Engaging Communities Through Issues Forums


There are times when it is not sufficient to just provide technical education to individuals, families, organizations, and communities. There are times when situations move from private problems to public issues. At those times, Extension can engage communities in collaboratively addressing the issue(s). Our most recent interest in the use of forums as a community engagement tool started while working with individuals in the farming population. We recognized the need to go beyond working with individual farmers and farm families to addressing forces that were impacting their finances, health, and well-being. Those forces go well beyond the fences of the farms.

We realized that engaging the broader community was a necessary way to:

1) Increase understanding about farming-related issues and

2) Identify and engage resources of communities to better support farming populations.

We started shortly after the completion of a USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) grant. That study shed light on health and health insurance problems and issues facing farmers. The study revealed the impact those problems/issues have on personal health and financial well-being as well as on farming operations. You can learn more at: https://www.hirednag.net/. The first public engagement event, to process results from the study, was held in Vermont in 2016 under the direction of Shoshanah Inwood, lead AFRI grant researcher. Bonnie Braun served as Extension Communications Advisor; Maria Pippidis conducted a summit workshop. The interaction and outcomes of this public engagement summit inspired a team from the University of Maryland Extension, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension and Ohio State University to replicate the summit, with modifications, in our respective states. We received funding from the North East Regional Center for Rural Development to conduct face-to-face community action forums in 2018-2019 and to demonstrate immediate and longer-term impact on communities. The need to move from face-to-face to online forums arose with the COVID-19 pandemic. We sought funding and consulting services to enable us to compare outcomes of face-to-face forums with those of an online forum. We received funding from the 2020-21 USDA NIFI-Extension Foundation National Technology in Agriculture Extension initiative. This project allowed us to test on-site vs online forums, to create this how-to e-Pub and to offer professional development to those wanting to learn about conducting their own forums. We identified a need for a guidebook to help Extension professionals. What follows is based on lessons learned from planning, conducting, and evaluating all those forums.

Maria Pippidis, MS, Bonnie Braun, PhD, Jesse Ketterman, PhD, Shoshanah Inwood, PhD, and Nicole Wright, MS.


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