MU Extension Hosted Community Conversations In 2017 Discover Important Issues For Missourians, Leads To New Programs

   Greene and Christian counties hosted a moderated community conversation to talk about the crucial issues and challenges in our communities that deserve close attention in the next three to five years.
   In addition to extension council members and partners, the 24 participants included representatives of local agriculture groups, master gardener volunteers, educators, non-profit leaders, government officials, retirees, professionals and healthcare employees.
   The discussion was one of 42 community conversations across the state in late 2016 and early 2017. Two others were hosted in southwest Missouri: one on March 1 in West Plains and another on March 7 in Neosho.
   “It was a concerted effort to hear from a broad cross-section of Missourians,” said Mary Leuci, director of evaluation and engaged scholarship for MU Extension. Leuci oversaw the Community Conversations project with Mark Stewart, MU Extension's director of off-campus operations.
   “The local forums were a way for community members to connect, and talk about future challenges and opportunities,” Stewart said.
   Trained facilitators at each location conducted the conversations using a process developed in the mid-1990s called “World Cafe.”
   “It’s a research-based, tested process,” Leuci said. “You get a very different kind of engagement from people thinking and talking together about the issues compared to individuals responding to a survey.”
   In MU Extension's Community Conversations, participants formed small groups that selected and prioritized key issues, offered possible strategies for addressing them and identified potential partners for implementing those strategies
   “The format allows people to build sequentially off of a group’s ideas and provide feedback,” Leuci said.
   Regional directors, county program directors and field faculty helped with the enormous task of selecting sites, scheduling forums and compiling lists of invitees.
   “We wanted to reach beyond the usual suspects,” said Stewart. “We tried to include people who didn’t know us very well.”
   Following the conversations was the less visible but equally crucial task of collecting and analyzing the data generated by the forums. Extension collaborated with MU Department of Agricultural Education and Leadership on this process of qualitative analysis, which identified 158 issues.     Most of these issues fell within one or more of six overarching themes: economy, education, food and natural resources systems, health, infrastructure, and youth and families.
   One finding that came up at the meeting in Ozark was concern over the lack of community volunteers and leaders.
   “That same issue ranks high statewide and is part of the reason an EXCCL Leadership Development program was started in Greene County this year,” said David Burton, community development specialist with University of Missouri Extension. “This statewide finding pointed out the need for this type of community program.”
   The statewide data and insights gained from the Community Conversations have value outside of MU Extension, Leuci says. For example, an entrepreneurship class in the Trulaske College of Business will use information about key challenges in community to develop real-life case studies. Students will create entrepreneurial solutions to issues.
   Leuci says the findings will also be of use to university units such as the Engagement Council and the Broader Impacts Network, as well as campus and UM System leadership. ∆
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