The Southern Gatherings on Agricultural Problem-Solving is design to build the capacity of rural and agricultural leaders with skills and knowledge to: convene groups; talk about divisive issues; resolve conflicts; make choices and design and implement strategic plans. The fundamental assumption of this project is that communities who can go through these process together will make decisions and take actions that address the fundamental interests of all community members. Although there are some issues that may seem irreconcilable, there are many opportunities for common ground that are often overlooked. Communities do not need to be divided along lines of agriculture, environment or economy. Participants can use these process to find and define the common ground.
Progress of the project to date has included three “Southern Gatherings on Agricultural Problem-Solving” with over two hundred individuals involved in one of three learning tracks: (1) public issues deliberation; (2) conflict resolution; and (3) strategic planning. Farmers, Extension agents, community leaders and other choose one of these three tracks. Plenary sessions were intended to draw common themes and lessons from each of these problem-solving approaches.
Significant outcomes of this project have been the development of in-state capacity to train participants and trainers in the three skills areas and to apply those skills to county projects and training. It has also led to other spin-off workshops throughout the region, particularly in the area of conflict resolution. Three conflict resolution workshops were held for elected officials during the Spring and Fall of 1998. Public conflict resolution workshops were also held in Florida and Arkansas for Extension agents and Extension lay leaders.
According to recent project participant individual and focus group interviews conducted by an external evaluator, participants applied the skills they learned when facing difficult issues or public conflict. Based on these participant evaluations, the project clearly met its goals. The project is self-sustaining and there will be another Gathering in the year 2000.
• Involve Extension professionals, other farm service institutions, public media and farm families in the collaborative development and delivery of curricula on issues deliberation, strategic planning and conflict management.
• Foster collaboration between educational institutions, Extension educators and Extension clientele in delivering materials and concepts to workshop participants;
• Cooperate with Kentucky Leadership for Agricultural and Environmental sustainability Project, the University of Kentucky Agriculture 2000 and the National Issues Forum initiative of the Kettering Foundation to achieve synergism between development programs.
• Cooperate with partners in publicity of project activities.
• Solicit balanced participation by diverse farm community sectors, with attention to gender, race, farm related income, disability and other relevant demographic characteristics.
• Develop participant ability to apply methods of problem-solving to agricultural and broader rural community issues.
• Include hands-on learning activities in curriculum development (i.e., role playing, stimulations, and creation of action plans to be implemented in home communities of participants).
• Bring the capacity of agricultural and rural leaders to bring about change through the application of workshop knowledge and skills.
• Evaluate workshop efforts focusing on changes in knowledge, opinions, skills and aspirations. Include a wide range of people in the evaluation of the project.
The project was inspired by growing contention in the South’s rural areas about issues associated with agriculture, the environment and development. Citizens are often pitted against one another over the definition and resolution of public problems such as balancing individual property rights with the interest in planning and zoning or the interest in expanding agricultural production while others are concerned about the impact on water quality or the quality of life because of intensified hog or poultry operations. The project designers felt there was a need for more constructive and healthy dialogue between neighbors, the sharing of resources and the need to find common ground amidst conflicting values and interests about public issues. However, many capable rural and agricultural leaders do not have the skills, knowledge or behavior to address these difficult public problems in a way that can sustain relationships. Out of this scenario, the Southern Gatherings for Agricultural Problem-Solving was born. The planning has involved collaboration from a wide variety of groups including the Community Farm Alliance, the Cooperative Extension Service, the Kettering Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Communities. They were drawn together by the projects’ objectives and were primarily interested in empowering agricultural and rural community leaders with process skills, knowledge and behavior to deal with contentious and difficult public issues.
There was significant planning and curriculum development to prepare for the Gatherings.
Three learning tracks were designed: strategic planning; alternative dispute resolution and deliberation. The strategic planning aspect focused on how to create a collective vision for a community’s future and how to implement that vision. The alternative dispute resolution curriculum contained practical applications for moving towards common ground and “solutions everyone could live with.” There were several plenary talks that were supposed to complement each of the three tracks.
The first Southern Gathering took place on October 9-11, 1996 with 125 participants. The November 5-7, 1997 Gathering involved 54 participants. There wasn’t a Gathering in 1997 because the project coordinator took another job and his replacement lacked the vision or abilities to carry out the project. However, there was a spinoff from the Gatherings and over a hundred people were trained in conflict resolution in 1998. Many were rural elected officials as well as agricultural leaders.
