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Civic Engagement and Economic Development

July 18, 2012

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead

The economy is the dominant issue in the 2012 presidential election campaign between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. It is also generally a dominant issue in any campaign for governor, county commissioner, and mayor because economic development has an immediate and direct impact on people’s lives. Jobs and corporate investment create wealth that citizens can use to purchase goods and start new businesses. Strong economies at all levels of government produce tax revenues, which allow governments to achieve their missions in education, infrastructure, citizen welfare, and service delivery. At the community level, when people hear the term “economic development,” they tend to think first about the recruitment of industry and jobs. But bringing economic prosperity to a community requires much more than just enticing a company to open a new plant in the local industrial park. Business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, retail and commercial development, and tourism and retiree attraction, for example, are also important components of a diverse economic development strategy.

As we consider a framework for understanding economic development, we should not overlook its most important and fundamental element. That is, prosperous local economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities. Community economic vitality is largely determined by the quantity of leaders in a community and how, individually and collectively, they talk, decide, act, and interact with one another. This focus on community civic infrastructure contrasts with the prevailing view of economic development dominated by a focus on business recruitment, marketing, financial incentives, and industry location announcements. While industry recruiters certainly play important roles in the economic development of their communities, so do the high school coach, the hospital administrator, the plant manager, the Sunday school teacher, the city beautification council, and the citizen who organizes a town meeting.

Community Development and Cooperative Extension
For the past six years, I have directed the Economic and Community Development program area for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. So it is probably no surprise that I believe that community and economic development should be a high priority for Extension. Surveys of Alabamians always rank “the economy” or “jobs” as our state’s most important issue, along with education. So involvement in economic and community development elevates Cooperative Extension’s relevance in communities throughout Alabama.

One of the most common justifications for the continuing relevance of Cooperative Extension is that it provides research-based information. While this is an important contribution, clinging to this rationale seems somewhat precarious in the Internet era. With a click of a mouse, individuals can have access to the knowledge of any human being who has ever lived. Alabama Cooperative Extension does not have a monopoly on information, even in areas of unquestioned expertise like agriculture, youth development, and family and consumer sciences.

I believe that the true competitive advantage for Cooperative Extension is not just our wealth of expertise, but also our ability to build and sustain relationships in every county of the state. In my more than 20 years of working in Alabama communities, one of the most common deficiencies I find in communities is disconnectedness. That is, there may be many good programs conducted by government, schools, churches, the business community, and others. But generally these efforts operate independently, rather than in concert with one another. There is a tremendous need to connect fragmented community assets and initiatives and to engage citizens in working together to address community concerns. Cooperative Extension is perfectly situated to serve that role. In Alabama, we have 67 counties, with a Cooperative Extension office and Coordinator in each. Because County Extension Coordinators (CECs) are embedded in the community as a trusted resource, and because they are external to local stakeholder groups, they are in a perfect position to serve as neutral, trusted facilitators and bring people together to discuss and deal with local issues. Extension as catalyst and connector is extremely relevant and meets an enormous need, especially in our most challenged communities.

Of course, this is not a new idea. Bringing people and communities together to address local needs was a fundamental rationale for the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914 with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. The purpose was to extend the university’s research into communities and to provide local people with knowledge, research, and expertise they could use to address local needs. In 1940, M.L. Wilson, the director of the national Cooperative Extension Service, described the organization’s central purpose as civic organizing and leadership development. According to Wilson (1940):

“Extension workers and others who are charged with assisting in the development of programs to meet not only current needs, but also the changed needs of the world, are vitally concerned with questions of leadership . . . Their primary job is to help the community analyze its problems in the light of all available information and so to organize itself that the necessary action can be taken.”

Community Leadership and Engagement
We agree with Wilson that a primary job of Extension should be community leadership and engagement. In 2006, one of my first actions as ECDI Director was to convene the Alabama Rural Roundtable, a gathering of about 60 state and local rural leaders. The Roundtable identified three major issues that required attention if we are to bring prosperity to rural Alabama. In order of priority, they were: 1) Community Leadership and Citizen Engagement, 2) Education and Workforce Development, and 3) Communications Technology. Using this input, we adjusted our strategic plan to make these our Institute’s top priorities. Community leadership has become a central focus of ECDI. We hired a community leadership specialist to manage our leadership program, developed the Rural Alabama Initiative mini-grant program, and assumed administration of the Alabama Community Leadership Network (ACLN). (We have also launched major initiatives in the areas of workforce development and broadband adoption).

