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Extension > Family Matters > Reflections from the Road

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Reflections from the Road

By Karen Shirer, Associate Dean

As associate dean, my work involves a great deal of travel in the state as well as across the country. My medical needs put a damper on my travel for the past year; but these last two months, I have embarked on a more robust travel schedule that included seven regional visits in Minnesota and a conference in Detroit. Experiences from these travels have built on each other and are shaping how I lead our work.

First, the regional visits — affectionately called "FD on the Road" — far surpassed my expectations. You told us about the grand challenges you, FD staff and educators, along with the families, community institutions (like schools and health care facilities), and regions in which you live and work are facing. We heard a number of recurring themes — increases in homelessness and poverty, for example — with unique variations from region to region. The information we gathered will be put together into a report and will guide our educational programming and partnerships over the next few years. Look for this report by the end of this year.

In September, I attended a leadership conference in Detroit that, as it happened, built on the regional visits. Creating Space is an annual event that fosters leadership development among non-traditional leaders. This was my second time attending the conference, and it did not disappoint. This quote from the conference organizers aptly described what I experienced:
Creating Space XII in Detroit was an amazing experience that allowed us to dive deeper into what non-traditional leadership means and what it looks like on the ground... explored how language can make an impact in leadership development...on how Detroit is uniquely challenged and uniquely hopeful.

I participated in a tour of an urban farm in central Detroit and saw where Michigan State University Extension was offering nutrition and cooking classes at the farm. In addition, we drove through a neighborhood in which local artists are leaving their imprint.  Art installations across the city have become an important ingredient in Detroit's renaissance. The art reminded me of FD on the Road, where some of you shared how art has been used to develop community.

Clockwise from left: a sunflower sculpture at the urban farm, a cistern at the farm
used to capture rain water to reduce the cost of watering, and a sculpture in a vacant lot

The conference in Detroit echoed many of the grand challenges we learned about during FD on the Road. Detroit, like many communities in Minnesota, has experienced both economic and social challenges due to global economic trends. The population is about half of what it was 50 years ago and the community has many vacant homes and buildings. Despite the many challenges, residents are "revisioning" the city, and resisting "gentrification" and economic developers’ efforts that would displace many city residents. Detroit is a grand experiment, closely watched by many across the country to see how it deals with these challenges and re-invents itself.

I learned during our regional visits that you act as grassroots leaders in the communities you serve. As grassroots leaders, you face tremendous challenges. However, like the Detroit residents and grassroots leaders I met, you meet these challenges with determination, grace, and creativity. These experiences taught me that your work needs to be supported and not impeded by inefficient internal systems. As such, we continue to develop more efficient means for reporting and to equip you with the technology you need to do your work.

My hope is that you will continue to engage with families and communities to address grand challenges and that you will engage with FD Leadership to tell us how we can better support your work. We have an important job to do and together we can "get the show on the road."

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