Perspectives Online

Southeast District agents head west for new ideas

In Chicago, a local resident tells her North Carolina visitors about her neighborhood's urban garden.
In Chicago, a local resident tells her North Carolina visitors about her neighborhood's urban garden.
(Courtesy Melissa Hight)
In April, 15 Southeast District Cooperative Extension professionals, accompanied by District Director Wanda Sykes and Northeast District Director Russell King, traveled more than 4,000 miles across nine states in vans to observe extension programs in North Dakota and Chicago.

The trip was designed to help the group learn about programming for diverse cultures. Like North Carolina, North Dakota is participating in the Change Agent States for Diversity program. The trip was funded in part through a North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Community and Rural Development Grant.

The group visited tribal universities as part of the trip, an experience that has encouraged group members to think of ways to include nontraditional audiences in their programming, Sykes said. In addition, they stopped in Chicago to visit urban gardens, as well as a distribution center for the Women, Infants and Children program, where Extension provides nutrition education.

"We have a personal and professional responsibility to go beyond our own world," Sykes said. "I have no doubt that as far as diversity is concerned, each agent who participated will find ways to program for non-traditional audiences."

Christine Smith, Wayne County family and consumer education agent who traveled with the group, said she was very moved by the story of the 1994 institutions and the plight of Native Americans they serve.

"We learned from Malcolm Wolfe, a Native American historian, that we all need to be more culturally sensitive and learn to respect the rights and needs of others," Smith said. "Because of this opportunity, I know that I am more empathetic. Now I understand Native Americans, their plight, their culture and a little more about their beliefs.

"We all have a lot more work to do in diversity education," Smith added.

The value of such experiences runs even deeper, Sykes said. The group observed a different model of Extension programming in North Dakota. The entire state has an Extension staff no larger than Wake County's, yet no one complained about resources, Smith said.

In North Dakota, Cooperative Extension professionals sought grant funding and partnerships more aggressively, Smith said.

In Chicago, the group visited two programs. The first was a community garden in the West Garfield Suburb of Chicago, started by local resident LaDonna Redmond, who has a child with food allergies, said Ivy Reid, Craven County FCE agent. Redmond needed organically grown foods, which were either unavailable or too expensive.

With the help of the city, Redmond and other residents obtained three vacant lots where they established the Institute for Community and Resource Development with an $870,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation. The institute creates jobs, reconnects people to the soil and educates people about the sources of food. At a nearby conservatory where the group starts its bedding plants, Extension Master Gardeners hold regular clinics for the public, Reid said.

The Southeast District group, led by Jennifer McCafferty, who works with the Expanded Foods and Nutrition Education Program, also visited one of 18 One-Stop WIC Food Centers in Chicago. The center, sponsored through Catholic Ministries, offers WIC vouchers, WIC-approved foods, cooking classes, vision screening, child care, nutrition education with Extension's assistance and more, Reid said. The center serves more than 4,000 clients and distributes more than 1,000 gallons of milk a week. 

Sykes said the trip gave the agents both an appreciation for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, as well as a broader view of new educational opportunities and new ways to work together as a team.

"We felt fortunate to be in North Carolina - to know the kind of resources and county support we have here," she said.

"Many experiences on this trip validated my personal beliefs about the importance of Cooperative Extension and the role we play in impacting citizens' lives," Smith said. "By stepping out of our North Carolina Extension box, we expanded our minds and experienced another perspective."

Smith said the trips also helped draw the district FCE agents together as a group. "The trip provided the opportunity for us to bond as agents and to get to know each other on a more personal level. Because we have that connection, we will work more efficiently in our Extension district."

Those who made the trip to North Dakota along with Sykes, Smith, Reid and King were Ray Harris, Carteret County Extension director; Robin Taylor, Onslow County FCE agent; Trudy Smith, Duplin County FCE agent; Melissa Hight, New Hanover County Extension director, and Dianne Gatewood, FCE agent; Anna Peele and Marsha Smith, Sampson County FCE agents; Peggie Garner, Onslow County Extension director; Jean Rawls, Pender County FCE agent; Susan Morgan, Brunswick County FCE agent; Joanne Williams, area supervising agent; and Lorelei Jones, interim EFNEP supervisor. Hight and Reid wrote the grant proposal for the trip.

"Real life is a great teacher, and our district is very fortunate to have had this opportunity," Smith said.

-Natalie Hampton