Diversity and Inclusion Experience Spurs Minnesota Professionals to Advocate Up the Chain of Command

silveira and marczak at the designathonMost employers buy into training and developing their employees so that they can be better employees.  But two University of Minnesota extension professionals determined that they needed to do more.  They decided that their charge was not only to “keep and grow” extension paraprofessionals in the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, but also to prepare them to leave for other employment.  Radical thought!

“We are developing them not just for us but for them so that when they leave us, they leave with a more robust portfolio where they can be marketable elsewhere and obtain a more livable, higher-wage job,” says Mary Marczak, Director of the Urban Family Development program.

One “aha moment” the women had was when they realized that they need to do a better job of “communicating up and down the system” to inform others of the value of nutrition educators’ work.

Cassie Silveira, EFNEP Coordinator and Extension Educator, says the four-county area surrounding Minneapolis is “amazingly diverse.”  One-third of the growth in recent population has come from international immigration, including people from Laos, Somalia, Ethiopia and Viet Nam. Nutrition educators need to reflect the diversity of the population to do their jobs, but they also need their own upward mobility.

Marczak’s and Silveira’s thoughts about paraprofessionals’ mobility needs crystallized into action steps at an eXtension Diversity and Inclusion “designathon,” a structured opportunity for extension personnel to sit around the table with other professionals to create educational programs that benefit their communities at large.  The designathon is one component of the Impact Collaborative process, in which extension professionals are supported to accelerate the adoption of innovation in local programming.  Each designathon encourages educators to visually map out concepts; get feedback from peers across their states; learn from “key informants,” who are national content or technology experts; explore avenues for funding; and discuss ways to communicate new ideas to their colleagues and potential partners.

One “aha moment” the women had was when the designathon led to story mapping.  They realized that although they know the value of what they are doing, they need to do a better job of “communicating up and down the system” with associate deans, assistant deans and others to inform them of the value of the educators’ work, too. Two specific policy changes for which the professionals are advocating are getting more dollars for staff professional development and opening up university training or courses for nutrition educators.  The designathon experience “helped us refine our story,” Silveira says.

Evaluation results from the February 2017 designathon found that 27 of the 55 participants said the experience helped to push their project forward – most frequently described as finding dedicated work time in a supportive environment.  This is particularly important as only 18 percent of Impact Collaborative project teams in 2017 said they are able to meet regularly, while 37 percent said they never are able to meet and work.

Do designathons have a future in changing how extension workers work?  Very likely.  As one participant said, “I plan to use the process again.  I didn’t think we could get this much done.”

For more information about EFNEP in Minnesota, contact:

Cassie Silveira at silv0100@umn.edu or 612-625-5205 or Mary Marczak at:
marcz001@umn.edu or 612-625-8419

Want to structure a designathon? Contact Terry Meisenbach at: tmeisenbach@extension.org

Click on the link for more information about the eXtension Diversity and Inclusion Impact Collaborative.