December 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA2

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development and Cooperative Extension: A Case for Urban Collaboration

USDA-sponsored Cooperative Extension systems and university programs offered through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may find themselves in collaboration or conflict as both expand urban outreach activities. This article draws attention to some of the potential issues of concern, examines a case where collaboration has occurred, and details points of future collaboration. Based upon a pilot in Des Moines, Iowa, recommendations are given to foster further cooperation and forgo redundancy between the two systems.

Timothy O. Borich
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
Department of Community and Regional Planning
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
Internet Address:


In many quarters, "Extension" still conjures up the Norman Rockwell image of the county agent: a local person dealing with the agricultural and farm management problems within the county. It is a very rural image -- one that ties the typical land grant institution to a specific rural clientele to which it provides adult and youth education in the areas of agriculture and home economics.

As the United States becomes more urban and suburban, Extension's ability to adapt in broadening its programming to more urban audiences becomes critical (Reaves, 2000). Despite its agrarian image, no policy or legislation forbids Extension or its land grant university members to develop and implement programs for urban areas. While the majority of Extension's human and financial resources continue to be directed toward rural constituencies, a growing urban program is noted (USDA-CSREES, 2000).

The idea of an urban Extension component to address the needs or urban constituencies is not new. A Ford Foundation urban program of the late 1950s and early 1960s piloted a number of urban Extension concepts throughout the country. This pilot study resulted in a call for urban Extension programming with "urban agents" in response to the massive urbanization of the country, which was leading to racial tension and urban sprawl (Ford Foundation, 1966, pp. 2-3).

In the context of community-to-agriculture relationships, Ron Swoboda stated about Extension programming in 1986: "Even though we're concentrating on rural development and agricultural development here, primarily non-metro areas, we must not ignore the metro areas and the total relationship perspective in terms of society and politics" (1986, p. 237).

To be sure, the USDA Cooperative Extension system faces a number of hurdles in expanding its educational programs beyond its rural roots into urbanized America, including:

  • Limited Resources. Often, stable or declining budgets inhibit expansion into new program areas at the expense of traditional constituencies that tend to support existing programs (Warner, Christenson, Dillman, & Salant, 1996; Fehlis, 1992; National Extension Urban Task Force, 1995).

  • Limited Awareness. Urban populations traditionally have scored low on studies on their awareness of the Extension system, much less its programs (Warner, et al., 1996; Jacob, Willits, & Crider, 1991).

  • Limited Networks. Extension's urban networks are limited both within urban communities and among national urban constituencies, which limits its ability to affect urban agendas, share urban programming successes, and develop urban partnerships (Fehlis, 1992; National Extension Urban Task Force, 1995).

  • Limited Issues. Adaptation of traditional programs to urban audiences has been noted in the areas of human nutrition, youth, and gardening, but Extension's role in broader urban and neighborhood issues has frequently remained minor or nonexistent (National Extension Urban Task Force, 1995; Krofta & Panshin, 1989; USDA-CSREES, 2000).

In contrast to the USDA and its long tradition of working through land grant universities, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has operated its Office of University Partnerships (OUP) only since 1994. Recognizing the crucial role that America's colleges and universities can play in rebuilding communities, HUD established the Office of University Partnerships to encourage and expand the efforts of these institutions to foster community development. A major program of this office is the Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC), which funded more than 100 2- or 4-year universities or colleges to establish outreach programs in primarily inner-city environments.

According to HUD, "Congress created the Community Outreach Partnership Centers (COPC) program in 1992 as a 5-year demonstration to determine the feasibility of facilitating partnerships between institutions of higher education and communities to solve urban problems through research, outreach, and exchange of information" (1999, p. 9). Applicants may apply for up to 400,000 USD for a period of 3 years to be matched by resources from the university and/or community.

Despite an obvious compatibility of goals between the HUD COPC program and USDA Cooperative Extension programming to foster community development, the coordination or collaboration between the two programs at the university/community level remains relatively rare, with programs at Iowa State University, Texas A&M, and Michigan State University as some exceptions.

Rationales for this divergence may vary, but the following potential reasons are posited.

  • The predominant paradigm of Extension is one of distance education, with field offices in 3,150 counties across the country. In contrast, COPC programs primarily are modeled to have urban university support outreach to a proximate urban community.

  • COPC programming is not limited to the land grant university system and may create new roles of outreach for urban institutions of higher education.

  • All Cooperative Extension systems may not be set up to respond to urban community development programming (e.g., housing, neighborhood planning, economic development) due to a focus of staff and resources on other programming areas (e.g., 4-H, agriculture, horticulture, human nutrition).

  • The compartmentalization of university outreach into rural (USDA) vs. urban (HUD) at a national level is ultimately reflected at the state and local levels as well.

  • COPC awards are highly competitive on a national basis, whereas much of Cooperative Extension's funding relates to line-item budgets at the state and local levels and formula-based at the national level.

