Program leading dialogues on race and racism wins national Extension award

A voluntary training program aimed at preparing interested individuals to lead dialogues about race and racial issues has won the National Diversity in Extension Award from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Washington State University Extension was a charter member of the Coming Together for Racial Understanding (CTRU) program and is expanding their work.

Around 20 people sit on folding chairs in a circle talking.
In 2019, the first group of WSU Extension CTRU trainees met in person to learn how to lead dialogues about race and racial issues.

In 2016, national Extension leaders formed a team to consider how Extension professionals around the country could respond to growing community tensions around racial issues, said Marcia Ostrom, WSU School of Environment associate professor and extension specialist. This team recommended building Extension’s skills and capacity to promote civil discourse on race through launching a voluntary nationwide training program.

Ostrom, who works on food and agriculture, organized a WSU Extension team to apply for the first week-long CTRU train-the-trainer program in 2018. Core teams of three from 20 states learned how to lead dialogue-to-change processes so they could go back and train their colleagues.

“Extension is here to serve everyone,” Ostrom said. “As a land grant institution, our job is to serve the population we have in Washington. That population is becoming increasingly diverse. We can’t really offer inclusive Extension programming unless we’re comfortable working across cultural and racial differences.”

The national CTRU program, coordinated by the Southern Rural Development Center, offers ongoing training and support for state teams. Thus far, WSU’s core CTRU team has focused on building capacity among Extension faculty and staff. They have trained 46 new volunteer facilitators to lead dialogues on race using the CTRU curriculum. In turn, these facilitators helped to lead study sessions for another 115 colleagues.

In one of their first programs offered for the public, trained CTRU facilitators worked with Michael Wallace of Whatcom County Extension and the county’s newly-formed Government Alliance for Racial Equity to hold dialogues on racial equity. Around 30 county employees, divided into four groups, engaged in facilitated weekly dialogues in November and December to develop a deeper understanding of how racism affects individuals, institutions, and communities.

Jenny Glass, a plant diagnostician at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, co-led a group of six county employees who volunteered to take part.

“We looked into culture and racism and talked about ways we can impact racism,” said Glass, who has worked at WSU for 20 years. “As a facilitator, we didn’t teach, we encouraged discussion and listening, guiding people through ideas. It was a great place to listen and speak.”

Glass signed up to receive the CTRU facilitator training after seeing an email describing the program.

“Over the years, I’ve become frustrated that we say Extension serves everyone,” said Glass, who teaches community groups about various plant diseases as one aspect of her work. “But in general, it feels like we don’t do that. I want to get my work out to underserved communities and this training is a great step in that direction.”

Jen Moss, a SNAP-Ed co-lead for the region covering Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Island, and San Juan counties, said she had a very positive experience when she did the CTRU facilitator training. She also saw different reactions from her colleagues doing the training.

“I saw people have major revelations and moments of ‘Wow, this is important,’” Moss said. “And I saw people who have been doing work in this area for a long time get excited to engage in the topic with colleagues. There really was something for everyone.”

Moss has since facilitated conversations with people outside of Extension who are interested in learning more about topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion. She said participants like the fact that the program isn’t debate, it’s people talking with each other.

“One of the main tenets of this program is dialogue,” Moss said. “The program is more of a guideline. It’s not so scripted that we can’t bring in our own perspectives or tailor the training for specific partners.”

Anyone who wants to learn more about Extension’s role in leading civil dialogues on race and equity or the CTRU program can contact one of the core CTRU trainers for Washington: Marcia Ostrom; Bernardita Sallato; or Lee Anne Riddle.