Rural Alabama Initiative
The Rural Alabama Initiative (RAI) is an Extension-funded mini-grant program designed and administered by ECDI. The
 RAI grant program provides financial support to seed worthwhile rural initiatives that help boost a wide range of economic and community development initiatives. Over the past 5 years, Extension
has provided more than $1,300,000 in
RAI funding to support 137 projects across rural Alabama. Over 75% of these projects were to create or strengthen adult and youth leadership development programs.

Alabama Community Leadership Network
We are convinced that local leadership development programs can be catalysts for building stronger, more prosperous communities throughout Alabama. The Alabama Community Leadership Network (ACLN), which is housed in ECDI, connects, and provides resources for, adult and youth community leadership programs throughout Alabama. We see these local leadership programs as having great potential for advancing a collaborative leadership model, growing the quantity of leaders, increasing the capacity of citizen leaders to address the challenges they face, and thereby strengthening civic life and maximizing economic potential in communities throughout Alabama.

Citizen Engagement
Civic engagement is now integrated into all ECDI programs and activities – whether in education, research, or community outreach. We have conducted many training sessions in public deliberation and civic engagement and provided technical and financial support for County Extension Coordinators (CECs) who want to become more involved in citizen engagement. In partnership with the Southern Rural Development Center, ECDI managed the Turning the Tide on Poverty project where Extension Coordinators in Perry and Dallas counties took the lead in conducting community study circles on the issue of poverty. Four CECs recently participated in a project with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life to conduct deliberative forums in their counties. Over the next year, all 67 CECs will be conducting “Connected Community” forums to discuss and address local broadband adoption issues.

Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns
Over the past two years, I have participated in a working group that is discussing the impact of deliberative practices in communities as well as new and innovative ways to engage citizens and community leaders. The project, Citizens at Work: Engaging for Prosperous Communities, convened a group of organizations throughout the nation that provide planning, training, or technical support to community innovators. In addition to ECDI, the project-working group included representatives from the Kettering Foundation, Esquel Group, International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, National Civic League, New Mexico First, Southern Growth Policies Board, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the West Virginia Center for Civic Life. With assistance from Linda Hoke of the Southern Growth Policies Board, I took on the assignment of developing a new instrument that may be used to engage community stakeholders and citizens as they address pressing community concerns. Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns is a question-based instrument for bringing citizens and stakeholders into a deliberative process to identify the heart of the problem, identify options for addressing the problem, weighing costs, benefits, and tradeoffs associated with each choice, designing a possible course of action, and engaging others in working toward a solution.

In the spirit of M.L. Wilson, we are committed to helping each Alabama community “analyze its problems in the light of all available information and so to organize itself that the necessary action can be taken.” We hope that Community Questions will be a useful tool as we take on this challenge. Our plan is to find multiple ways to utilize Community Questions in community leadership programs, community strategic planning projects, and to help citizens and stakeholders discuss and take collective action on specific local issues. The Southern Growth Policies Board has made Community Questions available for download from its website ( and earlier this year used a version of the instrument in hundreds of community forums throughout the South on the issue of workforce development.

Final Thoughts
Community leadership and engagement is the cornerstone for building strong and prosperous local economies. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, in summarizing the results of the Foundation’s history of research in the field of civil economics, wrote:

“What stands out in the high-achieving community is not so much the characteristics of the leaders as their number. . . The high-achieving community had ten times more people providing leadership than communities of comparable size. This [high-achieving] community is “leaderful”; that is, nearly everyone provides some measure of initiative. And its leaders function, not as gatekeepers, but as door-openers, bent on widening participation.”

We are convinced that thriving local economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities; that strong communities require engaged citizens and diverse, connected leaders; and that ECDI and Extension can have a role in fostering and facilitating critical engagement and stakeholder connections.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2014 7:40 am

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  2. May 1, 2014 11:06 pm

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