Networks of agents organizing
Planning Project Goal: Construct a learning and synthesis cycle with local networks of rural agents (especially from Extension and NGOs) catalyzing collaborative, sustainable enterprises.
Project Abstract: Collaborative, sustainable enterprises are absolutely required for rural communities and farm families to solve the chronic rural crisis. In the most intense agricultural areas of rural America, a few such collaborative enterprises have emerged. Wherever they emerge, their effects on policy and economic opportunity are usually profound. Nearly always crucial to their emergence and continuity are rural organizers, agents or facilitators. Extension services, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other agencies have experienced staff located throughout middle America. Some of the most dedicated have been successful at catalyzing new policy and business collaborations, but nearly always in the face of institutional opposition or apathy. Successful agents have called on a variety of methods of organizing and facilitation. None of these methods has a complete solution, but each has part of the answer. We propose an eight-month effort to flesh out a systematic learning partnership between these disparate approaches and agencies. This partnership is our hope to inspire and equip a new generation of rural organizers to catalyze rural communities’ creation of ecologically sound and resilient enterprises.
This planning/design effort will first explore and raise the profile of successful rural facilitation efforts within and adjacent to participating agencies. Both institutional and local network commitment will be solidified in at least five local areas. Successful facilitators and organizers and their administrators from these areas will then gather to explore their experiences in: benchmarks in formation of lasting collaborative rural enterprises, skills needed to achieve those benchmarks, and learning events which develop those skills. The resulting consensus and alternative visions regarding these three aspects will then become a target for ground-truthing. Administrative participants will take this conceptualization back to their organizations to determine it’s fit with future training and program decisions. Local network participants will widen their networks to include all amenable agencies. In the final stage of this planning project, those seeing potential for synthesis will become a unique symbiosis. This “NGO/Extension” symbiosis will feature a trans-agency learning cycle of cross-fertilization, hybridization and reciprocal facilitation among local networks catalyzing collaborative, sustainable rural enterprise. This symbiosis will begin the process of creating a new generation of organizers who facilitate new collaborative enterprises while they infect and transform institutions and agencies throughout rural America.
Acute need to catalyze collaborative rural enterprise
Rural America has moved from occasional crises to recurrent crises to chronic crisis. Family farmers, rural communities and their ecosystems are spiraling through a polarized chaos. Most farmers in the rural heartland of America see their neighbors, environmentalists and the consumer as their competition and their enemy. These assumptions prop up our system of least-cost raw commodity production and obscure the fact that:
Our competition is in an office on Wall Street or Kansas City. He is motivated by the bottom line only and what he can return to his shareholders. He gives not a thought to rural America and our way of life here. We must realize before its too late that our neighbors, farmers and small town dwellers, are not our competition but our allies.
A state extension administrator stated the importance of uniting these allies in 1916:
“It is recognized that the county agent must be able to do more than give out technical information. He must be a leader and organizer in order that people may be brought together and enlisted in an active way in the various movements . . .” When extension was being established, organizing farmers was often the first job of the extension agent. The first agent in Adams County, Iowa, for example, was expected to organize farmer cooperatives. Without a commitment to such help in marketing, Adams County farmers would not have let the agent in. The Missouri Lieutenant Governor recently reflected what many policymakers are thinking: “We need an extension service like we had when I was growing up in Audrain County.” The Legislature in Kentucky has codified this wish by directing Extension to play the lead role in facilitating value-added diversification.
Largely through trial and error, a few rural agents have successfully facilitated such enterprises. Many rural agents (whether in Extension or other organizations) have the technical expertise and, often, personal networks to facilitate organization for change in our political economy. However, the few individuals organizing collaborative enterprises have operated alone with minimal, if any, institutional support. What’s been lacking is a high profile effort which places organizing collective enterprises at the top of the agenda of major institutions and agents in the field. Such an initiative could provide an organizing principle to enhance and integrate sustainable agriculture, value-added and agribusiness efforts, community development, entrepreneurial training and many facilitation and rural organizing programs.
