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Catalyzing Community Capacity



This is the season when many of us commune together as colleagues at work and family members at home. In the best of circumstances, we trade stories, celebrate our successes and collectively reflect on circumstances that did not work out as we had hoped. Conversely, some of us find ourselves at odds with one another and struggle with the resounding dissonance that results.

Our personal experiences are a microcosm of what occurs in the communities that the Purdue Extension Community Development program serves across the state of Indiana, and beyond. While our evidence and asset-based approaches have great transformative potential, we often must address relationship-oriented or institutional discord before we can move forward with something more content-driven. This requisite ‘capacity building’ helps promote collaboration and trust, two key ingredients for community development.

These thoughts were forefront in my mind a few weeks ago when I was on assignment with a Purdue colleague. As I have found myself many times before, I was the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ and having to adapt on the fly. As Community Development Extension Professionals, we (of course!) had a solid and detailed process agenda, well thought out opportunities for interactive community input, robust content and our secret weapon – the Community Development Trinity: sticky wall, Post-It notes and scented markers! This solid foundation proved critical as we made the executive decision to scrap all of our predetermined plans and create an entirely new agenda due to unforeseen circumstances and new information.

Throughout the four days, we listened deeply, adjusted as necessary and held everyone involved accountable. If we were going to succeed in this first phase, everyone was going to have to do their part. One key mantra was, “this is your project, not Purdue Extension’s project.” The expert-driven model was a non-starter. That said, our technical expertise was a crucial part of the process as reliance on anecdotal information and personal agendas was not going to contribute constructively to the effort. In the end, the requisite trust was built and more progress was made than we could have ever expected. This was a direct result of the ownership taken by the community and the catalytic role that Purdue Extension played.

In wake of Thanksgiving and Purdue Extension’s Professional Development Conference, our team is at that point in the year where we are busily tying up loose ends, scheduling programs into the late winter and early spring and preparing for some much-needed family time during the holiday break. As you take stock of 2019 and begin to anticipate what is to come in 2020, please afford yourself some time to think about the role you play in your family, at work and in the community in which you live. Are you doing everything you can to play that positive, catalytic role? Are you the source of the dissonance or part of the solution?

On behalf of the entire Purdue Extension Community Development team, have a safe, joyful and healthy holiday season and get ready for an amazing new year!


Michael D. Wilcox, Jr., PhD

Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Community and Regional Economics Specialist / Dept. of Agricultural Economics / Purdue University
Senior Associate / Purdue Center for Regional Development


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