With the expressed purpose of expanding Cooperative Extension presence in an urban setting, Iowa State University Extension and the Iowa State University Department of Community and Regional Planning applied for and received a HUD COPC grant in 1998. The focus of the proposal was to establish an urban outreach center within the Enterprise Community in the city of Des Moines. A major goal of the grant was to marshal Extension resources both at the university level and field staff on location to address the community development needs of the inner city. Traditionally, Iowa has a very limited urban program, and it remains among the six states without a state contact to Extension's Rural-Urban Initiative (USDA-CSREES, 2000).

Drawing on Past Rural Experiences

As a response to the rural economic crisis of the 1980s, Iowa State University Extension launched a leadership training program in 1988 funded in part through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and later the Iowa Department of Economic Development. The program, called Tomorrow's Leaders Today (or TLT), was designed to help replenish the supply of local leaders in rural communities and create consortia of rural communities that might better address development concerns. The mechanism for doing so was through cooperation with "clusters" of neighboring communities committed to sharing resources and working toward common goals (Borich & Foley, 1990).

The Tomorrow's Leaders Today curriculum was composed of 11 sessions with 40 hours of instruction spread out over 9 months. The first five sessions were standard for all classes. Participants selected projects to plan and implement in their cluster. Sessions six through 11 were customized to reflect local needs and specific projects. More than 1,200 people from over 150 rural communities received the training. The overall retention/completion rate of participants exceeded 90%. The program was successful in either creating or enhancing more than two-dozen small-town development consortia.

A realistic approach to leadership development must recognize its complexity. The Tomorrow's Leaders Today program strove to increase the knowledge and skills community leaders need to lead effectively. Above all, individual participants were committed to developing their own leadership potential and to exploring how working with other communities may benefit their own organizations and community.

The Urban Setting

Having been active in community development in rural communities, Iowa State Extension faced a new challenge in 1998 as part of a team receiving a Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC) grant from the US Department of Housing and Rural Development. The Des Moines Enterprise Community (EC) is located on the north side of Iowa's capital city, bordering the central business district. This area is facing problems common to nearly every large urban area, including unemployment, poverty, and a lack of adequate education and health care. The Enterprise Community comprises five distinct neighborhoods, each with an active neighborhood organization: Chautauqua Park, King-Irving, Mondamin-Presidential, New Vision, and River Bend (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Location of the Des Moines Enterprise Community

The Des Moines Enterprise Community is one of the most diverse communities in the state of Iowa. With a population of nearly 9,000, the Enterprise Community is 45% white, 42% African American, 12% Asian, and 1% Hispanic. It is entirely within a HUD-designated benefit area. There is a 12% unemployment rate within the Enterprise Community as compared to 3% for the entire city. Nearly 60% of the households have an annual income of less than $10,000, and about 30% of the residents do not own a car (US Census, 1990).

Education is a crucial concern for the Des Moines Enterprise Community. About 38% of the adult residents have no high school diploma or GED. Students' basic skills scores are among the lowest in the city. Additionally, family issues are of great concern to the area. About 45% of EC households are headed by a single adult, and 21% of all expectant mothers receive no prenatal care.

Within the 1994 strategic plan for the area, "fragmentation" of human-service delivery systems, political power, information, financial resources, planning efforts, and transportation systems are cited as major issues. In discussions with city planners and neighborhood leaders, a related concern emerged focusing on the need for more collaboration among neighborhood organizations, community groups, and grassroots organizations within the Enterprise Community. At the time of Iowa State's Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC) proposal to HUD, there was no ongoing collaboration or partnering among these groups, and this proposal paid special attention to strengthening integrated, as well as neighborhood, planning in the Enterprise Community.

Private human-service providers actively involved within the area include the United Way Human Services Campus, Urban Dreams and Tiny Tot Family Outreach Center, Employee and Family Resources, and the Mercy Medical Center. Deliverers of public services within the Enterprise Community include the State Department of Human Services, Polk County Social Services, and the City of Des Moines Community Service Department. Creating a common voice through which collaborative efforts can be sustained was listed as a major concern in the 1994 Enterprise Community's strategic plan.

The Des Moines Enterprise Community has created a framework for the development of economic opportunity, a sustainable community-based partnership, and a strategic vision for change. This comprehensive implementation structure is built on the involvement of the grassroots, 25-member Steering Committee, appointed by the Des Moines City Council, that designed the plan and coordinated a multi-year commitment of public and private resources, while keeping the vision foremost in the community.

The Planned Program

In planning various aspects of the programming that would take place through the COPC initiative, a great deal of consideration was given to ideas and concerns expressed by local residents and community groups. To address the concerns expressed on fragmentation and empowerment, an adaptation of the Tomorrow's Leaders Today curriculum is being offered within the Enterprise Community to develop collaboration between neighborhoods and promote leadership development.

To augment the leadership training, a series of studios is being conducted with the objective to assist the community with planning. The first studio, offered during spring 1999, focused mainly on updating the existing plans within the community. The second studio, offered in summer 1999, focused on integrating the neighborhood plans into an overall vision for the Enterprise Community area. These efforts were coordinated with the five neighborhood associations, the Des Moines City Planning Department, and the COPC Advisory Committee, which is also the Des Moines Enterprise Community's Steering Committee, all of which served as the studios' clients.

