The truth is often less salacious and more complicated than the myth that prevails. Through simplification and reorganization, history begins to make narrative sense. Extension is not immune from this phenomenon. Within the Extension system the legend begins with humble beginnings and good intentions until it is raised up by the federal government and spread nationwide through rural communities.
The reality is that Extension is an ever-evolving system that extends well beyond the scope of agriculture and education. According to the USDA the roots of Extension go back to the agricultural clubs from the early 1800s. The real story of Extension is one of institutionalization of private and public efforts that are unsustainable in the traditional economic system.
At the National Urban Extension Conference (NUEC), professionals from around the nation gathered to discuss the successes and opportunities of urban extension work, but present in nearly every conversation was the understanding that the role of the Extension professional is to facilitate taking a program to scale. As Extension professionals, the responsibility is not to the myth but to educating the people. That education may look very different when compared to a rural environment, but the intent remains the same.
It was a privilege to present at the NUEC, but the greatest learning experience was researching the demographic and programmatic trends in Cincinnati, Ohio. The story of Cincinnati is almost in direct opposition to the myth of Extension. Founded in 1788, the city predates the founding of the USDA but not the agricultural heritage of America.
Cincinnati is not known for fertile lands, instead the greatest agricultural achievement is pork production and animal processing. While intimate and extremely important, most people aren’t comfortable with the truth behind animal processing.
By the time Extension was founded in 1914, Cincinnati was the 10th largest city in America, the initial focus on rural communities left Cincinnati to continue to grow and develop without the initial support of Extension. Fast forward to 2019 and OSU Extension has become a valued member of the community with a wide reach and great support, but there is still a lot more work to do. The time has come to look at existing infrastructure and identify what needs to be taken to scale. Like a lot of urban counterparts, the goal moving forward is greater collaboration with the community and championing their causes.
Thanks to the conversations, reflections, presentations, and research, the conclusion that greater collaboration is going to be key to building a stronger and more sustainable Extension will prevail and benefit not only OSU, CFAES, and Extension but the Greater Cincinnati region, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, the nation, and the world.