It’s time we realized that our neighborhoods and local communities are our most valuable, public assets…it’s really always been that way, and I believe this will continue to be a basic truth. Unfortunately during the past 50 or so years, our public decisions have gradually made our local communities more and more dependent on large institutions, multi-national corporations and government agencies. When the housing and financial bubbles deflated, the Great Recession started to destabilize the multi-leveled support system of our communities to the point where many cannot provide even the most basic support to their small businesses, schools, public and private institutions, or its citizens. The erosion of vitality in our states, counties, cities and finally our communities will continue for several more years, even as our politicians and popular media try to put a happy-face on an economic ‘recovery’ that will never bring us back to the comforts we all experienced in the ‘bubble’ years.
Our communities are in crisis. During good economic times, our dependence on larger and larger institutions, corporations and government agencies was manageable. It wasn’t particularly efficient, but it was believed by most to be worth the added cost…this was the price we needed to pay for ‘equal opportunity’ and for the added comforts and conveniences we now believe are necessities. But…that was then, and this is now. Our ‘equality infrastructure’ (see my blog post, ‘Less and Less Equal,’ June 19, 2009) is being dismantled in hundreds of small ways…a little at the federal level, some at the state level, more at the county level, but mostly at the city and community level. The damage hasn’t been fully distributed at the local level yet…but it’s coming, and it’ll be devastating to the fabric of our local lives.
In 1862, Congress enacted a law that gave every state some federal land to create ‘land-grant colleges and universities’…basically to establish institutions of higher learning to help in reconstructing communities after a devastating war…and after slavery. These ‘land-grant colleges’ then played an important role in what is considered the ‘Reconstruction Era’ of our country…when we literally reconstructed a new social and economic support system from the ashes of the Civil War.
In 1914, Congress established ‘Cooperative Extension’ (CE) as the delivery system for land-grant, higher education learning through county agents across the country, focusing on agriculture and home economics because our country was still basically an agrarian and rural society. CE was tremendously helpful in rural communities in every state during the Great Depression, making it possible to increase farm production and to extend limited nutritional resources. After World War Two, CE supported a resurgence of farm and community development to revitalize the economy, to increase the quality of life across the country, and to feed a hungry, war-torn world.
Here we are in 2010…and we need another ‘reconstruction’ to begin for our communities…but, for that to happen, we need the land-grant colleges and universities, and Cooperative Extension to step up for a new challenge. But here’s the tricky part…the old methods will have limited application, because we no longer have a mostly agrarian, rural society. While traditional CE learning and delivery systems will work well in some communities in some states, many completely new approaches will need to be explored and applied. We’ll need some innovative and creative research…and some interactive and tech-savvy delivery methods. A new ‘reconstruction’ of our 21st century communities will require open minds, adaptive research and dedicated on-the-ground service.
In the depths of the Civil War, leaders decided to make an investment in the rebirth of communities. Today as the consequences of the Great Recession move from the federal level…to the state…to the county…to the city…and then to our neighborhoods, we need a new investment of community-focused research and customized delivery of ground-breaking learning. No two communities have the same assets or challenges, so no two communities can be reborn in the same way. We need our land-grant colleges and universities…and Cooperative Extension professionals…to take on a new, 21st century mission: the reconstruction of communities as unique and sustainable life-support systems where people connect their lives in healthy ways so everyone can thrive.