Systems Which Learn -An Equity Imperative
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this…We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.”
Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968
Delivered four days before his assassination, Dr. King’s words seem more relevant than ever to the wickedly interconnected social, economic, and environmental problems we face today. Interestingly, he also called out the Land Grant system for selectively and unfairly “undergird[ing] its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor”1. After several recently settled discrimination lawsuits, concerted attempts are now being made to address these in the USDA.
What history like this shows us is that even the most well-meaning organizations and systems, including those intended to support “knowledge with a public purpose”, can suffer from the same blind spots and biases we experience at an individual level. Both are also prone to self-reinforcing/preserving tendencies or feedback loops which can perpetuate and even magnify often hidden or “implicit” bias, observed as confirmation bias and motivated reasoning2, and at a higher level, systemic or institutional bias3.
Continuous Cycles of Learning, through Reflection & Conversation
Yet because they have so much more influence, affecting many individuals at the same time while shaping the very playing field of opportunity (and perception of that field), it’s essential that systems as a whole and not just their constituent “parts” (e.g. people and projects) learn and evolve. That means repeatedly reflecting, critically, on systems level performance and impact, including emergent behaviors not readily identifiable at lower levels. And periodically revising definitions and metrics of success, and the methods used to achieve them, through continuous learning cycles.
it’s essential that systems as a whole and not just their constituent parts learn and evolve…by repeatedly reflecting, critically, on systems level performance and impact.. through continuous learning cycles.
Several years ago my own community convened a series of film screenings and discussions to explore how racial perceptions can contribute to and be reflected in structural barriers. Episode three of the series, The House You Live In, provided powerful insights into how institutions and policies can unfairly channel resources, power, status and wealth. In this case one of the greatest wealth building opportunities of the 20th century, the post WWII housing boom.
A Call for Equity, Inclusion & Transparency, Within & Without
An increasing concern for equity can be seen throughout Extension, through efforts like the Change Agents States project and various eXtension groups like the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion CoP. Equity was also a major focus of a Community, Local and Regional Food Systems CoP hosted Food Security conference in Cleveland4. Participatory research5 is one way Cooperative Extension is attempting to cultivate more equitable relations supporting knowledge production through reflexive practices.
Yet as this report on Land Grant response to the “Stakeholder Rule”6 from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) finds, there is more that can be done to promote inclusion and transparency in the Land Grant system. It reveals:
the enormous complexity of the Land Grant system and the considerable burden these institutions face in remaining viable and responsive in the current environment… How to design and manage each institution offering public service and scholarship so that it provides adequate accountability and full transparency (while honoring academic independence) without procedures that become too bureaucratic and burdensome, (which could limit communication and responsiveness) is the challenge for both the administration and the stakeholders who are the guardians of our Land Grant institutions. Stakeholders themselves must be the stewards of the Land Grant mission. It is not just the institutions that bear the burden of charting a responsible course…
In future posts7 I’ll share some further thoughts on how and why reimagining our Land Grant system as a networked knowledge commons can help address these needs. So that we and it as a whole might learn how to more equitably and effectively “undergird” and connect the diverse communities (of place, practice, interest, and inquiry) we serve, as well as the systems we engage with and rely on, including food systems.
- Listen to this recording of Dr. King’s sermon starting around 14:10 to hear these words in his own voice
- Recent political news articles have highlighted the work of scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, whose research into motivated reasoning has shown how difficult it can be to change misinformed beliefs about things like vaccinations and politics. Direct factual contradictions can have a “backfire effect”, actually increasing misperceptions, in line with self-affirmation theory. Suggested ways of addressing motivated reasoning include 1) boosting the self-worth of the receiver before 2) providing corrective information from trusted sources, 3) in an easy to understand format.
- George Siemon, co-founder and CEO of the farmer-owned Organic Valley cooperative, mentions in this WorldAgNetwork interview systemic bias challenges (including from Land Grants) in developing that highly successful “social experiment disguised as a business.” OV now has farmer-owners in 34 states, Canada and Australia, with sales expected to rise above the $1 billion mark.
- This eXtension article coming out of the 2014 CLRFS CoP Food Security Conference from Heather Hyden, Shorlette Ammons, and Jannety Mosley, “suggest[s] a possible framework for Cooperative Extension to engage in deep internal reflection on the role it serves as an institutional gatekeeper in the food justice movement.”
- See Participatory Research: A Tool for Extension Educators, Julie Tritz, Journal of Extension, v.52:no.4 Aug. 2014
- The “Stakeholder Rule” was passed by the U.S. Congress as part of the 1998 Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act. Its purpose was to “encourage broader and more transparent roles for stakeholders in the system of Agricultural Experiment Stations, Land Grant Universities, and Cooperative Extension.” The Rule for its implementation was published in 2000.
- This Solving for Pattern series represents one effort to learn and work out loud as I pursue an eXtension supported “Land Grant Informatics” fellowship, exploring ways we might more effectively link people, technology and information in support of our Land Grant mission and communities we serve.