The 1999 Gathering had 31 participants. It focused exclusively on deliberation. Deliberation involves thinking about the choices associated with a difficult public problem rather than whose side one is on. Usually, there are three or four public policy choices involved. When citizens look at the strengths of each choice and when they walk in the shoes of advocates or critics for each choice they are moving towards deliberation. The 1999 Gathering was oriented towards rural elected officials. This group was targeted because relatively little effort had made in the past to involve them and project coordinators believed their presence was crucial for strengthening the region’s civic infrastructure. It was decided to focus on deliberation because initial project work on public conflict resolution and strategic planning is being integrated into mainstream Extension work and is finding a receptive home in organizations such as the Kentucky League of Cities. Deliberation, on the other hand, seems more elusive and difficult to teach or learn and so, that is why the project organizers decided to focus on it during the third year of the grant.
As the project matured, the organizers moved towards investing in the development of local trainers and relying less on external expertise. For example, at least four Extension agents have been trained as mediators and have practiced their skills in order to strengthen the vibrancy of their conflict resolution teaching. Other Extension agents have taken part in National Public Policy Institutes and have trained as National Issues Forums faculty members to better understand the art and science of deliberation. They have also involved the public through National Issues Forums, a deliberative approach developed by the Kettering Foundation. This investment in building our own regional expertise is paying off in terms of sustainability. Their skills, knowledge and insights have matured sufficiently to the point that they want to teach. They want to strengthen the region’s civic life and the capability of citizens to deal with divisive public issues. Consequently, they are involved in planning the October 5-6, 2000 Gathering on deliberation.
The project is building new partners such as the Kentucky Center for Public Issues, the Kentucky Association of Counties and other entities such as public libraries. The 1999 Gathering received top-notch evaluations about the content and teaching of deliberation. Elected officials have indicated they want to be partners in planning the next Gathering and in the exploration of how to strengthen civic life in the region.
During the summer of 1999 an external evaluator, Dr. Melanie Doebler, met with project participants as part of a two and three year follow-up study to better understand the impact of the project. She conducted a focus group as well as individual interviews with eighteen participants.
The focus group of project trainers, organizers and others reached several conclusions. Overall they were pleased with the outcome of the Gatherings and agreed they generated a higher level of collaboration and cooperation among a diverse array of individuals and groups. They were also impressed with the diversity and richness of experience that participants brought to the process and felt that because of their participation in the Gatherings, future collaborative efforts were more likely. Indeed, several individuals mentioned that they have maintained the relationship they developed during the Gatherings and are hopeful that these will lead to new projects.
According to the focus group participants, the majority of curriculum development work was completed during the first year. Focus group participants who were members of teams created to develop each track felt that they had developed especially close and long-lasting relationships. It is arguable that this can be attributed to the collective mission and determination that was generated and the feeling of accomplishment they shared at the completion of the first Gathering.
Focus group participants talked about the waning of momentum and enthusiasm regarding the second Gathering. For the most part, it stemmed from the departure of the original coordinator. His replacement did not provide the leadership required to maintain momentum and keep the project on track. However, the group believed there is a pressing need for more training in the deliberative process across the region. Traditionally, the local decision-making process discourages citizens from voicing their opinions about important issues. This contributes, in the words of one participant, to a “culture of passivity” that paralyzes public discourse before it even begins. Activities such as the Southern Gatherings were seen as an important catalysts in moving from passivity to change and empowerment.
There were similar themes that emerged from the individual interviews with eighteen people who took part in the Gatherings. They said they were impressed by the geographical, workplace and cultural diversity of participants at the Gatherings. Diversity was particularly evident to those who attended the 1996 conference. It included diverse cultural groups such as the Hopi. Many stressed the importance of listening to a variety of viewpoints on such important topics as agricultural issues or land use planning and zoning practices.
Project participants also said that while networking may not have been an explicit goal, it was seen as an important product of both the 1996 and 1997 Gatherings. One person commented, “Networking is very important and this conference brought together farmers, community developers, Extension people and University professors and specialists. That is a good thing so that they may call on each other later.”
The vast major of interviewees were able to recall something they learned at the
Gatherings. Primarily their answers fell into three categories: skills, viewpoints and facts.
In the skills area, they used organizational assessment, group facilitation for conflict resolution and various communication techniques for working with a sometimes angry public without inflaming the situation.
