December 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM2

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Facing Issues of Diversity: Rebirthing the Extension Service

Our desire to meet the educational needs of the increasingly culturally diverse population in our communities is driving the need for system change in Extension nation-wide. Just as we are successfully managing technological changes, so also must we manage diversity. Managing diversity requires a new set of skills and an institutional framework for change. We need to provide intercultural competency training for staff and hire professionals who have skills to work with diverse audiences. Support for institutional change exists through the National Subcommittee on Extension Diversity (SED- part of the ECOP structure) and the Change Agent States for Diversity Project.

Ann C. Schauber
Diversity Leader
Oregon State University Extension Service
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet Address:

Kathy Castania
Change Agent States for Diversity Project Manager
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Alton, New York
Internet Address:

Call it diversity, multiculturalism, or pluralism--this issue, brought to the forefront mainly by demographic changes, is on the minds of Extension professionals throughout the country. In a recent diversity workshop at the National Family and Consumer Science meeting, 60 professionals from every region of the United States gathered to discuss and learn about the issue of diversity. Meeting the needs of the growing Hispanic population seemed to be foremost on the minds of these family and consumer science professionals. "How do we design and deliver culturally appropriate educational programs to the growing Latino populations in our state?" they asked.

The changes in the diversity of our society extend beyond race, ethnicity, and national origin. The elderly will continue to comprise a larger segment of our population: people 75 years and older are the fastest growing age group in the nation. Single-parent families, blended families, and other alternative family structures are becoming more commonplace; about 50% of all children born in the U.S. will spend at least part of their childhood with only one parent. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are choosing to be open in their communities and work places. People with physical and mental disabilities are more actively seeking to be contributing members of society.

The Challenges

One of the biggest challenges among Extension leadership and middle managers across the country is how to attract, hire, and retain a diverse workforce. "Where do we find the pool of eligible candidates for our positions? We want to hire them, but we can't find them. And when we hire them, we often don't keep them. Why do they leave our organizations?" they ask.

Others wonder how to deliver programs that are culturally sensitive. Their questions reflect the need for a multifaceted approach to change. Each aspect is dependent on the other in order to move the whole system along. We each have a role. Leadership must provide the environment that allows staff to learn new skills for designing programs and to employ people from historically excluded groups, while staff has to engage in the personal development work that will build a welcoming environment.

While our desire is to become more culturally diverse, in many states, we find that our financial resources are shrinking, the demands of our traditional audience are strong, and we wonder how we can move in new directions to work with culturally varied audiences and remain solid financially. As with other system wide-changes we need to be strategic and know that this is a long-term effort. One workshop or one policy change will not produce the outcome we desire.

If we think about how in the past 10 years we have been able to make huge strides in technology change, we may find some answers. We implemented opportunities for personal skill development that have allowed us to now navigate difficult computer operations that we might never have dreamed possible. Management also set aside portions of budgets for continuing computer costs, knowing that we need to stay current. This model of managing organizational change can be a blueprint for the extraordinary effort it will take to become an organization that reflects the pluralism of our society. Diversity, like technology, is necessary for our survival.

As Extension professionals, we care about meeting the needs of the people who live in our communities, and we feel limited in how we can reach out to new more culturally diverse populations. "I can't speak Spanish (or Russian or Laotian) well enough to teach," say many Extension professionals. How do we effectively include culturally diverse groups in Extension programs?

We can take a lesson from our beginnings, when no one knew about who we were and what our value to the community was. We spent time with the prospective audiences. We got to know them. We learned how they learned and what they valued. Then, slowly we began to introduce a new idea, a new way of seeing and being successful. We introduced these educational innovations by building a relationship with the clientele and earning their trust. They learned and adopted new practices. They grew to rely on us and, in turn, they have kept our funding flowing over all these years.

Now our populations are changing. We already have our tried and true methods--the publication, the workshop (with the "open to all" clause on our announcements)--and the new audiences are not showing up. We want everyone to feel welcome. How come they don't show up? It can't be us. Or can it?

