January 17, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence
COVINGTON, Ky.

Rosie Allen opened the Tri-State Diversity Conference with the tale of a 1968 Pontiac Catalina that connected her family in Crittenden to a family at the bottom of the world. When her son sold his car to an avid classic car collector in Australia, her family learned firsthand how small the world had become.

“Our children and grandchildren need to grow up in an environment of functioning in a world like that,” said Allen, a family and consumer sciences agent with University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension in Gallatin County. “We don’t even have to think across the United States; we need to be thinking globally more and more.”

A shrinking world means that, no matter where they live, people are faced with the issue of diversity in both their personal and professional lives. Extension professionals from four land-grant universities in the tri-state area – UK, Kentucky State University, The Ohio State University and Purdue University – meet yearly to discuss that issue. This year’s proceedings, the third such gathering, had a food-based theme, with the title of the conference being “Appreciating Diversity through Foods: Farm to Table for All Ages.”

Allen explained that, under the umbrella of food, the two-day event featured various breakout sessions related to community and economic development, youth development, family and consumer sciences and even globalization. Much of the focus this year was on youth and preparing them for a productive and successful future in a changing world.

According to conference organizers, objectives for this year’s meeting were to identify research needs relating to culturally diverse practices, integrate diversity into Extension programming and raise awareness of cultural food practices, as well as the potential for the production of new crops.

Janeen Tramble, secretary of UK Cooperative Extension’s Diversity Network and Trigg County 4-H and youth development agent, said that Extension’s work in diversity issues matches its mission.

“Our goal in Extension is supposed to be for all Kentuckians,” she said. “We’re supposed to be trying to reach out to everybody.”

According to Lionel Williamson, assistant dean for diversity in the UK College of Agriculture, UK’s participation in this conference is significant. Not only has Extension taken a leadership role in the area of diversity, but so has the university.

“Diversity is important to the College of Agriculture and to the University of Kentucky as well. Its importance is reflected in the university’s strategic plan and in the resources allocated to diversity efforts in both the campus community, as well as across all 120 Kentucky counties,” he said.

Extension professionals at the conference recognized the fact that changing population trends within states may require a different approach to reaching members of their communities. During lunch on the first day, Harold R. Benson, director of the land grant program at Kentucky State University addressed the fact that diversity is about appreciating differences and finding ways to partner with each other to benefit mankind.

“To be able to empower people, you have to understand people,” he said. “We live in a diverse world. Diversity doesn’t mean anything bad. It means everything good.”

“Because our environments have changed and because our workforce has changed, we need to be able to understand similarities and differences within the individuals we work with, as well as how we utilize our personal skills… as we try to get the best in the workforce or the best outcomes in the workforce,” said Dorothy McCargo Freeman, Minnesota 4-H program leader and assistant director and conference keynote speaker.

She said putting the focus on young people at this year’s conference paves the way for them to eventually become productive members of a global, diverse workforce. It is in this arena that Extension can provide powerful tools that support and hone the skills a student learns at school.

“We know from the literature that basically school is about teaching specific skills such as math and science,” she said. “Youth development and out of school time programs are about engaging young people in the process of applying those skills. So you teach them the skill set and then you deliberately help them apply what they have learned within their community.”

For instance, Freeman said, young people can develop a community service project around learning about differences in their communities or explore a topic they have learned about in school. Their experiences can be enhanced by making a public presentation of what they’ve learned. She said it takes more than a one-time activity to promote change. Instead, it takes a “series of activities that continuously build on the learning until it reflects changed behavior that indicates acceptance and tolerance of differences.”

With their partners in Indiana and Ohio, Kentucky Cooperative Extension personnel are striving to prepare our youth for the world in which they live.

“Diversity is among us,” Allen said. “We are all diverse. We need to be teaching our youth to function within a diverse culture because that is the world today.”

Contact: 

Rosie Allen, 859-567-5481, Harold R. Benson, 502-597-6310, Dorothy McCargo Freeman, 612-625-2440, Lionel Williamson, 859-257-1637