Revitalized rural agencies, operating once again as a catalyst for organizing rural people, could be exciting and tremendously valuable tools for addressing an array of complex problems and opportunities. The county agent could once again have the exciting job in rural America-on the cutting edge of the needed transformation of American food and natural resource systems.
Just such an effort was made in Australia in response to the rural crisis in the 1980s. One university (Hawkesbury) led the way and all major universities have followed. Facilitators and organizers have swept through all aspects of Australian agriculture: conservation, marketing, value-added organizing, research organization, new crops. Nearly every rural Australian has been touched-for example, over 50% of farmers are now members of facilitated Landcare groups.
Methods of rural organizing. To be successful at rural organizing or facilitating, you have to have faith in rural peoples’ abilities and faith in your own ideas. Unfortunately, the latter faith often becomes a blind allegiance to a particular method of organizing or development. Such faith persists since unequivocal controlled tests of such methods are so difficult and the competitive, “argument culture” of academia pits one method against another.
On the other hand, some of the most successful on-the-ground coordinators of sustainable rural development efforts don’t believe any particular theory will ever be sufficient to understand how to organize ecologically sound food systems. The plethora of organizing and facilitating methods all have value, but none have the answer. Classic facilitation, classic organizing, community development, rural entrepreneurial training all seek to help organize collaborative groups of people in rural areas. Each has much to offer; each has limitations. Classic organizing has been very successful in civil rights, labor and some environmental organizing. Community development efforts have been successful at gaining participation from whole communities. Classic facilitation efforts have been successful at conflict resolution and consensus-building. None of these three have been successful in enterprise creation. Entrepreneurial training has been successful at team-building for specific enterprises, but often the resulting enterprises have been detrimental to environmental and community values (Hendricksen & Heffernan, 2000).
The limitations of the various approaches have resulted in attempts to synthesize an approach combining the most effective techniques from each. Patrie (1998) developed a set of rules for “new generation organizing” to make Saul Alinsky’s rules of organizing (Alinsky, 1969) more compatible with organizing new generation cooperatives.
In practice, the most successful organizers and facilitators draw from every approach they can find and create their own unique approaches to match their personalities, places and times. What has been in short supply is the combination of expertise in ecologically-sound agricultural systems and openness to various methods of learning, organizing and facilitating.
Uniting social psychology and agricultural science. Many agricultural professionals seem to agree with the Tennessee agent at a DEN workshop who decried psychology research as “studying rats running around in mazes.” Agents have focused on production, while the large corporations have used social psychological techniques to help them control that production. If we want to help small family farms survive, we need a new generation of rural agents who unite skills in group dynamics with their knowledge of agricultural systems.
Successful agent-facilitators largely agree on a broad set of skills most needed to help rural agents become adept at stimulating community enterprise (case studies here). However, each successful agent develops her own unique approach. The myriad workshops and “training” programs on these skills have failed to broadly engage rural agents. We have designed a participatory learning cycle which begins with the unique group skills all successful agents have evolved.
The ultimate goal of this project is to transform rural areas through ecologically-sound, community-based, collaborative enterprises. This planning project will design a multi-institution learning system through which agents can develop their talents for achieving that goal. Several agencies in the center of America have begun the process of equipping a corps of rural agents to organize rural America for policy and economic change. However, historic competition and even animosity between agencies (especially NGOs and LGUs) threatens to limit the potential for collaborative rural enterprise creation. We propose to establish a partnership between these agencies which is a safe haven for frank exploration of the limitations of each approach and the possibilities for synthesis between approaches. Our evolving learning partnership will continually recruit other agencies to form a growing network which systematically tests alternatives, generates innovation and creates new syntheses of attitudes and skills for collaborative enterprise.
The core of the partnership will be local networks of agents. As Senge observed after ten years of teaching his five disciplines, learning organizations arise not from authority but from the infectious enthusiasm of individual units within the organization. We see the basic unit of change in rural America as local networks of rural agents who can mentor and backstop each others’ facilitation and organizing efforts.
