By Bo Beaulieu
CDS Presidential Speech, Dubuque, IA
July 21, 2014
Let me begin by noting that I am deeply honored to have served as President of the CDS over the course of the past year. As I approach the end of my tenure as president, I close a three year chapter as an officer of the Society, first as its VP for Operations, then as the VP for Programs (which has the be the hardest job because you are responsible for organizing or coordinating a good bit of annual conference program), and this year as President. What I have concluded from my three year stint is that we have a dedicated group of members who give so much to the CDS on a volunteer basis. These individuals are passionate about our professional organization and are putting their hearts and souls in supporting and advancing the work of the CDS, both domestically and internationally. So, I want to take a minute to thank all of you here today who have stepped up and given of your time and talents to our organization.
At the same time, I want to express my deep appreciation to our CDS business office associates -- especially Rhonda Weidman and Julie White -- who have provided outstanding management services to our Society. I am especially grateful for the positive and professional manner in which they have conducted their work during my time on the board. While there are instances where they could have thrown in the towel, they’ve always stayed focus on the positive. For that, I am extremely appreciative.
While I don’t intend to take up too much of your time with a presidential speech, I do want to share some of my thoughts on our organization and the important work I feel we must embrace together if we are to continue living up the very principles of the CDS.
The title of my talk, “New Beginnings . . . Again?” is part of my way of poking fun at these often overused words (“New Beginnings”)? At the same time, I’m serious about the fact that we find ourselves in interesting times, one that bodes well for the CDS if we do the right things.
So what did I have in mind when I chose the words, “New Beginnings . . . Again? for the title of my talk today? Well . . . as I take stock of what is happening in higher education institutions across the country, especially the ones that I am most familiar with – the land-grant universities – there is a noticeable expansion of investments being made in community development in a number of these institutions. I had the opportunity to take part in the annual meeting of NACDEP held in Grand Rapids, MI just a few weeks ago, and each of the state Extension CD leaders in the North Central region of the U.S. was given the opportunity to provide a brief update on the key activities taking place in his/her state. What I found most exciting is the number of NEW hires, new jobs being advertised, or positions that are on the cusp of being announced, all in the community development arena (or in closely related fields). Frankly, it’s been years since I’ve witnessed the type of expansion in the CD area that I feel is now underway at several universities across the country.
But before jumping for joy, I want to raise a caution flag and remind everyone that we’ve been here before. For those who are older like me (note I didn’t say OLD by OLDER), we have lived the highs and lows of CD in the land-grant system (and in other colleges, governmental and nonprofit organizations). There have been at least two times during the course of my career where the support for CD took a turn for the better. So, we are at the midst of what I would label the third “new beginning” for CD during the course of my 37 years in this profession. So, the challenge I want to bring to your attention is this: “What must be done to ensure that the investments being made in CD today are not short-lived, but represent a down payment by our educational institutions and other key organizations in the pursuit of sustained investments in the field of CD – in research, learning and practice/engagement.
What my experiences in the LGUs makes much too clear is that when things get tough on the funding front, one of the first programs to be placed on the chopping block for elimination or downsizing is CD. It is a decision that has cost us dearly in terms of momentum, impact, CDS membership, and in our capacity to respond to our key stakeholders. Perhaps my perspective is jaded, but I sense that things are slowly but surely changing. Why?
Part of the reason is strategic retirements. Fading from the leadership of our LGUs are the individuals who remained whetted to the old traditions – barely giving serious consideration to the re-balancing of resources and investments that are needed for the expansion of CD activities. But . . . new people are taking prominent positions in the LGUs, individuals who want to see us work hand in hand with communities (and regions) to strengthen their economies, improve workforce skills, expand the pipeline of leadership, elevate the role of youth in improving their communities, accelerate the adoption of new and appropriate technologies, improve access to locally produced foods, and more. It’s an ambitious agenda of opportunities, but I believe we are up to the task of helping these new LGU leaders realize their vision of positioning CD as a core component of our work at our universities, and in other public, private and philanthropic organizations.
