Behind the scenes of a team: District 8 strategic connections

This month we’re highlighting the strategic connections that Michigan State University (MSU) Extension educator Randy Bell grows and maintains in District 8.

Headshot of Randy Bell.

Randy Bell, MSU Extension educator, Greening Michigan Institute.

“Randy has been innovative in his programming,” district coordinator Don Lehman said. “He has built partnerships in the region that have resulted in programs that benefit individuals and organizations. He is a mentor to people within and outside of the MSU community.”

Randy has been with MSU Extension for 26 years and is a member of the community food systems team. His work builds on community and economic development practices, and he works to increase the economic impact of local and regional food in the greater Lansing area. Randy interacts with people working all along the food value chain, from producers and processors to wholesale and retail sales operations, all the way to the final consumer.

Many organizations and individuals in the Lansing area focus on foods, including the urban neighborhood centers, food bank, YMCA, land bank, food co-op and county health department. Along with MSU, all of these groups provide programming to increase food access, food quality, increased nutrition, urban gardening, food equity/justice, obesity prevention, improved child nutrition and more. Randy works with these groups to provide programming through relationships.

Volunteers put together survival kits of food for teh Weekend Survival Kit program.

Ingham County MSU Extension provides backbone support functions for a consortium of 5 community partners. In the 2015-2016 school year, the Weekend Survival Kit program provided over 10,000 free kits of supplemental, kid-friendly food to 7 elementary schools. Photo credit: Randy Bell.

Volunteers pose with bins filled with the completed survival kits.

These kits provided an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 meals to food insecure Lansing schoolchildren to eat on weekends and school holidays when they are unable to access the school breakfast and lunch meals. Photo credit: Randy Bell.

Many of these initiatives are funded by local, state and federal funds. Because of their funding, many of these organizations spend a lot of time on grant compliance, reporting and describing the actual performance of their funded projects, which can be heavily time-consuming. What remains of their time and energy can be used for collaborative programming, but someone needs to build and nurture relationships, provide cross-organization communication, offer grants information and other services of value to manage partnerships and cross-organizational programming. Randy has the ability to provide all of these services.

“To use a sports metaphor, I’m like a professional team’s general manager,” Randy said. “I’m never out front, but behind the scenes I am bringing together the right combination of team members to ensure a winning team. In order to do that, I have to know the capacity of each, their ability to perform and how they are best motivated.”

Over his career, Randy has seen the effects of his collaboration with community partners. One success has been Randy’s ability to host paid and unpaid MSU student interns who help with community initiatives. Other indicators of these successful collaborations can be seen across the Lansing area.

“We have planning and zoning master plans and ordinances that encourage, not discourage, small-scale agriculture.” Randy said. “We also have innovative food retail, reduced child hunger, policy and systems change for improved health and reduced chronic disease, diminished urban blight and youth who are engaged in their food system. We are a community working together to help provide an environment where one’s basic needs are met.”

Through his work building strategic connections and helping organizations and community members come together, Randy has experienced the power of collaboration.

“At the risk of sounding corny, there is more power in ‘we’ than there is in ‘me,’” Randy said. “Many of the challenges our communities face, especially our urban communities, seem so enormous and possibly insurmountable. No one person or organization has the ability to solve them all. But together we can and do!”

What are the organizations and individuals in your area that provide similar programming? What are some ways you could engage with them to build programs together that meet community needs?

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