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Standing on the shoulders of those who went before us

By Trish Olson, director of programs

It’s the end of March, and my mind is whirling from recent events. I often have to step back and connect the dots of events so I can make sense of them.

I said more than once in meetings this week that we have to stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. I said this in the context of programming and scholarship, as we discussed the importance of literature reviews. That way, we will conduct activities that are proven to work and not reinvent the wheel evaluating or researching what’s already known. We do this so we can focus on our shared goals of learning and teaching with participants. Conducting literature reviews shows how we value our participants’ time.

Thinking about Women's History Month

Conducting literature reviews is also a great example of standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. As we discussed literature reviews, my thoughts turned to March being Women’s History Month.

Looking through numerous Twitter, Facebook, and web postings, I came across a striking photo on the National Archives website of women marching in a suffragette parade. These brave women (and men) fought for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote — something finally enacted in 1920. Certainly women stand on their shoulders today as they cast their ballots in local, state, and national elections!

Women Marching in Suffragette Parade, Washington, DC.

Women Marching in Suffragette Parade, Washington, DC. Source: National Archives Catalog

As I looked at the photo and read about the suffragette movement, I learned that the pioneers of Extension home economics programs in rural New York were involved with the campaign for women’s right to vote. What a wonderful connection!

I also learned that the fledgling Extension program was led from Cornell University by Martha Van Rensselaer, a member of an influential family in early New York history. Van Rensselaer believed that only by adopting new scientific strategies could women ease the burden of daily tasks involved in farm life. In less than five years, the program enrolled more than 20,000 women members across New York state.

That brings me to our work in Extension today — and a meeting I attended this week.

Thinking about grand challenges

At this meeting we discussed reports from Extension educators on three grand challenges we face in Minnesota and beyond: combating climate change, stemming the opioid epidemic, and addressing mental health issues. The reports reflected educators’ task to:
  • Learn more about the key players in these challenges.
  • Understand current research on these challenges.
  • Visit at least one organization, event, or exhibit related to the challenges.
  • Get other perspectives and learn from each other about the challenges.
  • Write a report on their findings and the potential for Extension’s work.
As you can see, all these steps follow the theme of standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.

The teams are still processing the breadth of information they uncovered. But I found one research finding especially fascinating: “If food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the U.S. and China.”

Wow. I was thinking Extension had the least connection to that one. But in reality, we have a significant connection. In Family Development we emphasize buying and eating healthy foods. We also give families tips for not wasting food. This is efficient and economical. Now, I realize reducing food waste is also good for the climate!

Thinking about the March for Our Lives

This leads me to another thought — that while we stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before us, we also should look to youth for ideas and inspiration. We received a powerful reminder of that principle from March for Our Lives events March 24 in Washington, D.C. and all over the country — including Minnesota.

Yes, the young people who spoke at these events were standing on the shoulders of those who went before, including the Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists of the 1960s. But these youth are also forging a new way, and we can learn from that, too. I encourage you to listen to the voices of youth — not only those who spoke on March 24, but those with whom you work in your Extension role.

Thinking about our mission

All these thoughts are in the context of our mission, a mission that stands on the shoulders of those who went before us:
Extension Center for Family Development, through its nimbleness, innovation, and relevance, teaches families and those who serve families to make informed decisions leading to greater health, resilience and well-being. As a result of our programs, Minnesota families — no matter their makeup, structure, or place in life — possess the knowledge and skills to create resilient, healthy, and secure futures.

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