Each of the participating organizations has a commitment to the goal of organizing rural people and communities for rural enterprise. A long-term goal of our efforts is to unite the various organizing and facilitation approaches in a new synthesis designed to create a new generation of organizers.
We are convinced this effort could lead to a transformation of Extension and NGO activities across the country. To insure the widest possible reach of the project, we are proposing to begin the work with a participatory planning phase to insure participation of all amenable agencies in our region.
Objectives of the preparatory phase
1. Energize participation from key Extension and NGO organizing perspectives.
2. Establish consensus and alternative visions of
-benchmarks which occur as a group evolves into an enterprise
-skills needed to reach these benchmarks
-learning experiences needed to achieve these skills.
3. Design a multi-institution action learning system which cross-fertilizes perspectives, stimulates innovative synthesis and encourages the creative tension required for both.
Fit of project to systems for developing good rural agents. Every state extension service has an extensive plan for training and mentoring based on the long experience of extension leadership in that state. Kentucky’s approach, as developed by Curtis Absher and his colleagues, is included here to show how facilitation and organizing can be a natural outgrowth of existing extension activities. As the accompanying diagram shows, this model can be represented as a wheel with six spokes: Service, Council, Accountability, Education, Leadership and Collaboration, which are developed in roughly that order, though by no means in lock-step fashion.
At the center, axis or axle of this is the good agent’s high levels of integrity and self-confidence. Based on those character traits, the agent becomes adept at answering the questions which are addressed to his office (service spoke). A second spoke to develop is the agent’s council/counsel. The agent must find a group of advisors to become his local extension council and to serve as counsel as he seeks to become a better agent. This council/counsel is later complemented by development of independent leadership for improvement of agricultural systems in his county. The third spoke is accountability. Agents must see themselves as accountable for their extension programs. Later, this spoke is complemented by a collaboration spoke when the agent becomes more a collaborator with county residents to improve agricultural systems, rather than as the personally accountable source of improvement. The service spoke is complemented by an education spoke.
Each spoke of the wheel must be in balance or the county extension system runs rough. A smoothly running extension wheel, in this model, becomes a facilitator and organizer of sustainable, resilient and continuously improving agricultural systems. The Kentucky system for developing excellent agents is now confronted with the challenge of new responsibilities which emphasize organizing new community-based enterprises.
The Kentucky Legislature in the 2000 session assigned Extension the task of facilitating new agricultural marketing and value-added opportunities in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties. Other states may not have as explicit a legislative directive, but many have implicit legislative encouragement and even more have an independent desire to assist farmers in establishing alternative agricultural marketing and processing ventures.
Constraints on rural agents in Extension and other large organizations. Any large, traditional bureaucracy will experience growing pains while undertaking such a new task. We have sought input through discussions, presentations and formal focus groups with Extension agents in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky and Arkansas. The aim of these sessions was to determine rural agents’ perspective on constraints on the progress of Extension agents toward being successful organizers of collaborative rural enterprises.
As a session with agents in Western Kentucky concluded: “agents have to lose their egos.” At another discussion about the project with agents in Arkansas, participants concluded that the key question for inclusion in the project should be: Do you know the complete answer on how to organize rural enterprise? Anyone who said yes would reveal theyhave too much ego or not enough experience in organizing to contribute much to the project.
