Stories captured in book reveal essence of urban extension education

The 17 Penn State Extension educators serving Philadelphia whose stories are told in a new book, “Growing Community: A Penn State Extension Story,” which provides a window into the world of extension education in urban settings.

Image: Penn State

— Many people think of the nation’s Cooperative Extension System as relevant only for rural, agricultural areas. But extension organizations, which are administered by land-grant universities such as Penn State, are committed to serving all citizens and communities in their respective states — including the biggest cities.

The unique challenges and rewards of conducting extension programs in the sixth largest city in the United States, Philadelphia, are captured in a new book written by researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Using a storytelling approach that reveals the backgrounds, experiences and aspirations of Penn State Extension educators and staff, “Growing Community: A Penn State Extension Story” provides a window into the world of extension education in urban settings.

The stories chronicle the efforts of educators working across all program areas offered by Penn State Extension in Philadelphia, including nutrition and food safety, environmental health, urban agriculture, Master Gardener, economic and community development, horticulture, and 4-H youth development.

“We sought to document what extension work is, how these educators came to it, why it’s important to them and how they view the significance of that work,” said co-author Theodore Alter, professor of agricultural, environmental and regional economics and co-director of Penn State’s Center for Economic and Community Development.

“Extension’s work with urban communities is a great opportunity, particularly in relation to critical issues like environmental quality, food security, integrated pest management, human health, food and nutrition, and racial justice and inequality,” said Alter, a former director of Penn State Extension. “We’ve made significant contributions, but the full promise of that work is unfulfilled. We need to tell that story.”

While researching the book, the authors interviewed 17 then-current educators and staff working at the Penn State Extension office in Philadelphia. The interviews were designed to elicit information about how these educators approach their work, how their personal and professional backgrounds influence who they are and how they work today, how they view their and Penn State Extension’s roles in the community, how they navigate challenges, what they think about the meaning of their work, and what drives them.

These interviews were transcribed, lightly edited to maintain the subjects’ “voices,” and presented as 17 “practitioner profiles” — stories of personal and professional life related to Penn State Extension’s work in Philadelphia.

“Our personal stories impact the way we do our jobs and live our lives, but we don’t always acknowledge them — especially in a professional setting,” said co-author Madison Miller, former research associate in the Center for Economic and Community Development who now is a program coordinator for the Share Your Opioid Story project at Penn State Abington. “Individual stories can bring people together to reach common understanding about core aspects of the work — how it can grow and what the challenges are.”

To identify these shared themes, the authors performed a meta-analysis of the stories, which revealed several behaviors common to these educators. The analysis indicated that in developing and conducting programs, staff members share practical knowledge, build relationships, work persistently through challenges, create opportunities for learning and connecting, and collaborate in commitment to Philadelphia.

The analysis also suggested that the educators shared six common values, or “ways of working,” that guide them. They strive, the authors noted, to respect the dignity of people; to co-create with the community; to collaborate internally; to collaborate externally as city conveners; to navigate tensions thoughtfully; and to learn continuously.

Despite the common threads running through the individual stories, “this book is not intended to be a definitive, how-to guidebook that tells people how to do their jobs,” said co-author Alyssa Gurklis, program and project coordinator in the Center for Economic and Community Development. “Rather, we hope to spark a conversation that helps people reflect on their own stories and how the experiences of others can influence how they approach their own work, regardless of the setting.”

Alter said the stories and analysis also may prompt extension professionals and others to examine their own roles and status as “experts” in relation to the knowledge and understanding of others.

“We hope the book illustrates the notion that extension work, done with and for people, is grounded in what has been called ‘democratic professionalism’ — carrying out one’s professional responsibilities democratically, regardless of technical discipline or expertise,” he said. “From this perspective, extension work is about supporting the development of individual and collective capacity, community building, and democracy.”

“Growing Community: A Penn State Extension Story” is an 8.5-by-11-inch, softcover, perfect-bound volume with color images. The publication is available from Penn State Extension for $75, plus shipping. Orders can be placed on the Penn State Extension website, or by calling toll free 877-345-0691.

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