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Mastering the Obvious

By Trina Adler Barno, Program Leader — Health & Nutrition
Many of you know that I was born, raised, and currently live in Eau Claire, WI. This fact provides never-ending opportunities for my Minnesota-centric co-workers to give me a hard time about life over the border. I have endured painful references to my IQ dropping as I drive over the bridge into Hudson, heard inquiries about the amount of cheese that is clogging my arteries, and let’s not even talk about the per-capita-beer-consumption comparisons. In response, I take every opportunity to boast about the wonders of Wisconsin and the greater Eau Claire area in particular (Menard’s, Justin Vernon, and Bush’s Beans to name but a few).

But I had to hang my head in shame as I crossed the border from Minnesota to Wisconsin a few weeks ago to find this sign along a stretch of I-94 that was being re-paved:

Apologies for the blurry photo – I was speeding by at about 70 when I snapped it.
I thought about the tax dollars that went into the creation and placement of that sign, and the absurdity of the message. Why spend money stating (what I thought) was the obvious?

A few days later as I was driving past that sign on I-94, it was pouring rain. Sure enough, the water was pooling on the newly paved sections of the highway, and I had to slow down to avoid hydroplaning. I had to laugh — I had been warned.

While the sign on I-94 at first seemed to send an absurdly obvious message, its real value became clear when conditions changed. The lesson for Extension in all this lies in when we develop extensive plans of work each year and put ourselves at risk of seeing our work as accomplishing programming goals rather than understanding and responding to real and obvious needs.

As we work in the field, exploring and building relationships with new partners and providing educational opportunities with new audiences, we must avoid relying on scripts and ignoring the conditions and contexts in which our community stakeholders operate. We need to spend as much, if not more, time listening and assessing as we do sharing and offering ideas. Sometimes this means that things will not move at the pace we would like. Building trust and being open to learning about what the real needs are and the impact of different approaches on others’ actions can take a long time.

I have to admit that, compared with Wisconsin, Minnesota has a leg up right now in terms of progressive social policy and collaborative energy. There are some aspects of culture in Wisconsin that present some deep-seated and disturbing challenges and the solutions will require years of commitment and persistence. But we also have our share of “grand challenges” in Minnesota: educational achievement gaps and health inequities, to name just two. As we proceed with our work in Family Development, let’s put away the scripts and expectations, and let’s not assume we understand even the most obvious of community concerns. Instead, let us actively and thoughtfully develop an understanding of the obvious concerns of our communities so that we can respond in the most appropriate and impactful ways.
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