To find an answer, ask a question. And then take time to listen.
That is exactly what Iowa State University Extension and Outreach did in 2014, calling upon both potential constituents and long-time partners to gain their perspectives firsthand about how to best serve the needs of Iowans.
“In March we held a special forum with young Iowans ages 18 to 35. We asked them to share their views and visions of the future, as well as how Iowa State University could contribute to that future,” said Cathann Kress, vice president for ISU Extension and Outreach.
From May through November, ISU Extension and Outreach met with key partners in West Pottawattamie, Kossuth, Warren, Dubuque and Linn counties.
“We were seeking their perspectives and their advice, to learn about program needs and ways ISU Extension and Outreach can partner with them to address those needs,” Kress said.
Both endeavors were part of a long arc of strategic planning, needs assessment and continuing efforts to engage more Iowans in ISU Extension and Outreach education.
Young Iowans Speak
“Extension’s Next 100 Years: Young Iowans Speak” was the first in a series of “Extension Reconsidered” forums held throughout the United States to mark the centennial of the signing of the Smith-Lever Act, the federal legislation that created the Cooperative Extension Service. Thirteen land-grant universities and partnering organizations have been bringing people together to constructively and critically consider the future of extension work in this country.
The Iowa forum received support from the Kettering Foundation, which works primarily through joint learning exchanges focused on solving problems that all participants have a stake in addressing. (Read the report.)
“The young Iowans saw three roles for Iowa State University — the entire university, not just units labeled extension or outreach,” said Gary Taylor, an associate professor and extension specialist in community and regional planning who was part of the research team that led the forum.
“First, they believe Iowa State University should be a life-long partner for retooling, reinvention and reawakening. Second, they believe Iowa State should act as a resource to society. Finally, they want Iowa State to engage as a co-learner with citizens,” Taylor said.
The young Iowans used the terms navigator, facilitator and pollinator to describe ISU Extension and Outreach acting in partnership with people to build and negotiate relationships across the broader university, Taylor explained.
“They said ISU Extension and Outreach can help them find their ‘true north’ as they seek personal and professional satisfaction and success for their communities,” Taylor said.
During the forum, art students from the ISU College of Design made conceptual drawings of the ideas that came from the group’s discussions, and shared their drawings with the group for feedback. The students created a mural from these drawings, depicting themes of community, cooperation, inclusion and transformation.
In addition, the forum was videotaped, audiotaped and transcribed. Afterward the research team reviewed the transcripts, coded the data and looked for themes. The team is sharing its report with the forum participants so they can check the accuracy of the research from their participant perspective.
“We’ll be bringing these young Iowans back together sometime in spring 2015, as well as conducting more extensive research about how to best interact with and serve young Iowans,” Taylor said.
“Extension and Outreach conducted town hall meetings in 2012 to get feedback from the public. In 2014, we focused on our partners – hearing their perspectives, learning where we can improve and exploring opportunities for collaboration,” said Cathann Kress, vice president for ISU Extension and Outreach.
Sessions were held in Council Bluffs, Algona, Indianola, Dubuque and Cedar Rapids over the past several months. Participants included rural economic development groups; community college presidents; Councils of Governments; representatives from K-12 schools, public health and local nonprofit organizations; and other community leaders.
“We wanted to find out what first attracted these people to engage with Extension and Outreach, and what keeps them coming back,” Kress said.
Each group discussed local concerns related to Iowa’s changing demographics, Kress said. She noted that 33 Iowa counties are growing in population or holding their own, while 66 are declining. This also affects Iowa school demographics: the majority of Iowa’s young people are clustered in eight counties. Young and minority populations also are increasing significantly.
Kress suggested that Iowa’s shift toward a more urban population has created a climate in which rural residents feel they’ve lost their voice, potentially creating an adversarial relationship between rural and urban areas. She believes that Iowa has a unique environment with multiple small to mid-sized communities that have served as anchors with a sense of community and connection.
“We must support these anchor communities by collecting data based on indicators that impact quality of life, with ISU Extension and Outreach serving as the source for these data. We need to help the anchors build their capabilities to serve the larger rural areas around them,” Kress said.