A Rebirthing Process

In a sense, we are going through a rebirthing process--a new beginning. We are learning that issues we face in our communities today are interconnected. Whether the issue is community sustainability, maintaining and supporting a thriving economy, and/or ensuring the well-being of families, cultural diversity is woven into these issues.

Right now we are in the laboring stages of rebirth. It is painful. We are trying new things and feeling community pressures to move in new directions, and our traditional audiences are demanding our attention. At the same time, we are beginning to recognize that in order to work effectively across differences at the individual level, we will need a new set of skills and institutionally we will need a framework for change.

The personal skills of navigating and communicating across differences include intercultural competency skills that entail:

  1. An awareness of one's own cultural communication style, which reflects one's perceptions, assumptions, norms, beliefs,and values;
  2. An awareness of other valid cultural communication styles, which reflect different perceptions, assumptions, norms, beliefs, and values;
  3. An understanding of historical power differences and the present-day behaviors that result from the history of a group's survival; and
  4. The ability to empathize cross-culturally, to take multiple perspectives, to observe mindfully while reserving judgments, and to adapt one's communication style to others.

Institutionally, we need a framework of Partnership that is based on shared decision making, respect, and dignity, and organizational change strategies that create an environment that encourages a willingness by all staff to participate in the change process. This framework needs to include a representative group of individuals working in collaboration with leadership to implement change at all levels, to provide ongoing strategies, and to support the change agents in the system.

There are two ways Extension can introduce this change:

  • Provide training for Extension staff to value diversity and develop skills, and
  • Hire professionals who already value differences and have the skills to work with culturally diverse groups.

We believe both strategies are essential in bringing about lasting organizational change.

As we labor at rebirthing our Extension organizations, we see eight guiding principles:

  1. We must feel dissatisfaction with the status quo.
  2. We must have a commitment to diversity that includes time and resources.
  3. We must have a vision of where we want to be in the future and a process for how to get there.
  4. We must develop intercultural competency skills and engage in work on personal attitudes based on our social identities.
  5. We must begin to understand how our programs and delivery methods have been designed from a dominant cultural perspective, which does not work for most of our under-represented cultural groups.
  6. We must become learning organizations that are continually recreating ourselves in partnership with culturally diverse community groups.
  7. We must bring our traditional audiences along with us as we also learn about how to serve new audiences.
  8. We must see this work as everyone's responsibility. It is not just up to our leaders, but each of us, within our own sphere of influence. We must be bold, learn more, and take new risks.

National Support

Pathways to Diversity <> is the system's vision for change. It provides the language and goals that can guide our system through this birth process. The strategic goals that accompany this vision call upon leadership at all levels, from members of ECOP to County Directors, to implement policies and practices that support this vision. The six strategic goals include:

  1. Commitment to pluralism
  2. Environment for diversity and pluralism
  3. Workforce diversity
  4. Audience and program diversity
  5. Full and influential participation
  6. Equitable partnerships

With the creation of the Pathways document, a National Subcommittee on Extension Diversity (SED -- a part of the ECOP structure) has been charged with creating the momentum and system-wide support to allow these changes to occur. There are many ways that this committee is working to accelerate the change process. They include:

  • The publication of supporting documents that can be downloaded from the SED Web site <>;
  • A Change Agent States for Diversity (CASD) project <> that is a consortium of eight states developing best practice tools for change and models of managing diversity strategies and skills that are necessary for system wide change; and
  • A virtual diversity resource center that will be launched in mid year 2002.

Using these mechanisms and working with a network of diversity contacts in every state, we can begin to share our resources and learn from our successes across the states.

While this is difficult work, it is also rewarding and energizing. It brings new life into our organization and ensures for us a healthier future. We'll make mistakes along the way, but as long as we pick ourselves up and learn from these mistakes, we will grow stronger.