Tuskegee Public Dialogue Team strengthens project planning through Impact Collaborative

“The Impact Collaborative provided an excellent space for this team to collaborate on and develop their project with a network of experienced Extension professionals and find innovative ways to build off the work from the Coming Together for Racial Understanding cohort. Even more amazing has been their ability to adapt what they have gained from the Impact Collaborative and apply it to local issues. At each Impact Collaborative experience, the team has returned to Tuskegee University with a more developed project plan, and the opportunities they’ve had with the Impact Collaborative has helped shape a better vision for addressing this strategic priority. Their experience has also helped us to develop outcomes related to critical dialogue across all of our programming.” – Dr. Raymon Shange, Interim Assistant Dean for Cooperative Extension at Tuskegee University. 

Background on the Tuskegee Public Dialogue Team

Alabama, like much of the Southern Black Belt exhibits a deep need for racial understanding and equity. Formally beginning with the appointment in 1906 of Thomas Monroe Campbell as the first extension agent in the United States, the Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension Program (TUCEP) maintains a rich tradition of serving limited resource and underserved audiences who grapple first hand with hardships of structural racism. Through the establishment of the Tuskegee Public Dialogue Team, TUCEP is building internal capacities to help communities engage in civil dialogue around racial issues and their intersections with the food system. 

In 2016, the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) recognized a need to explore ways Cooperative Extension could respond to the need for improving race relations across the nation. Through their thoughtful leadership, the Rapid Response Team on Civil Discourse on Race Relations formed to explore existing efforts within the Cooperative Extension Service, catalogue resources available, and recommend next steps for building capacity. Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension Program (TUCEP) responded by sending a specialist to the first cohort group of Coming Together for Racial Understanding Train the Trainer event.

Following the training, the Tuskegee Public Dialogue Team (TPDT) was formed. The team includes Lindsey Lunsford, Sustainable Food Systems Resource Specialist and eXtension Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellow; Sheila De-Heer, Carver Integrative Sustainability Center (CISC) Intern; Danielle Smith, Sustainable Food Systems Resource Specialist; and Marquess James, Sustainable Food Systems Resource Specialist.

The TPDT focuses on building capacity within the Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension Program to help communities engage in civil dialogue around racial issues and their intersections with the food system. This project represents an integrative community-based public dialogue program tailored for the Black Belt region that produces community assessments enabling a platform for action unlike programs that overlook the impacts of the race within community understanding. 

A key aim of this project is to chart a course for Extension to become more relevant in the Black Belt Region. This program builds upon a fundamental element of effective Cooperative Extension programming: the need for community input to design programs. The program’s design is to gather members of the community from diverse demographics and hold space for their individual contributions, representing the inclusivity and equity sought by the initiative. The TPDT project represents an innovative way to reach clientele by bringing diverse levels of Extension and community to the table at once. 

Leveraging the Impact Collaborative

The TPDT traveled to the first national Impact Collaborative Summit to establish a clear project roadmap for creating a program aimed at helping communities engage in civil dialogue around racial issues. According to Lunsford, “we were a newly established team and the Impact Collaborative was one of our first joint outings as a group. At the October 2018 Impact Collaborative Summit, the ‘why statements’ through the Impact Collaborative’s Innovation Skill-Building workbook helped us formulate and solidify our guiding ideas. We also worked with Renée Wallace, one of the Impact Collaborative’s Key Informants, through a concept-mapping activity that helped us better visualize our project.”

At that Summit, the TPDT had the opportunity to present their program to a panel of Extension leaders and external partners at a “PitchFest.” Teams participating in the PitchFest not only gained valuable feedback from the panel and their peers across Extension, but teams that are most-ready to implement their projects and programs had the chance to secure an opportunity for strategic support. For the TPDT, their success at the PitchFest awarded them a free trip to the April 2019 Impact Collaborative Summit, and consulting from eXtension’s Partnership Development team consisting of Teresa Hogue, Andrea Hernandez, and Lynn Luckow. 

The Partnership Development team provided advice on developing a suite of investment partners and worked to link the TPDT with potential partnership opportunities. 

The TPDT used their experience with the Impact Collaborative to continue to deepen their project development. “After the Summit, we reviewed our curriculum to decide the best format for this project. We were doing a lot of research on different methods of public dialogue and different curriculums to help solidify our approach. We also used the time to do some internal practice and piloting, leading up to creating a more finalized plan,” said Lunsford. 

Refining their project plans

The team traveled to the April 2019 Impact Collaborative Summit to further strengthen their project planning as they moved towards launching their project. This Summit was designed to provide greater one-on-one support to project and program teams than the previous Summit, including a coach for each team, the opportunity to access a graphic artist and a concept-mapping coach to help visualize, connect, and identify gaps in their project planning, and several Key Informants on staff with subject-matter-expertise in specialized areas. 

According to Lunsford, “the visualization stations at this Summit was very helpful in creating a new way of looking at our project. This Summit also gave us the chance to realign our strategic vision after our first experience and reevaluate our direction a second time before we continued to move forward.”

The culminating event of the April 2019 Impact Collaborative Summit was an opportunity for teams to present their projects and programs to a panel of Extension leaders and external partners at a “LaunchFest.” Similar to the PitchFest in October 2018, teams participating in the LaunchFest not only gained valuable feedback from the panel and their peers across Extension, but teams that are most-ready to implement their projects and programs have the chance to secure an opportunity for funding. As a result of their presentation at the LaunchFest, the TPDT received a pre-approved application for a $5000 grant funded by eXtension to move their project towards implementation.

Piloting the TPDT Project

The TPDT project is beginning by mapping internal assets within CISC and TUCEP to identify stakeholders willing to participate in the initial pilot dialogues series. The pilot phase of the project serves as an opportunity to assess the best frameworks and practices to use when engaging internal communities. Following the pilot phase, there will be a subsequent rollout of the external community-focused phases of the project. 

Reflecting on her experience with the Impact Collaborative, Lunsford shared “the experience and the chance to focus alongside Extension leaders and the Impact Collaborative’s support networks outside of our regular environment was extremely valuable. The synergy and the cohesion of the Impact Collaborative national community has provided a better way to connect across Extension.”

About the eXtension Foundation

The eXtension Foundation is a membership-based non-profit designed to be the engine fueling U.S. Cooperative Extension’s advancement in making a more visible and measurable impact in support of education outreach from land-grant universities/colleges located in every state and territory. eXtension provides an array of opportunities for Extension professionals that foster innovation creation, the adoption of innovations at member institutions, and increased impact of Extension programs.