The implementation of the program created some trepidation among the affected Extension field staff. Despite success in other settings, university-based faculty were told that implementing community leadership training originally designed for and conducted among a rather homogenous population in a rural area would be problematic among the diverse population of the inner city. Project staff were advised that results of past Extension efforts in the neighborhoods involved had been mixed and that expectations should be tempered with a heavy dose of reality.

Using basic community development principles, efforts were made to further involve the community in designing the leadership development program to be delivered. Prior to program implementation, the potential curriculum was reviewed with more than a dozen community leaders representing all five neighborhoods through the use of a focus group setting.

A modified Tomorrow's Leaders Today program was initially planned to be offered three times over the course of the 3-year COPC project, using a condensed nine-session format. Input from the Enterprise Community Steering Committee, neighborhood association boards, and the focus group was used to refine the planned curriculum.

Based upon that input, the Tomorrow's Leaders Today curriculum was further modified to six sessions over a 6-week period. Additional emphasis was placed on issue education and networking with local leaders. Provisions for child care for participants also were made. While a nominal participant fee enhanced revenue in the original Tomorrow's Leaders Today program, it was dropped for the EC at the suggestion of the focus group, which advised that participation by local residents would be inhibited if any fee were charged.

Recruitment took place through the Enterprise Community Steering Committee/COPC Advisory Committee, the neighborhood associations, local churches, and nonprofit organizations. Similar to the rural version of Tomorrow's Leaders Today, team formation by neighborhood community was emphasized. During the course of the first 2 years of the urban program, nearly 60 residents have completed the 6-week training. The formation of a "graduate program" as a means of continuing education is under way.

Figure 2
Panel of Local Media Experts Discusses Media Relations with the Enterprise Community

Figure 3
Tomorrow's Leaders Today Participants Engaged in an "Understanding Ourselves and Others" Skill-Building Activity

The first graduation was held October 26, 1999, with certificates presented by the dean of the Iowa State University College of Design and the mayor of Des Moines. Forty-seven people attended the graduation in addition to the 17 graduates.

Figure 4
Mayor of Des Moines Discussing Neighborhood Issues at Tomorrow's Leaders Today Graduation

Participants in the spring 2000 Tomorrow's Leaders Today program suggested that the COPC project also offer a leadership program to youth. Thus, the COPC Supervisory Committee and the EC Steering Committee, with the help of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension youth leadership development specialists, created "Toolbox for Young Leaders." The skill-development topics were similar to those of Tomorrow's Leaders Today, but language and activities were geared for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders.

Youths participated in recreational activities presented by ISU Extension, ISU minority affairs personnel and the local COPC coordinator, which developed skills in team building and team relations. Graduates received certificates presented by the ISU College of Design dean and the mayor of Des Moines. A subsequent youth leadership program was held in the summer of 2000, with another planned for 2001.


While after only 2 years it is premature to state success in terms of impacts or outcomes, the reception of Iowa State University's COPC project by the Des Moines Enterprise Community and the leadership training participants has been positive. The combination of leadership training for adults and youth, and the resources and assistance of six studio classes in community planning, landscape architecture, and civil engineering, has helped the city and the local neighborhoods reassess the EC's potential and better plan for their collective future. The City of Des Moines has bestowed the "Key to the City" to the COPC program, and the program has also received two "Local Best Practice" awards from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There is every indication that curricula in leadership development and community development created for rural residents can be adapted to urban settings. The operative word, however, is adapted. Residents and local leaders continue to be involved in the evolution of the Tomorrow's Leaders Today and Toolbox for Young Leaders training programs. A "one size fits all" approach has not been attempted, but a philosophy of program development has been maintained in a different community environment.

Of equal importance in the Des Moines Community Outreach Partnership Program is the demonstration that the often-divergent organizations of the rural-oriented USDA Cooperative Extension and the urban-oriented HUD Community Outreach Partnership Center Program can be successfully integrated. Rather than creating redundant community development programs, Iowa State University's Des Moines COPC program has successfully incorporated existing Extension programming and staff in working within inner-city environments.

At the very least, Iowa State's Des Moines COPC program would indicate that program coordination between HUD and USDA Cooperative Extension is possible. The organizational cultures can be bridged. Extension can creatively assist urban residents through its distance educational paradigm, and with the proper approach, rural community development models and other Extension programs can be adapted to urban settings.

The success of this integration and adaptation, however, does beg the question: should there be more efforts to coordinate the land-grant/USDA Extension urban programs with HUD university outreach efforts? Perhaps in the best of both worlds, HUD would collaborate with land grant universities in expanding Extension efforts in urban settings and Extension would initiate a serious dialogue with HUD regarding the resources it has to offer in partnership. In this process, HUD would be able to leverage a much smaller funding base within its Community Outreach Partnership Program by encouraging land grant universities to address urban issues at the community level.


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