Participants also said they broadened their viewpoints as a result of their training. For example, one interviewee said that his participation helped him to “realize a multiplicity of viewpoints, perhaps for the first time.” An agricultural agent said his participation helped him to broaden his rather narrow perspective.
Participants also said they gained a better understanding of the facts associated with issues such as planning and zoning, including the purchase of development rights for farmland preservation and the distinctions between deliberation and debate. Over half of those interviewed said the Southern Gatherings influenced their approach to conflict in difficult public situations. They tend to be more “inclusive in letting others voice their views.”
Many individuals integrated the skills, facts and viewpoints into their professional lives when dealing with potentially contentious issues as land use planning and zoning, the introduction of industrial hog farming to their counties, increasing poultry production and presenting viable alternatives for tobacco farmers. Several said that even if they are not comfortable with the skills themselves, they know who they can call upon in the region as a result of their participation.
Those who were most successful in employing the skills took part in the training as part of a county team. Those who attended alone found it more difficult to carry out their skills back home.
Almost everyone could cite at least one incidence in which they used the skills and knowledge from the Gatherings in their local role.
According to the interviewees, there have been additional outcomes. Virginia Tech is now offering training similar to the Southern Gatherings. Michigan Extension is using the training manual on public conflict to train their Extension educators.
The participant agreed that additional training in facilitation and deliberation if the region is to develop more inclusive and democratic decision making about agricultural and rural community sustainability.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Outreach and Publications
The evaluators of the Gatherings intend to publish results in the Journal of the Community Development Society, a publication oriented towards rural community development practitioners. They will also submit a manuscript for consideration to the editors of the Journal of Extension, the journal for Extension educators.
Because the evaluation component was not completed until recently the project organizers were reluctant to publish “results” through news releases or other modes. However, it should be noted that training manuals and “Community Issues in Agriculture: A Public Policy Institute” have been used as educational materials by the participants.
The training manual on public conflict that was developed for the Southern Gatherings has been refined further. Three national referees have reviewed the manual and have made some suggestions for improvement. After these minor changes are made, it will be published by the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State for national distribution.
There are several recommendations that emerged from this project that could make it more effective. The audience was targeted to both Extension educators, rural and agricultural policy leaders as well as farmers and other citizens. The Extension agents seem to prefer the “train the trainer” model while citizens want to use materials in their own community and do not view themselves as trainers. Although project participants seemed to appreciate the knowledge and skills they received from training, it isn’t clear if they will follow-up when they returned home.
Suggested New Hypotheses
• A system of mini-grants will encourage participants to apply their new problem-solving skills and knowledge (i.e., deliberation, conflict resolution and strategic planning) back home after they leave the workshop settings. When the skills are applied in the field, they will have more impact upon the local political culture towards public problems and issues.
• A program targeted towards a “train the trainer” will have more impact than a program that appeals to educators and non-educators. Extension educators are more likely to infuse the material they learned into their home counties than rural and agricultural lay leaders who do not have adult education responsibilities.
• If one focuses on a cluster of growth-oriented counties that are dealing with land use conflicts and offers intensive training to elected officials and community leaders about public conflict resolution, the political culture of dealing with these issues will be more problem-solving oriented. If leaders in these counties also have easy access to mediation services, they will sharpen their conflict resolution skills when they see mediation professionals in action. In essence, they will learn through observation.
• Can (or will) the Cooperative Extension Service build a system of rewards and risk-taking for their agents to do further work in public conflict resolution and public deliberation? Through a system of further training and mini-grants and a strengthened institutional reward system, more agents will be willing to move into this area.
• How can we strengthen the capacity of rural elected officials to deal with an angry public and difficult public issues that require deliberation and movement towards some kind of common ground? The next phase of this project will focus more on elected officials because it is believed they are critical for changing the climate for deliberation rather than the conventional way of doing the public’s business.
Future endeavors in public conflict and deliberation should involve training as well as doing. For example, one might fund projects that train a diverse county teams in the complexities of alternative dispute resolution and deliberation. However, before receiving the training, the team would have to agree to several conditions: (1) After the training, they would have to develop a plan for addressing a local conflict or potential conflict that involves key stakeholders and citizens; (2) they will have to carry out the plan; (3) they will reflect on the “lessons learned” along the way; and (4) they will have to share these lessons with other county teams. Through this kind of learn-do-reflect process, I believe we could build a critical mass of leaders who would feel competent and knowledgeable about this kind of demanding but rewarding work.