Deeply culture-changing activities often do not wear radical garb. Ardis Young is the Washington State Coordinator for a remarkable program sponsored by Extension Homemakers and the Cooperative Extension Service. In this interview she reflects on how the program developed and what its significance is. For more information, write to her at Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Home Economics, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164.
Robert: What is the Family Community Leadership program?
Ardis: It is an educational program of the Cooperative Extension Service designed to help people, who haven’t been involved in public policy or making decisions in their community, gain the skills they need to get involved. These could be broadly interpreted as leadership or citizenship skills.
Robert: How did FCL develop?
Ardis: The organizations it grew out of, cooperative extension and extension homemakers, felt a need for changes within communities they were working with. Their philosophy has been that without leadership we can’t get very far. Yet because they’re an educational unit, and not in an advocacy role, it’s pretty impossible for them to go out and get directly involved as the community leaders. So, they felt a need to become involved in an educational program that would develop leadership within communities.
However, FCL is different from most other extension programs because the Kellogg Foundation has helped it begin by giving quite a sizeable grant to the 6 western states where it’s being developed (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii). That means that Extension has helped support it, but there has also been money to help volunteers get involved at the same level as extension faculty, and to have the same kind of support services. That says a lot about power balances in the project. It is reflected in our Board of Directors, which is 2/3 volunteers and 1/3 Extension faculty, and right on through the rest of the program.
The decision was made very early on that part of the beauty of this project would be to let it evolve. We would get a group of people together, tell them that the basic intent of this project is to help develop leadership, and ask, "How shall we do it?"
Out of that came the direction. First we have to have some basic skills, such as how to speak in a clear, cogent way when we are in front of groups. We need to understand what the decision-making process is – how do they decide whether we’re going to fluoridate the water or not? Then we need to understand more about power, and we need to understand more about alternatives to the whole line of decision-making that’s been going on. So, we set up a state institute; invited people from the political world, from the business world, from the academic world, and they began to learn those skills that had been identified.
Then my staff and I put together packets of materials that would help them first learn these skills and then be able to present them to others in workshops, the feeling being that if you teach, then you really know this stuff. Not only that, but if you can give a workshop you’ve got to use a lot of these skills, like clear-thinking on your feet and the ability to present oneself in a public meeting. The institute participants also looked at how they relate to groups and experimented with some new ways of working with groups.
We’re in the third year now. We’ve had some amazing, just amazing things happen. One of the things that I knew, sort of, but I didn’t know quite so poignantly, is that when you work with adults you get a whole group of very fine talents and experiences; and you get people that are making their decisions and going through life and being – for most of them – as careful and as caring as they can be. But once you help them focus on the public arena, on what’s going on in the world, they just catch on fire, come up with some of the most fantastic alternatives – things that fit right in with a humane sustainable culture.
I’m sort of a Pollyanna, but I try to be a very realistic Pollyanna as I’ve gone through life; and I don’t know if it’s just Washington people, but I’d say that 90% of the people who have been involved in this project have been very, very concerned about this state and about the world as a whole. They are not myopic, and they are not selfish. As they start to gain these skills, I’ve seen them then leave the project and go into the community and start to develop projects, programs and sometimes take an office in our existing structure and do some things that have already started to create some changes. Things are starting to happen quickly, which is what can happen when you work with adults. You don’t just start with a lump of clay. You’ve got a whole package, and it’s just a matter of refocusing that.
Robert: What have been some of the key skills that have enabled that re-focusing, that catching-on-fire to take place? Or maybe it’s not even been skills?
Ardis: Well, I think the key is an awareness that the skills they already have can easily be generalized into the public arena. Many of the people we have in the program are homemakers. They make all kinds of decisions, schedule things, they make sure that their families are cared for, they devote a lot of their time to the very practical things that go on in the community. Then they figure out, "Oh, the skills that I use to schedule the car pool for 60 kids in the neighborhood are the same skills you need in order to develop a program and get the community to back it." It’s that refocusing that helps them say, "Oh, this isn’t so hard."
Robert: Affirmation of what they already have!
Ardis: Yes. And then working on some rough spots. I think that public speaking is probably the new skill. Women, in particular, are not acculturated to speaking in the public arena; so that’s the scary thing. Once that is overcome through doing some teaching and just using that skill, then the mystique is gone and they see they can be very effective.
Robert: How about the cycle over time? I can see how the program can open things up for people, they get caught on fire with it, they go for awhile; then there’s always the problem of burn-out. What have you found about that, and have you found anything that can help with the longer-term maintenance of the spirit that gets released in the beginning?
Ardis: We found an easy solution for it. That is, we don’t expect that people stay in the program. It’s a catalytic program, if you will. It’s a thing where people come together, they assess their needs, they gain the skills they think they need to get involved in the sorts of things they want to get involved with in the community. These learning opportunities are programmed in such a way that they also gain a whole bunch of different awarenesses. They learn to work in a group during the year that they have committed to the program. The group makes the decisions about what they do and how they do it, etc. We provide them with some program materials, then we set up training opportunities for them. But the group does it, and they have to work together as a group.
Robert: My goodness, you treat them like adults!
Ardis: I know it. Isn’t that amazing? It’s a different experience for a lot of people. Then, at the end of a year and a half or two, most people are doing things in their community, doing new things that they wouldn’t have done before. But we encourage people not to get burned out in the program. They don’t need to stay that long. I think hangers-on would be unhealthy.
Robert: What have you learned from developing this program, and what advice would you give to others who might want to develop similar programs to nurture the leadership potential in the community around them?
