February 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 1 // Tools of the Trade // 1TOT2

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Educating With Controversial Issues

Extension's efforts to cooperate with communities facing environmental decisions resulted in a public meeting about the issue of land application of sewage sludge. Strengths in leadership, organizational skills, and presentation of technical information in a user-friendly manner allowed Extension to be recognized by all involved as a source of non-biased, research based, factual information. A key to success of this type of program is the format of the meeting. The authors address important issues to consider when designing public meetings to assure that all viewpoints will be heard and that individual biases are minimized.

Stephen D. Schumacher
Assistant Professor and Extension Agent
Ohio State University Extension
Belmont County
St. Clairsville, Ohio

Mike Lloyd
Instructor and Extension Agent
Ohio State University Extension
Monroe County
Woodsfield, Ohio
Internet address: monr@agvax2.ag.ohio-state.edu

Extension educators can play important roles in helping people understand controversial environmental issues. Extension involvement can be rewarding if proper principles of public policy education are incorporated and followed. Ideally, Extension educators are pro-active with an issue before controversy occurs. But should Extension get involved after controversy has started? If Extension educators become involved, can they hope to be successful?

Extension became aware of controversy surrounding the application of sewage sludge on farm land after a meeting had been held involving concerned neighbors, township trustees and a representative of the company supplying the sludge material. The meeting had been very vocal and marked by controversy. At this late date could Extension play a role in the issue and still provide the groundwork for education to take place?

Extension's involvement started by setting up a 90-minute conference call for five neighbors and a town trustee with Ohio State University's Extension coordinator in waste management. Many of the participants' questions and concerns were addressed. The call created an awareness of the excellent Extension resources available, resulting in calls from other groups and agencies requesting assistance and suggesting that an educational meeting be held. Each group had a different perception of the proposed meeting's purpose.

Extension took leadership in organizing the meeting with a focus on education. It took a week of phone calls and negotiating to get all groups to agree on the meeting's purpose. The agenda was set and put in place.

Extension would introduce and moderate the meeting in cooperation with the local Farm Bureau director. The Extension coordiator in waste management would be first with a presentation on "The Application of Sewage Sludge on Farmland: Risks and Benefits." A representative from the Environmental Protection Agency would be next. Representatives from companies generating the sludge were to be present to make comments, answer questions, and address concerns. All parties were to be available for a general question/answer session at the close of the meeting.

Although little action was taken to publicize the meeting, a big attendance was expected because of the controversial nature of the subject and the incidents preceding the meeting Local media focus on the controversy increased public interest so not a lot of publicity was needed.

More than 120 people attended the program. Because of the rhetoric that occurred before the meeting and the mood of some of those attending, there was potential for the meeting to turn into a shouting free-for-all. To insure that this didn't happen, and to create a positive learning environment, clear objectives for the meeting were stated, Extension's roles in the issue were explained, and basic ground rules were provided before the meeting began.

Involvement in this controversial environmental issue proved to be a rewarding and beneficial experience. To insure this, the following recommendations should be considered:

  • First, before getting involved, be sure you have adequate and respected resources to back you up.

  • Second, take leadership in planning the educational event.

  • Third, plan to conduct a solid, unbiased educational meeting.

  • Fourth, be sure to state clear objectives. For this meeting the objectives were: (a) to provide a forum of discussion to share educational information on the topic of "The Application of Sewage Sludge on Farmland, Risks and Benefits," and (b) to help people make decisions based on accurate, credible knowledge of this topic.

  • Fifth, convey Extension's role in public policy education, that is (a) to make highly technical information available to farmers and the public in an understandable form; (b) to provide unbiased information; (c) to help create a forum in which all stakeholders have an opportunity for input; and (d) to provide education for our clientele.

  • Sixth, state the ground rules for the meeting. Rules used were: (a) everyone will have the opportunity to speak and we will stay until everyone has that chance; (b) paper is available so that you can write questions that will be read and addressed throughout the meeting; (c) if you have a question, direct it to the moderator and the moderator will ask the appropriate panel member to provide an answer; and (d) everyone will have the chance to express their opinion but is expected to do so in a mannerly and friendly fashion.

Due to the methods Extension utilized, the meeting was successful and Extension was recognized for taking the lead in this issue and for`` providing an educational forum. You too can get involved. By incorporating some of the above methods, you can have a successful experience in public policy education, even late in the process.