We conducted formal focus groups in Missouri and Kentucky to elicit response of agents to the concept of “agents becoming facilitators of collaborative rural enterprise.” Participants were asked to generate constraints, interventions and expected results. Results were remarkable similar. Participants in the Missouri group organized the following summary chart.
|Summary results of a focus group
Topic: agents becoming facilitators of collaborative rural enterprise
|Constraints identified||learning intervention recommended||Resulting change conducive to increased organizing|
|Lack of administrative commitment, especially in middle management||Develop farmer value-added groups which influence councils and administrators||Perceived need by administrators for value-added innovation will increase.|
|Mix up peck order in inter-state/-region sessions; agents and managers learn together||Increased communication and learning between managers and agents.|
|County councils want agents to follow their agendas.||Agents learn group dynamics and apply to a council.||County councils become more open to innovation.|
|Agents want to build monuments in their counties.||Learning events, which help agents lose their egos.||Agents see most effective solutions are beyond traditional boundaries.|
|Agents aren’t risk-takers/ don’t have entrepreneurial spirit.||Events which create chaos and keep the pot boiling||Reinvention of Extension
A pilot learning effort as an example for other states.
|Events which sanction mavericks and encourage agents to develop own unique approaches|
Input from these focus groups and input sessions has been incorporated in this proposal as seen in the activities and evaluation sections below.
We believe that the most lasting institutional change comes when both external motivation (often from NGOs) and internal commitment can unite. For this reason, and because NGOs and government agencies have complementary approaches to organizing and facilitating, our project is attracting a mix of non-profits, Extension services and other agencies.
Initial contributors to the development of the project (University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, Kentucky State University, University of Missouri Outreach and Extension and University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Delta Land & Community) have been joined by individuals from a number of other agencies listed below.
University of Missouri Outreach and Extension has made a major commitment to catalyze collective enterprises by instituting the Ag Business Counselor program, which also partners with the state Department of Agriculture, the Small Business Development Centers across the state, Missouri Enterprise (the Department of Commerce-funded network of state manufacturing assistance affiliates), and the state Department of Economic Development. This program recruited regional Extension specialists from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Outreach and Extension administrators have provided significant release time for participating staff to devote to facilitating new collaborative enterprises. The College of Agriculture Dean has also expressed willingness to promote the project among his colleagues at other land grant universities in the South and Midwest.
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service is currently devoting significant resources to “coach” local communities and farmer groups seeking to establish new enterprises as a means of diversifying a tobacco-based rural economy. University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture Dean supports the project and feels Extension agents must transition from being “experts in technical production to being facilitators of change.”
Delta Land & Community (an NGO based in Arkansas with activities in several countries) was formed in 1995 specifically to catalyze collaborative, sustainable rural enterprise. DLC staff have facilitated a number of successful value-added cooperatives, policy efforts and other innovative rural enterprises. DLC has played a coordinating role for this project through its Delta Enterprise Network (DEN). DEN mentors and assists agents in facilitating collaborative enterprises. This has involved supplementing operating and travel funds and helping agents obtain institutional support for their enterprise facilitation work. DEN holds an annual conference to publicize enterprise opportunities and stimulate policy collaboration and regular training workshops to develop agents’ skills. Attendance at the conference has expanded well beyond the originally targeted Delta region. The acronym DEN is still appropriate since DEN provides a safe setting, beyond local power structures, where those interested in collaborative rural enterprise can find resources and inspiration.
Kentucky State University and University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff are dedicated to helping small farmers in their states create new collaborative enterprises. Each has generously provided staff to assist in development of this project.
The Dean of Kentucky State University’s Dean of Agriculture contends, “This project is exactly what Extension should be doing.”
Individuals from a number of other organizations committed to participating in development of the project include: University of Tennessee Extension, University of Arkansas Extension, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Commodity Growers Cooperative, Partners for Family Farms, Community Farm Alliance, Center for Sustainable Systems, Mississippians Engaged in a Greener Agriculture (MEGA), University of Illinois Extension, Southern Illinois University, USDA/Rural Development (Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee), USDA/NRCS (Missouri), Missouri Department of Agriculture, Kentucky Department of Agriculture and Community Alliances for Interdependent AgriCulture (CAIA). In fact, every organization we’ve contacted has expressed interest in participating to improve their abilities to facilitate collaborative enterprises. Limiting the project to make it manageable has been a challenge due to the widespread interest across the country. The concentration of the project initially will be in the most intensive areas of American agriculture in the center of the United States.
