Dear UMass Extension friends –

I wrote this as a farewell “lightning talk” before I left my Extension position, but I am only now getting around to sending it to you. 

We are the village (that it takes to raise a child).

When you were a teenager, did any adult ever approach you and say, “This needs to be done.  We need you.  Can you help?”  Probably not.  But if they did, I’ll bet you haven’t forgotten it.  It may even have had a major impact on your life.

Historically, and in the present, Extension is well-positioned to support education for community development, particularly on food system and climate adaptation issues.  But to do this well, we need to enlarge our perspective, just a little.

Social anthropologists have pointed out an important truth about learning:  we learn best and most naturally through legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, Situated Learning, 1991). 

There is nothing new about this.  Adults concerned with bringing the next generation into participation in their surrounding community have done this for millennia.    Apprenticeships are a durable example.

In their book Place- and Community-based Education in Schools (2010), Gregory A. Smith and David Sobel describe this approach as opportunities for the young to engage in the common life of older and more experienced people.

Schools miss these opportunities when they separate young people from their communities, putting stock in disciplinary knowledge, curriculum frameworks, “seat time”, and assessments rather than connection and participation.   Even after-school extracurricular programs, when they measure success only in terms of engagement in fun activities, miss the mark.  

Programs like Extension’s 4-H – where they are project- and community-based, and connect with real work that is happening in the community – have had the right idea all along.  

Young people want to be of use. Finding ways to participate that fit who they are is an essential part of growing up. We don’t give them enough opportunities.

Preparation for democratic participation in issues like food and climate justice is the responsibility of the whole community. Schools and 4-H programs can’t do it alone.

I would argue that part of our Extension work – in all our program areas – is to offer our partnership. For the sake of the future, we who are committed to the land grant mission must invite young people into the work that we are doing.

Extension educators, no matter what your disciplinary expertise: I urge you to be alert and open to opportunities to share your work with educators who work with youth.  Most of you already do this, even though you may sometimes feel a little guilty that serving as a resource for an enthusiastic teacher in your community distracts from your work with your primary audiences.  What I’m doing here is giving you a rationale, and suggesting that you take permission.  Providing not only the science background, but also examples of science at work in decisions and action in the community, and being a concerned committed adult in view of young people:  This is all absolutely something to make time for.

There are a couple of converging, compelling opportunities for Extension programs to engage with youth today:

  • The climate crisis adds urgency to engaging with young people on issues like food systems and natural resource conservation. We should hear  Greta Thunberg’s anger as a young person’s plea for partnership.

Whether or not Extension formalizes its youth civic engagement outreach, the opportunities are there for those who work in community settings.  Keep an eye out for these opportunities, and seize them!

Thanks for your good work!

Will Snyder

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