling as well.

But I have driven many hundreds of miles this week through western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas. I drive down the Main Streets. I stop along the way. I pray over these streets “Oh Lord, bless them.” Because they are dying. Some already dead.

And so I find myself staving off grief. The grief of the end of a short, hopeful period of our times: of land grant universities and agrarian populism. The end of a people ennobled and civil who once populated this landscape in numbers.

I am watching a culture and a way of life disappear. It was a heyday of the common man. Family farming in the age of enlightenment, science, faith, civility, and Lincoln’s land grant university idealism. It was as close to Thomas Jefferson’s dream of America come true, a dream where abundant

“…cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”  –Thomas Jefferson, 1785

Should we grieve each passing? The mammoths are gone, never to return. I, for one, miss them. I see their ghosts on this landscape. They would do well today at -20F grazing in the slough grass.

I am bearing witness to the passing of an agrarian country (a populism), the last remnants of which are disappearing. Like many recent cultures, it is not dead. It is being carried by the few who are still gathering at cafes for coffee at 3pm or 4pm, depending on what time your people had historically milked cows (every 12 hours).

I met this week with a group of men—idealists really—who are grieving over the loss of some of the soul of our land grant university. The land grant, an idea so burning and bright and pure and good that it inspires these men to tears even 150 years after its birth.

We have, all of us, benefited from what the land-grant universities brought to this nation, to the common man. My grandma read classic literature in Latin in a one room school house in Dodge County, Minnesota. Thanks to a country school teacher educated at a land-grant university.

This is what I see speeding by my car windows. This is what is keeping me awake on dark, life-threateningly cold Minnesota mornings. That this short run of immigrant farmers is over. It started in earnest in the 1870s, peaked in the 1920s, had its crisis in the 1980s, hung on until 2013, and now with each death of an elder is disappearing.

I remember, as a child, riding in the back of my parents’ car down dark country roads in Dodge County. Looking at the lit up barns as the farmers finished their milking. Farms dotted every 80 to 160 acres on those fertile southeast Minnesota soils. Those days are gone, most likely never to return.

And these men I met with, these men who believe so fervently in the land-grant mission and the dignity of Every Man, they want us (me) to stop these death throes. They want us/me/the University to provide not just solace and succor to a dying culture, but to revitalize and repurpose it. Take it back to what we remember as a thriving, vital, wholesome, and proud way of life.

But the landscape is dark this morning. There are almost no lights in the 360 degree horizon around my open prairie farm. I’m not sure that having a county Extension agent again in Big Stone County would be the answer. Then again, I’m not sure it wouldn’t be. And that is not even what they are asking for.  They are asking to have the ideal enlivened, acknowledged and known throughout the state—both in word and in deed.

I’m grateful to these men, though they play with fire (or more aptly dying embers). One, a lawyer, threatens to divorce the University of Minnesota from its land grant mantel. This is the highest insult he could seek to inflict upon a university that he believes is not living up to its land grant expectations. And my gut fear–the constricting in my chest brought on by his intent–is that no one would care… Because too few people know the ennobling history of the land grant university to even cause a ripple or a sting in the heart if it should be stripped away.

Am I nostalgic for a farming era that was hard, dirty, uncomfortable?  No.  I am nostalgic for a peopled landscape of independent family businesses (farms) every 160 acres that provided a culture of work, faith, family and education. All that—the realization of that past—was made possible in large part due to the land grant university that informed and educated people in every single corner of this state. Not just through a university education, but through its research and its outreach which was present as part of the fabric of rural communities. Minnesota’s land grant brought civic infrastructure, trained teachers and farmers, and placed agricultural specialists to every single county for the public and common good of ALL.

The quality of education and standard of living in Minnesota today isn’t  an outcome of any one action or event in our State. It was the natural impact and evolution of all those rural/farming/land-grant cultures combined. What a great recipe for success! And now we’ve lost a fair amount of the ingredients. Going. Going. Gone.

Gentlemen. Please drive to Big Stone County via the back roads. Stop on every Main Street and see what you find. Bring me your ideas, your hopes for what can sustain us in rural places and beyond ubiquitous family farms. Because they were here, they thrived, and are now nearly gone.


Kathryn Draeger is the statewide director of the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, a program of UMN Extension, and an adjunct professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.    Kathy and her family live and farm sustainably in rural Big Stone County, since 2007.  In 2012, Governor Dayton appointed her to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency board as the agricultural representative and vice chair.


Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen ( to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @ExtRecon on Twitter for blog updates.

Oregon State University Extension: Engaging Communities with Arts, Humanities and Design

Extension Reconsidered proudly announces OSU Extension Reconsidered: Engaging Communities in the Arts, Humanities & Design”, the second of 13 events planned across the country. Oregon State University’s day-long forum invites students, Extension educators, non-Extension faculty, and community partners to imagine how the arts, humanities and design fields can further contribute to OSU Extension’s community revitalization work throughout Oregon. It is scheduled for April 15, 2014.

Participants will get a taste of how group artistic expression and facilitated deliberation can be effective community building and problem solving tools. Scott Reed, OSU vice provost for university outreach and engagement, observes that:

“This centennial year of the Smith-Lever Act is a pivotal opportunity to examine the way Extension serves the values of American society. Spending a day together in this way will stretch our collective thinking about the role of arts in the quality of our lives and communities.”

In the morning, Imagining America’s Scott Peters will offer welcoming remarks and place the event in the context of the national Extension Reconsidered initiative. Then, the “arts deliberarium” session will be led by OSU’s delightful Marion Rossi, director of the School of Arts and Communication, associate professor of theater arts, and associate dean of the OSU College of Liberal Arts. The session will incorporate a series of interactive exercises intended to offer an example of an arts engagement experience and get participants thinking creatively as a group for the afternoon discussion.

The afternoon will feature a facilitated group deliberation on several pressing questions about the future of OSU Extension related to the arts. Mary Arnold, OSU Extension 4H educator and co-lead of the OSU Extension Reconsidered planning team, will lead the participants in a conversation that considers:

  1. What is the role of the arts, humanities and design in a vibrant community?
  2. How is OSU Extension currently engaged through the arts? What additional opportunities are there for OSU Extension in this area, and what would it take to make it happen?
  3. What would communities look like if OSU Extension was more engaged in communities in the areas of art, humanities and design?

This forum is part of a longer term conversation within the University about how OSU Extension and the OSU College of Liberal Arts can collaborate in the future for the benefit of Oregon communities and the University itself.

The event is by invitation only. More information about the Oregon event—including video introductions—is available at the OSU Extension website. The national Extension Reconsidered initiative is described in more detail at the website and blog series, and on Twitter @ExtRecon.