But I believe that another factor behind this shift is that taxpayers and local and state leaders (including our state legislative bodies) are asking universities and colleges to step up --- to bring the full-complement of their institutional assets --- to bear on the needs of residents, businesses, communities, regions and the state. Let’s face it, the days of universities being given full license to do their thing with public funds is over. Demonstrating a return on their investment is far more palatable and important to legislative and state agency leaders then the number of journal articles faculty, staff and students have published in recent years. Don’t get me wrong. Publishing is vital to the advancement of science and to the work that we do as social scientists, but we have to take steps to translate that research into strategies that will benefit the lives of people, organizations, communities and regions in our state (and beyond). If we don’t, we run the risk of being labeled “irrelevant.” I honestly believe that CD is the program that can lead the pact when it comes to showing the value and impact of our work to state and legislative leaders.
So, as we embrace this opportunity to expand our work at the university and in other important organizations and institutions, I want to offer ideas on the key activities we should pursue in our quest to strengthen our CDS professional organization and the manner in which we might elevate our role in helping communities as they seek to tackle challenging community issues. Let me make clear that I will be offering only a few thoughts on these matters, so forgive me if I fail to mention something you feel is vital to our organization and to our CD work.
So, let me share with you my list of 6 items that I feel are important and doable when it comes to the efforts of the CDS and to the CD enterprise:
- Focus on Diversity: As the population of many of our states and communities continues to diversify, we must be steadfast in our commitment to ensure that all voices are represented in the communities in which we work. It’s one of the important values we hold dear as CDS members. But as you know, this is not always easy when you are dealing with an entrenched leadership that is simply satisfied with the status quo. But we must continue to find ways to capture the input of those who are too often left on the sidelines when it comes to the current and future direction of their communities. (Important note: some of these innovative approaches are being showcased at this meeting and by our keynote speakers).
- Build the CDS Leadership Pipeline: Expanding the pool of leaders in communities has been the bread and butter of many of our organizations and institutions. We all recognize the value of bringing new people with new ideas into leadership positions in our communities. Time is right for us to do the same thing in CDS. I know the nominations committee often struggles to find a diverse pool of members who are willing to run for office in our Society. It’s not unusual to have people running unopposed. Friends . . . this is nuts!
My feeling is that CDS must be equally committed to diversifying our membership. For example, we must invest time and resources to reach out to our African American, Latino, Asian, Native American, and international brothers and sisters. I am not aware of any systematic effort on the part of CDS to aggressively pursue this goal, but we must do so, and we must start now in my humble opinion.
If we want to attract a mix of members to run for the Board or as an officer of the CDS, we need to launch a program designed to mentor newer members so that they are knowledgeable and confident in their ability to function successfully in these positions. We need to build our own pipeline of new leaders so that every year we have a talented pool of individuals who are ready and willing to be nominated for leadership roles in the CDS. I include here the opportunity for our graduate student members to be part of this pipeline given that they represent the future of our organization.
- Help Produce Stronger, More Defensible Metrics: In my current role as director of the PCRD, and in my former role as head of the SRDC, the one issue that often kept me awake at night is how to show the impacts of our CD work. It’s an issue that isn’t going away; in fact, I sense it is gaining more steam all the time.
A case in point is Purdue University’s current president – Mitch Daniels – the two-term governor of the State of Indiana and former head of the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Need I say more? There’s no two ways about it, he wants sound evidence to convince him that the university should be investing in our work.
So, we have to heed the call to develop and implement stronger, more impactful sets of metrics (both qualitative and quantitative) as part of our work. At the same time, we need to assist our stakeholders who are asking for our help on these very same matters. Frankly, I can’t think of a professional organization that is better positioned to help develop the theory of change, the methodologies and tools needed to collect sound, defensible data on the short, mid, and long-term impacts of locally-generated initiatives (than is the CDS). My hope is that we can pursue an extended focus on this issue at a future CDS meeting (perhaps as a pre-conference session).
