Caring for the Commons

During my teen years on a farm in southeast Iowa, my summer job was to move our flock of about 500 sheep from pasture to pasture at the appropriate times. Some people would have called me a shepherd, but I called myself a pasture steward, because my family had taught me that before you could be a shepherd you had to have a healthy pasture. I didn’t just regulate how long the sheep stayed on one patch. I worked long and often hot days cutting down bull thistle and nettles, fighting back multiflora rose, repairing fence, reseeding sections, and studying drainage and grazing patterns. I paid attention to weather forecasts and I spent hours walking throughout the pastures to the point that I knew the fine detail of each one’s condition and potential.

Today my view is a lot better than the backsides of 500 sheep; but the work, well, it’s kind of the same. Only instead of taking care of a pasture, together we are caring about the things we share in common, which build a strong Iowa.

For any community – virtual, social, or physical – to thrive, there must be those who care for the things we hold in common, but for which none of us has actual individual responsibility. Frances Moore Lappé put it this way: “How do we protect, not what we own individually, but those indivisible goods we inherit, share, and yearn to pass on unharmed or enriched to our children?” This idea is well documented in environmental issues, but no less important in other community assets. Caring for the commons is an act of individual stewardship (long-term care for a resource for the benefit of oneself and others, including the resource itself). Caring for the commons means more than just regulating. We must be caretakers in a system, nurturing cooperation in society and sharing goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come.

Within environmental stewardship, the notion has even generated a fable, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out that if each individual attempts to take more than his or her share by even a small amount, the consequences can be devastating. Hardin said education could counteract our natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but with each new generation the basis for this knowledge must be constantly refreshed. In ISU Extension and Outreach, we are the stewards of this engagement mission. That’s how we care for the commons. Our land grant mission is our legacy – offering opportunity, providing access, and sharing knowledge with all. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.


DNA is a double helix, two strands that curve beautifully around each other. Both strands are essential to determining an individual’s genetic makeup. Organizations have DNA too, in a sense — basic building blocks that determine what they will be and how they will operate.  In my view, education is central to our Extension and Outreach DNA. Iowans believe in education as a way to solve today’s problems and build toward the future. It’s why there’s a school house on our state quarter: our state is committed to education. Not every state shares this commitment, but it is central to the character of Iowa.

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter calls it Iowa’s shared responsibility. In his recent Des Moines Register opinion piece he said our universities have the responsibility to provide world-class education. State government has a responsibility to financially support the universities. Students and parents have to plan for higher education and the financial obligations that come with it. The Board of Regents has to make sure our public universities remain accessible and affordable for future generations. (And ISU recently was ranked #1 on the A-List.)

In Extension and Outreach, providing access to education is our responsibility. This strand of our DNA connects to an equally important second strand: the belief that we do our work through our diverse and meaningful partnerships. We work in communities, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder with the people who live there, dealing with issues confronting our partners at the local level.  President Rastetter said that we all have to “assume our responsibilities and embrace all efforts to make our good programs great and our great universities exceptional.” But it won’t happen unless we’re willing to make tough decisions and implement change.

When I need to make a decision about allocating resources or strategic planning, or when I’m trying to figure out what’s the best direction for Extension and Outreach going forward, the components of our DNA are always driving decisions. Does a particular program help us work in the local community more effectively? Does it help us deliver high quality educational opportunities to our citizens? I encourage you to ask these questions as you make decisions in your particular role. If you understand the two parts of our DNA, you understand a whole lot about Extension and Outreach and sharing responsibility for education in Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

Look for the Sparkle

As we all await the report from our leadership summit, does anyone feel a little bit like those Sparkle cheerleaders we heard about — “a little excited, a little nervous … in a cheerleader way”? Capstone speaker Ginny Wilson-Peters shared the story of the Sparkle Effect and how some teens from Bettendorf, Iowa, started this student-run program that helps students across the country create cheerleading and dance teams that include students with disabilities. (See “Cheering for Acceptance.”) Sparkle Effect teams aren’t about perfection, but about connection — because “when everyone cheers, everyone wins.” 

That’s true for ISU Extension and Outreach, as well. Whether you participated in the summit or held down the fort at home and then heard about the summit from your colleagues, you have a role to play on the team. As Ginny said,

  • Start from where you are;
  • Follow your passion and the rest will come;
  • Create a vision, set goals, and push yourself to do things you don’t think are possible; and
  • Continually focus on building relationships.

It’s about taking responsibility. And as Ginny said, responsibility doesn’t mean pointing your finger at somebody else – it’s how we choose to respond. Each of us needs to look at the way things are. If I’m not happy with it, it’s my responsibility to change. If you’re not happy with it, it’s your responsibility to change. There is always a choice. What are you willing to do to create change? See you there.

— Cathann

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