Engaging Communities Through Issues Forums

Our Story — Engaging Others and Creating Our Forum

For the 2018-2019 and the 2021 forums, the planning timeline was driven by the funding sources, which allowed for one year to plan and implement the forums. More or somewhat less time could certainly be used depending on your team, the issue, and the type of forum you are trying to plan. The forum agenda evolved after reviewing the literature and realizing that many of our Extension colleagues and community partners were not aware of the breadth of the issue both in terms of content but also in terms of

Delaware 2018 Forum

the levels of impact at each sector of the socio-ecological model. For example, many of our agriculture colleagues understood that farms and farm finances were stressors and that these were causing distress among the farming community as well as impacted farm families. Our Family and Consumer Science colleagues understood that the well-being of farmers had an impact on the well-being of the rest of the family. Our financial management colleagues understood that financial stress and access to health insurance was impacting both individual and family abilities to get and pay for health care. Individually, our colleagues were doing the best they could to understand and address the issues and work with their clientele. But few were talking with each other or the greater community; they were not using a sociological model approach to build sustainable strategies. Engaging community members in conversations through interviews (2018-2019) and a focus group (2021) helped us learn about what our participants’ perceptions were, their issues of concern for the farming population and how they framed those issues. For example, in talking to a secretary of health and human services, her comment was: “I had no idea that farm populations were such a ‘vulnerable population.’” Further discussion helped our team understand that was a term used by state health officials to identify certain population segments to which state resources could be focused. For both forum initiatives, a small group of Extension professionals were involved in applying for the grant. In 2017 the team sought funding from the Northeast programming backgrounds — Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture, Farm Management and Risk Management and from Family and Consumer Science — Health and Personal Finance. For this forum, we conducted one online focus group. A few of those 24 people went on to guide development of the forum agenda and provide feedback to our naming and framing process. As we developed the forum agenda, we felt it was important to begin with grounding all participants in what was known from the literature and to provide the local context. We created case studies for three purposes. One purpose was to connect forum participants to the lives of farmers. A second purpose of the case studies was to generate participants' ideas about resources that could be engaged for providing assistance through actions they identified. The third purpose was to introduce participants to other community members from different disciplines and community sectors. With the online virtual forum, we developed an agenda that included breaks, minimized length of time presenters spoke, offered interactive activities, and used breakout groups for the case studies and Strategic Doing™ activities. We also provided games and door prizes to incentivize returning to the meeting on time. (They worked!) Our forums culminated in the Strategic Doing™ process as we wanted to support actions being taken. Because we knew the issues we were tackling were big, and that this could be overwhelming and daunting, we chose a tested process that could produce accomplishable small steps that could create some level of change. As the forum agenda was developed, we also engaged additional Extension educators. Some provided expertise; others assisted with facilitation of the small groups, managed the technology during the forum, or engaged in the on going Strategic Doing™ post -forum projects. Several reported how valuable the experience was for their own professional development.


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