Mary Mims and the Radical Side of Agrculture Extension Services

In the latest version of the Makers All framework, I argue that if you’re skeptical about Make Creativity Work — that many people in every community could gain the skills to earn part of their living creating robots, AI, etc — the history of US agricultural extension services shows what’s possible if we think big. I’ve been diving deeper into that history, and I’ve come across a remarkable woman named Mary Mims.

In 1925, Mims was hired by Louisiana State University Agricultural Extension Division as the state’s first extension sociologist. Through her amazing work in Louisiana, she ended up becoming an influential figure in the US.

Her book, The Awakening Community, which was published in 1932, launched her to national and international fame. The work, which features anecdotes, practical wisdom and concrete suggestions for building strong communities, became a model for community development for other states

Mims was featured as a premier speaker at events in 48 states and was considered one of the greatest national orators of her day. She gave a speech alongside President Calvin Coolidge, travelled to personal conferences with national leaders and nobility in Europe and other parts of the world, and became one of the best known national advocates for community development.

According to scholar and organizer Harry C. Boyte, Mims’ influence stemmed from the radical vision she advocated for and practiced.

Mary Mims developed the “community organizing method” in the cooperative extension service in the 1920s which spread to more than 1000 poor black and white communities across the south through the 1930s.

Mims, like others in cooperative extension (home economics, 4-H and other areas) drew on the Jane Addams Hull House tradition. She was also inspired by folk schools in Denmark. These had a focus on agency, building the civic power of students, families, and larger communities. They were “schools for life,” grounded in the experiences and life of common people not elites, with parallels to the “New School” (Escuela Nueva) movement in Latin America, begun in Columbia, which we’ve discussed before….

In Mims view, professionals of any kind should be a “leaven” for community self-organization. “So-called ‘social workers’ cannot hammer a community into shape,” she argued in her book, The Awakening Community. “If a community grows, it must do so from the inside.”

And Mims wasn’t alone. Boyte notes that

In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture and land grant colleges from 1937 to 1942 involved more than three million people in rural America in community discussions about the future of rural life, taking up issues that ranged from commodity prices and soil erosion to the future of democracy in America

When I think of government ag support, this isn’t remotely the image that pops into my mind. Extension services may end up being a much more rich vein to mine than I expected.

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