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A Year Ago…


~by Michael Wilcox

Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Associate Director / North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)


A year ago, when I started my new role as assistant director and program leader with Purdue Extension, I was focused on helping our team continue our success, increasing our reach and deepening our impact. As summer gave way to autumn and winter couldn’t decide if it was going to arrive or not, our entire team was working hard and making a difference across the state and beyond.

Looking back, it was truly full steam ahead in the first two months of 2020. Community Development educators, regional educators and specialists were filling their calendars with meetings, community planning events, educational workshops and professional development activities. Purdue University’s Schowe House (home to PCRD and Community Development), like our Purdue Extension offices across the state, was a beehive of activity.

Then… it wasn’t.

These past twenty weeks have been a blur. During this time, over 65,000 Indiana residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and, sadly, nearly 3,000 have died from the disease. Like everyone else, our Purdue Extension Community Development team needed to shore things up at home (daycare, distance learning, dealing with family needs, spousal job loss, etc.) and then turn to our communities and figure out how to meet their needs as everyone’s world, both personal and professional, had been turned upside down.

Collectively, we have learned a lot since March 16, 2020. I will share my top four takeaways:

  1. We have learned that the capacity of local leaders, residents and organizations is a function of many different factors, and, in times of crisis, their strengths and limitations are exposed. Prevailing power dynamics, social networks, fiscal aptitude and cultural norms are some of the key areas to consider. An evolution from being selfish to self-aware and from exclusive to inclusive must take place.
  2. We have learned that building strong, vibrant communities in an era of social (physical) distancing requires adopting new technology, recognizing and addressing the constraints that exist at the individual and community levels and finding innovative ways to bridge gaps. While face-to-face interaction is optimal in the eyes of many – both in the workplace and in our communities – we need to focus on efforts that effectively (and safely!) connect our governments, businesses, schools, health care providers, community institutions & organizations and all residents.
  3. We have learned that having research-based resources on-hand is extremely important, but that translating those resources so everyone can understand, accept and apply them requires constructive dialogue and more than one analytical approach or logical argument.
  4. We have learned that decision-making is fraught with challenges, including the age-old balance between self-interest and the common good. Using inclusive and deliberative decision-making frameworks and processes is a start, especially in terms of groups or organizations. With individuals, now is the time to learn and follow the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.”

Twenty weeks.

During this time, we have had to cancel countless events, workshops, trainings and meetings. In their place, we have switched venues and effectively adopted online strategies to communicate, educate, plan and execute. We have successfully written several grants (more news to come in the next newsletter!) and completed projects. Our team members have been celebrated locally and nationally (our Navigating Difference team, in partnership with South Bend Community Schools and Indianapolis Public Library received the NACDEP Diversity Award in June!). I am so proud of the entire team. They have successfully pivoted in so many ways, their innovation and dedication to their communities and stakeholders has been nothing short of incredible.

Moving forward, we will continue to work towards successfully achieving our goals, increasing our reach and deepening our impact. Though we may be doing things differently, we remain steadfast in our commitment to everyone across the state. Purdue Extension Community Development’s mission remains: “Strengthen the capacity of local leaders, residents and organizations to build strong, vibrant communities by using research-based resources to guide their decisions.”

Yours in service, Michael.


~Michael D. Wilcox, Jr. is Purdue Extension’s Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development and a Community and Regional Economics Specialist in the Department of Agricultural Economics.

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