Ardis: First of all, I think they have to make a commitment as to whether they’re going to be an educational program or an advocacy program. If you bring together a group of people out of the general public, and expect you will go out and advocate for something, you’re going to have lots of problems, lots of dissension, lots of time working on meshing values. By making the commitment to being an educational project, you really have the opportunity to open it up to a whole variety of alternatives. Both the advocacy and the educational approaches have their place, but whatever you do, make a clear choice because it’s one or the other.
You also have to look very closely at what kind of support system you have to begin with. Because the Extension Service is throughout the state and it already has a structure, it was quite easy to key educational programs into that existing structure. FCL took a little different tack in that they didn’t become part of the ongoing program. It needed to have a fresh perspective. Nevertheless, the Extension Office was there to offer support in a variety of ways. Being associated with them gave us a big systematic way of getting started.
Another potential problem is being too narrow, both in whom you invite to participate and the kinds of information, materials, and topics with which you deal. Again, this has to do with people being adults – thinking, actualizing people; and also with the need for new alternatives.
Robert: Can you give some examples? Some of the breadth of topic-areas and maybe some of what you found about the breadth of people who have been responsive to the program?
Ardis: In our 3 week-long state institutes we’ve looked at public policy questions such as housing, alcoholism, and injured workers, as well as the over-riding theme of the public policy process. We have had some political people, some academicians who deal in political science, some people who deal with values and how values impact decisions. We always make sure we have people from the public agencies, from the academic community, from private business, and that we have participants who are from a variety of socio- economic groups, and from a lot of different ethnic groups. We haven’t done very much to seek them, but they’ve come out and have been wanting to participate. So, it’s been a very fortunate mixture, both from the giving and the receiving end, of people and topics and views.
Robert: Is there anything else that people should be aware of, to watch out for, in structuring this sort of program?
Ardis: Yes, I’ve got another one. I’m not sure how to say this because it’s still just part of an emotional pattern in me right now. It has a lot to do with egos. There are many people who like to get involved in things like this because it provides them with a platform. It’s extremely important that the people who are involved in setting up educational programs be careful of this. Watch for it, not only in other people, but in themselves! I think the kind of people that need to be in decision-making positions in a program like this have to be very Jeffersonian, in the classic sense. They have to be people who are extremely open to other viewpoints, who don’t have a great need to be front and center, who delight in seeing other people accomplish and create and grow, people who are pretty secure in their own sense of self, I guess.
Another challenge has been our mixing volunteers and paid professionals on the same level. If I have 3 or 4 people who are donating 20 hours a week doing this, in my mind, their time and their expertise is as valued as mine, but there are still many paid professionals in the world who look at volunteers and volunteer contributions as, well – "They’re the people who move the tables around, have you sign in at a meeting, serve the cookies, etc." – a relegation to a role that most of the time isn’t seen as an equal to the professional’s role.
We’ve done a lot to approach this and work through it. The staff can learn a lot from those who are doing other things in the world, and they can learn a lot from us. It’s not until we work together in a peer-education way, learn how to accept and employ one another’s skills, appropriately, that we can call ourselves leaders or that we can somehow approach some of the fantastic problems we have facing us as a world.
For most of us this peer education has been really fun, but there’s still a lot of resistance to it. There is not a lot built into the system where the professionals see rewards for doing that, unless they share my philosophy. Right off the bat it’s threatening, because you have Susie Smith down the street who doesn’t have a degree, still she is teaching a workshop – a workshop that maybe I couldn’t teach. How do people see that, when they think that I should be the one teaching that; but she’s doing it and getting the credit for it. These seem like little organizational details, but I think it’s bigger than that. I think the basic philosophical thing that we have to address is this whole thing of unity and sharing and caring together.
Robert: How has your sense of the meaning of leadership developed?
Ardis: I would say that my primary personal growth during these three years has to do with defining leadership. First of all, I always approached leadership as though: "Oh, I’d really like to know more about that," but I couldn’t quite define it. I’ve wondered, what makes this person a good leader and this one a lousy one, when they seem to have similar qualities? It wasn’t until the past couple years that I realized that I, like many others, was defining leadership by traits within one individual. I call it the George Washington Leadership Theory. If you’re a certain height, you are able to speak well, you have a commanding presence or charisma, you are of above-average intelligence, you can see more than one alternative to things and yet are strong enough to take a position, and so forth, then somehow that coming together of traits made you a leader.
My opinion about that kind of leadership has changed drastically. Certainly, all those traits and all those qualities are an important part of the leadership process; but I see leadership, now, as a process, not as a person. A sensitivity is probably my best way to say it. First of all, the ability to work with and understand groups and how groups function. This includes an understanding of a variety of ways of working together such as cooperation, collaboration, and their importance to our society (which has been strongly oriented all the time toward competition), the listening skills, the speaking skills, the sensitivity to strengths in others in the group and maybe the management ability to pick out those strengths and to pull them out, and then to rely on them. This sensitivity allows different people to be leaders at different points in time, depending on strength, like a well integrated team.
This concept of leadership seems to me to be the kind that can take us together into a humane sustainable future. It’s also made me a little schizophrenic, because that’s not how leadership is currently presented to us, through our political structures, through the corporate worlds that we deal with, and sometimes even in our schools. It relates also to the question of cooperation versus competition. It just seems to me that we don’t have time for competition anymore. I know that’s almost perverse to some people’s ears, but I think that very quickly people who are in decision-making positions, right now, are going to have to catch on to the beauties of cooperation, and as they go along, understand its power, because divisiveness and the inability to negotiate, compromise, and allow new ways of thinking are going to kill us. I worry about that, a lot.
So creating situations where other people can, if they want to, catch this vision of shared, cooperative leadership – that’s the real challenge.