Extension’s facilitation team adds value to communities

Fa.cil.i.tate: to make easy or easier. Thanks to the efforts of N.C. Cooperative Extension’s facilitation team, planning, implementing and collaborating have become easier for groups and counties across the state.

Since 2010, more than 110 Extension professionals have received training from a core team of about 20. This group now has the skills to assist groups with collaborative work, strategic planning and more. The program has 3 major areas of application: county team development, organizational and association, and statewide.

This is part of Extension’s effort to provide “high-touch” service, connecting the organization with home communities, said Dr. Mary Lou Addor, program leader and organizational development specialist for Cooperative Extension. As director of NC State University’s Natural Resources Leadership Institute, Addor has experience in facilitating discussion of environmental and natural resource issues.

This February, the N.C. Extension Facilitation Program is receiving a national team award from the Joint Council on Extension Professionals at the JCEP national meeting in Las Vegas, Nev.

Extension professionals who have provided facilitation services in their communities say the skills they provide have helped in many ways and positioned Extension as the go-to agency for training, planning and creating consensus around issues.

“Facilitation skills are fundamental to meaningful engagement,” Addor said. “From the simplest act of writing a better meeting agenda to data gathering and idea sharing, to developing options and solutions, Extension agents, specialists and county Extension directors on this team assist colleagues, associations and other organizations in productive meeting management and facilitation of complex, strategic issues.”

“Facilitation is a tool and skill still needed in so many places,” said Leigh Guth, Lincoln County Extension agent in family and consumer sciences. “Lou [Addor] has continued to provide us with support and training. It has been a real joy in Extension to have this opportunity.”

In Lincoln County, Guth has led facilitation efforts on a number of issues, including farmland preservation and an Institute for Emerging Issues discussion on building manufacturing as a career in Lincoln County.

One community issue that Guth helped guide discussion on was the fate of an old Rosenwald School that once served African-American students. “In Lincoln County we have a historic Rosenwald School that was in disrepair. We had to do something or it would fall down,” Guth said.

Lincoln County Commissioners needed help in listening to the needs of the community and making a decision on the school, so they asked for Guth’s help. Guth arranged a meeting with 25 members of the local African-American community, county commissioners and county government officials.

Guth led the group through a process of describing what the Rosenwald School meant to the community when it was operational. “The commissioners heard the community members’ concerns,” she said. “We asked, ‘what do we do we need to do now?’ We talked about it, shared it and recorded it.”

As a result of the efforts, Lincoln County received a $500,000 grant and some additional funds to help restore the school. The effort to restore and create a purpose for the facility continues, and more partners have become involved.

“It has taken a long time, but many good things do,” Guth said.

Guth enjoys supporting her community as a facilitator, though she still gets nervous doing facilitation, having constantly to think on her feet. “I personally cannot say enough about this program. It can only benefit Extension,” she said.

“Not only do we support our partners and internal clients, we are building professional relationships across our own disciplines, counties, districts and NC State’s campus, as well as with organizations like Emerging Issues and NC State’s Industrial Extension Service,” Addor said. “The team-building and problem-solving activities that facilitators learn help Extension cultivate new working relationships.”

“In Extension, we use facilitation all the time, to arrange meetings and conduct strategic planning,” said Cabarrus County Extension Director Robbie Furr, a member of extension’s facilitation team.

Across the state, Extension facilitators have helped support strategic planning efforts at other county centers and for groups outside of Extension. “It’s not difficult,” Furr said, “but it helps to have someone from the outside. I couldn’t do strategic planning for my own county, but a skilled facilitator knows how to handle it.” Furr explained that bringing in an outside facilitator allows those within the county Extension group to focus on their own strategic goals.

Furr conducted two IEI listening sessions in Cabarrus County – one related to manufacturing and the most recent related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

The STEM sessions brought together professionals from schools and distance education providers to examine the gaps in the local STEM education program and how those gaps can be addressed. For all the IEI sessions, feedback is collected and returned to NC State’s IEI for further discussion at the state level.

Furr said facilitation is an important service for Extension to offer. “In this role, we are the conveners. No matter what side you’re on, we’re your friend,” he said. “This gives us an important tool in our toolbox.”

At the November summit, a facilitator (left) takes part in a  team-building and problem-solving session.
At the November summit, a facilitator (left) takes part in a team-building and problem-solving session.

As a community resource development agent in Edgecombe County, Jamilla Hawkins is no stranger to working with community groups. But she also has used her facilitation training for statewide initiatives. In November, she and about 30 other teams members helped facilitate discussion at the N.C. Agriculture and Biotechnology Summit at NC State University.

With Rebecca Liverman of Washington County, Hawkins helped the five-county Turning Point Workforce Development Group develop a mission and strategic plan two years ago. The group members developed three primary goals that they are still working toward, Hawkins said. Hawkins, Liverman and Guth also provided facilitation training to N.C. Health and Human Services Department employees who were part of a community transformation grant program, saving the state agency countless dollars in training costs.

Hawkins led Edgecombe County’s Human Relations group in a revitalization process to develop priority goals, based on a new vision. She helped an Edgecombe entrepreneurs group to develop a plan for a small business incubator and is working with a local tourism group on drawing attention to historic Shiloh Landing, a place on the Tar River where slaves were brought to be sold on the town commons.

“I use this training in every facet of my work,” Hawkins said. Among the tools she has learned: ice breakers to help groups become more engaged, a “cafe” of ideas where groups rotate among tables to share thoughts on various issues, rules of engagement like the “parking lot” where an out-of-place idea can reside temporarily and colorful sticky notes for brainstorming.

Hawkins and the other facilitators feel their skills have enhanced their value to their communities. “People say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Extension did that.’ We’re education professionals, and we can provide a real service that people can use without having to pay a lot for facilitation,” she said.

– Natalie Hampton



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