Southern Gathering on Agricultural Problem Solving
1.) 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.
2.) Foster collaboration between educational institutions, extension educators and extension clientele in delivering materials and concepts to workshop participants;
3.) 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.
4.)Cooperate with partners in publicity of project activities.
5.) Solicit balanced participation by diverse farm community sectors, with attention to gender, race, farm related income, disability and other relevant demographic characteristics.
6.) Develop participant ability to apply methods of problem-solving to agricultural and broader rural community issues.
7.) Include hands-on learning activities in curriculum development (i.e., role playing, simulations, and creation of action plans to be implemented in home communities of participants).
8.) Bring the capacity of agricultural and rural leaders to bring about change through the application of workshop knowledge and skills.
9.) 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 1998, but 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.