When we mark our time in years, it seems as inappropriately scaled as documenting nutrition in units of feasts. Normally we don’t sit down to a meal with several varieties of meats, three different vegetable dishes and salads, four starches, and a smorgasbord of deserts. But that’s what many families have done over this holiday season. Compared with a holiday feast, the cold lunch we take to work on a Monday morning seems like an insignificant morsel, hardly worth considering. Yet by Monday noon, that morsel seems pretty important and filling. And by Monday afternoon, having consumed that meager lunch, we’re able to focus on whatever is important in our work life instead of being distracted by a growling stomach.
At the end of a year, the work that has happened over the course of the year, the events we’ve experienced, the insights we’ve gained, and the goals we’ve achieved are as overwhelming in reflection as the lingering effects of a holiday feast at bedtime. Rather than struggle to document the fullness of 2013, I’d like to select three memories that characterize the year for me. And just as memories of a delicious ham or those homemade noodles promise some fantastic meal creations from leftovers, these three memories give me reason to anticipate some outstanding opportunities for Michigan State University Extension in the New Year.
So among all that happened in 2013, I’d like to highlight these three events:
What’s Now? What’s Next? Dean Fred Poston decided early on in his second tenure as Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), that it would be beneficial for the college and for our stakeholders to hold a series of town hall events around the state. As he opened each of the 13 sessions we held, he explained that having come through a tough time of budget reductions, restructuring and leadership changes, it was important for the college leaders to reconnect with people across the state who care about the role of the CANR in Michigan’s future. Dean Poston asked Senior Associate Dean and Director of MSU AgBioResearch Doug Buhler, CANR Associate Dean Kelly Millenbah, and me, as Director of MSU Extension to join him on a panel that would respond to questions and suggestions from people who attended these sessions.
There’s a great deal for us to learn from the What’s Now? What’s Next? (WNWN) sessions, and I’m sure Dean Poston will be communicating some of those insights in the new year. For me, the most striking message from these sessions was the simple fact that they happened. In MSU Extension, we’re accustomed to the idea that university leaders should be engaged with the public and seek out public thoughts on our mission and how we carry out our mission. And in the CANR, that’s a common understanding as well. Yet at each event, participants consistently voiced their gratitude that we cared enough about what they thought to ask them to meet with us and to share their thoughts, frustrations, and appreciation for the work of MSU and the CANR. When you hear people express gratitude for showing them respect, it’s clear to me that they haven’t always felt that respect from us. It also tells me that they acknowledge that this isn’t something that they expect to experience from other institutions of higher education in the state.
For the year 2014, the lesson of WNWN is that we must continue to engage with the people we serve, asking for their thoughts on needs and priorities, and sharing with them how we’ve succeeded and how we may have fallen short in our expectations. One way that we will show respect to the people we serve is by asking them to celebrate the Centennial of the Smith-Lever Act by sharing their stories with us, stories that tell of their lives, challenges and successes, and in their telling, shed some light on MSU Extension as well.
2. 21st Century Extension Professional. During Fall Extension Conference, we were fortunate to hear from Dr. Chuck Hibberd, Dean of Extension at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who described a study he led on what skills and attributes will be needed for effective Cooperative Extension Professionals in the 21st Century. I know some of the participants in the conference thought we had erred by asking Dr. Hibberd to address the full conference, reasoning that most people are NOT involved in selecting candidates for open positions. But the lessons of the study go well beyond decisions we make about whom to hire, and extend to include our current colleagues. It is as helpful to ask the question “how well do our skill sets match these needs today” as it is to ask how we can recruit new employees with those skills.
For me, the greatest insight from the 21st Century Extension Professional study was in reflecting on what makes an Extension professional unique. When you take all of the skills and attributes that were identified as being of greatest importance in the study, I still think you can summarize them in two traits of Extension professionals that I admire and that motivate me every day: First, effective Extension professionals are innately curious, motivated to learn more about anything they encounter, and especially those topics related to their area of expertise. Their curiosity positions them well to remain up to date in their subject, and to incorporate new scientific findings as they develop. Second, effective Extension professionals are compelled to teach. There is an inner desire among Extension professionals to explain things to people. Put them in a group where someone asks a question, and an Extension professional will be quick to offer an explanation or to engage someone in the group who has insights into the question to get their explanation out for all to learn.
In looking ahead for 2014, one of our great opportunities will be to ask how we can better serve our staff and faculty with professional development opportunities that will stretch their skill sets, increase their effectiveness, and ultimately feed those twin motivations of curiosity and pedagogy that help each of us to succeed.
3. An honoring ceremony for retired Congressman Dale Kildee. Following the closing session of Fall Extension Conference in October, I drove to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, where I had been invited to attend a ceremony held by the United Tribes of Michigan (UTM). The previous night we had honored Frank Ettawageshik, Executive Director of UTM with the prestigious Friend of Extension award from the Michigan Alpha Psi Chapter of Epsilon Sigma Phi in recognition of Frank’s support for our Building Strong Sovereign Nations program, and his leadership on the board of the Great Lakes Leadership Academy.
At the honoring ceremony in Mt. Pleasant, Frank was the first of many tribal leaders from Michigan who spoke of the contributions of Congressman Kildee on behalf of the sovereign rights of tribal members. Congressman Kildee became known in the Michigan Legislature and in the U.S. Congress as an expert and advocate for the rights of American Indian tribes within Michigan and the United States. It was a moving event to hear so many tribal leaders speak of his importance to the advances made in governance and economic development in Michigan’s tribes over the past 37 years.
What struck me most that night was to hear each leader speak to the value of the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver (MITW), a right established by legislation then-Michigan House member Kildee framed in the 1970’s and then led its passage in 1976. The MITW is “a program enacted by Public Act 174 of 1976, which waives the tuition costs for eligible Native Americans in public community colleges or universities within Michigan.” Based on the high percentage of leaders in the ceremony who had used this benefit to achieve their own higher education goals, and given the success of tribal governments in creating new economic opportunities in their communities over the past 37 years, it seems clear that this single act of legislation has contributed greatly to enhanced prosperity for tribal members in Michigan.
I witnessed further evidence of tribal growth and transformation in a conference held in East Lansing in March, titled “A conversation about Michigan Indian Education and Michigan State University.” Several of our MSU Extension colleagues participated in this conference, including Emily Proctor, Barb Smutek, and Dionardo Pizaña. Many of the participants in this conference were from a younger generation than those involved in the honoring ceremony for Congressman Kildee. Yet the impact of educational opportunity on the development of leadership among tribal communities was powerfully evident in the conversations that ensued at the conference.
Our popular culture sends mixed messages about the traditions and future of the descendants of North America’s native peoples. It’s difficult to find the positive outlook and promising future in our media that these two events showcased for me. If you ever need a strong dose of hope for humanity and our country’s future, connecting with leaders in Michigan’s tribal communities will give you all you need.
For 2014, we have some great opportunities to build on programming that Emily, Barb, Dionardo, and other MSU Extension colleagues have pioneered with Michigan’s tribal communities. Whether it is the workshops these three led on doing the work of Extension in tribal communities (they promise more in 2014), or programming partnerships with tribal governments in health and nutrition, tribal governance, and community food systems, we have tremendous opportunities to contribute further to the growth and development of Michigan’s tribal communities. And as we build on these opportunities, we will also challenge ourselves to address needs in other ethnically- and racially-distinct communities that have not been served as well by public institutions in the past. That challenge builds on the themes that have emerged from the What’s Now? What’s Next? town hall meetings and gives us tremendous opportunities to grow into the skills we all need to be effective Extension professionals in the 21st Century.