- Attract New Audiences to the CDS: The Economic Development Administration (EDA) and a number of state agencies have been active proponents of the formation of economic development districts, regional planning organizations, councils of government, and other multi-county governmental and quasi-governmental entities. Since joining Purdue in April 2013, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a number of regional organizations within and outside the state of Indiana. What I have been struck by is the number of groups who are desperately seeking help on ways to address such issues as brain drain, poverty, job creation, housing, health care, land use, population shifts, environmental stewardship, and more. My sense is that these regional groups could find a great professional home in the CDS given that the challenges they are facing are in synch with some of the very topics that our CDS members are tackling in their roles as researchers, practitioners, policy analysts and students – both domestically and internationally.
A second major group that I believe would be equally attracted to the CDS is the state and regional staff of USDA Rural Development. I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but USDA RD is reinvesting in community and economic development in states across the country. Several of these staff members will be in need of professional development opportunities that can sharpen their community/economic development knowledge and skills. There’s no doubt that the CDS could be a logical place for these individuals to find a home where they can grow as professionals and find the network of people with whom they can build strong social ties.
So, I would urge our Membership Committee and all of us to reach out to these groups since I truly believe they would add value and excitement to our professional organization.
- Put our Research & Practice to Work in Tackling Wicked Issues: There are some very perplexing issues that communities continue to grapple with today – immigration; discrimination based on gender, race, and ethnicity; poverty; poor quality schools; violence; and more. One “wicked issue”, for example, that permeates all corners of the world is income inequality (as our speaker Dell Gines noted in his keynote speech on Monday). The gap between the rich and the poor continues to expand and there is limited evidence that this situation will improve any time soon. My sense is that we, as a professional organization, could play an important role in examining this very complex but critical issue, even beyond what the ERS, the Ford Foundation and other entities have been able to do to date.
- Invest in our Endowment: I have come to truly value the importance of our Endowment during my time as a CDS officer. I am proud of the response by our Past Presidents to the appeal that we discussed during our opening reception on Sunday night. The Past Presidents are to be applauded for continuing to believe in the mission and goals of the CDS. As members, we need to contribute to the Endowment so that we can continue to invest in our students, young scholars, and our international members.
To be honest, I firmly believe we have the intellectual capital in CDS to help inform and guide policy makers, agency leaders, local leaders, and practitioners about the variety of strategies and investments that are needed to begin tackling the problem of income inequality, as well as other “wicked issues” that are dividing communities, such as immigration, access to quality public education, school consolidation, fracking/natural gas extraction, health care access, and more. In every one of these cases, we have CDS members who have been engaged in relevant research and practice that could inform the discourse on these issues.
I would like to propose, however, that the CDS Board and its Finance Committee take a careful look at our resources and if possible, set aside funds that could accelerate our capacity to respond to some of the tough issues I spoke about just a minute ago. This can be done in a variety of ways, including the formation of task forces to address some of the most pervasive wicked issues, as well as developing information briefs that inform policy analysts, leaders and residents of some of the viable strategies for tackling these wicked issues, strategies that are rooted in sound research and application.
In closing, let me say that if we can somehow:
- Diversify our membership;
- Attract new groups whose work and interests align with the goals of the CDS;
- Put in a place a pipeline for mentoring future leaders of the CDS;
- Help build stronger metrics that members and stakeholders can use to document the value and impact of CD work;
- Expanded our investments in our Endowment;
- And tap the talents and expertise of our members to help delineate science-based strategies for addressing the wicked issues many communities are facing today. . .
Then . . . I am confident that ours will a vibrant professional organization that will play a key role in ensuring that the words “a new beginning” won’t be used in the future to describe our work since it will be viewed as a vital and essential part of the activities of those institutions and organizations of which we are a part. Just maybe, when we meet for our 50th anniversary in 2019, people will be talking about the CDS as the truly Renaissance professional organization.