Planning Project Activities:
Activities which will be performed to meet the project objectives are:
A. Identify 250 potential collaborators in the region in each of the major types of facilitation/organizing.
B. Interview, develop profiles and recruit active facilitators of collaborative enterprises to serve as regional resources.
C. Communication and meetings with administrators to secure institutional commitment to the synthesis and change process.
D. State workshops to identify, expand and solidify local networks.
E. Convene a highly interactive regional conference of resource people in each of the major facilitation/organizing approaches with collaborators from states.
F. A representative construct group will take the output of conference participants and establish where both consensus and alternative hypotheses exist regarding benchmarks, skills and learning experiences.
G. Conference participants will explore the consensus in light of state needs. Locally-appropriate training plans will be developed according to each agency’s procedures.
H. A final workshop of planning team will be held to design a multi-institution learning system which cross-fertilizes perspectives, stimulates innovative synthesis and encourages the creative tension required for both.
Details of activities
We will accomplish the first objective and activity by first accessing potential participants from networks of all participating agencies and individuals. We will begin in Missouri and Kentucky and continue to adjacent states until we reach a critical mass of 250 successful facilitators and organizers who share the projects’ basic assumption: many approaches to facilitation and organizing have much to offer, but none provides a complete set of skills and techniques for collaborative, sustainable rural enterprise development.
The project planning team will select the most effective of these for profiles. (See this link for examples of such profiles). The interviews for the profiles will be accomplished by pairs from the planning team. These visits will serve to both interest the most enthusiastic potential partners and provide basic data to improve project outcomes.
State workshops will be held where interest is highest and will be organized in conjunction with state extension staff and NGO staff. These workshops will have two goals: stimulate cohesiveness and diversity in local networks and generate a participatory self-selection process for determining level of involvement in the project-especially whether local networks participate in the project as learning laboratories.
The local network members, along with their administrators will be invited to a regional conference to explore the major approaches to organizing/facilitation. The regional conference will be organized in conjunction with the annual Entrepreneurial Agriculture conference organized by DEN every year since 1997.
A “construct group” will be formed by the planning team from participants in the conference to take the output of conference participants and establish where both consensus and alternative hypotheses exist regarding benchmarks, skills and learning experiences. These construct group techniques have been used in planning projects for NGOs (e.g., in Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama), for Extension (e.g., in Kentucky, Florida and Missouri) and for various USDA/ARS and USDA/SARE planning activities.
Participants will take this conceptualization back to their organizations to inform future training and learning decisions. Conference participants will explore the consensus in light of state needs. As state and local training plans are developed according to each agency’s procedures, project participants will place them in the context of the consensus and alternative hypotheses established regionally.
In the final planning activity, those seeing potential for synthesis among various approaches will be invited to come together again. These project partners will then create a collective learning cycle of cross-fertilization, hybridization and reciprocal facilitation among NGOs, Extension and others catalyzing collaborative, sustainable rural enterprise.
The design will include at least five local networks in at least three states. Each network will include several agents from multiple agencies all working to help create collaborative, sustainable rural enterprises. Each local network will also provide a representative to synthesis meetings three times a year to reexamine the consensus from past sessions and see where new possibilities for new syntheses lie. Administrators and state specialists will also attend to “mix up the peck order.”
The project design will also include exploration of the need and feasibility of institutionalization of the process for training a new generation of entrepreneur trainers or agent/organizers. Various possible forms this could take include: “certification”, undergraduate or graduate curriculum reform, a professional society, and a new generation cooperative to expand the cycle of synthesis to more agencies.
The following chart unites our objectives and activities with the evaluation criteria we will use as well as a time line for completion of each of the stages of the project. We believe strongly that planning and evaluation should be integrated, so the project planning team will incorporate evaluation of each phase as we make final plans for the next phase. We will also invite an experienced facilitator from outside the region to observe and evaluate each of the major events of the project to insure our evaluation remains objective.
In sum, the activities of this project combine a carefully designed planning procedure with the embrace of the wide diversity of organizations and approaches to collaborative rural enterprise development. This unique combination should enable emergence of new approaches to assist all our agencies in addressing our burgeoning rural crisis.
VII. Evaluation Plan and Time Line for planning project
|Objective||Month||Activities||Measurement of Activity||Measurement of Outcome|
|1. Energize participation from key Extension and NGO organizing perspectives.|
|1.1 Increase awareness.||1||A.||Facilitators/organizer database||250 “agents” identified/contacted|
|1.2 Widen recruitment.||1-2||B||Select, interview, profile.||25-30 committed resource people|
|1.3 Obtain administrative commitment, with Deans in lead.||2-3||C||Approach institutions across region for buy-in.||at least 5 regions commit to be labs|
|1.4 Establish local networks.||3-4||D||Each state holds workshops.||5-7 agents commit in each region|
|2.Establish consensus and alternative visions|
|2.1 Establish relationships between state mentors.||5||E||Hold multi-state conference of all resource people and mentors||Participant surveys by list serv and at workshops|
|2.2 Familiarize members with the varieties of facilitation/ organizing.||5-6||F||Presentations at conference and by list serv of all approaches||Survey at conference of knowledge of approaches.|
|2.3 Establish where consensus and alternative visions exist on benchmarks, skills and training.||5.5-6||G||Hold construct group session to summarize and generalize from conference output||Construct group representing participants reaches consensus (including alt. visions).|
|3. Design a multi-institution learning system which cross-fertilizes perspectives, stimulates innovative synthesis and values the creative tension required for both.||7||H||Conference participants explore consensus in light of state needs.||Locally-appropriate training plans developed in light of consensus.|
|I||Integrating workshop of planning team.||Design is finalized and approved by all participating institutions.|
|Project Management and
Planning Team Members
|Direct Project Costs|
|Recruitment and case studies||18500||12500||6800||2850|
|Obj 2 Regional Conference||9000|
|Obj. 3 Design Conference||3500|
Participating organizations will contribute services of project management team members. Funding is needed for part time administrative assistant (~.33 FTE) for such as compiling the database of facilitators and organizers, compiling conference results and reports, profile development, organizing conferences and workshops, and other administrative duties of the project.
Direct Project Costs:
Case studies of successful facilitator and organizers will be conducted by staff from DLC, KSU and UAPB, each of whom will cover costs of staff salaries. The funder is asked to cover costs of communications needed to establish the database of potential participants and travel to interview and recruit participation.
Costs of five state workshops are budgeted at $2400 each to cover meeting facilities, honorariums or travel for speakers, travel for non-staff (e.g., farmers) attending, working lunches, postage and mailings. Participating organizations in each state will cover travel and salaries of their attending staff (not estimated).
Regional Conference costs are expected to be $9000. These costs will include: meeting facilities, honorariums or travel for speakers, working lunches, postage and mailings, and phone, printing and mileage/lodging expenses associated with the organizing the conference. Costs of participant attendance (not estimated) will be covered by participating organizations.
Design Conference costs are expected to be $3500. These costs will include: meeting facilities, honorariums or travel for speakers, lodging and meals for participants, postage and mailings.
The goal of the project is to transform rural areas through by developing the talents of rural agents facilitating new groups. The concrete outcome will be new rural policy and marketing organizations. All project participants have experienced the power of good facilitators in catalyzing collaborative rural enterprise. With this project we expect to lay the groundwork for improving the training of rural agents to become the effective facilitators and organizers rural America so desperately needs.
We believe we have established a planning process to maximize participation while offering potential participants a wide range of levels of commitment. Within that formal structure, we have maximized space for cross-fertilization and synthesis among approaches to rural enterprise facilitation and organizing. This project is the first step toward creating a new generation of rural organizers to meet the challenges of today’s political economy.