Community Connectors: Whitney Gherman
Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact. Photo Credit: Jess Lamar Reece Holler // Caledonia Northern Folk Studios.
Extension Educator, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist
College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, OSU Extension
Since 2017, Marion County has redefined what it means to be a Family and Consumer Sciences Educator. Traditionally focused on building healthy people, residents have called on FCS in Marion County to respond to the conditions that underpin health inequity: racism, ableism, sexism and other forms of injustice that presently and historically exist in the community. The most significant part of my job is to redistribute material and financial resources from the university to support community-led initiatives and programs. For example, most recently I mobilized activists, community residents, artists and community-accountable scholars to participate in collaborative and emergent dreaming, writing and drafting of a new program, Marion Dreamkeepers. The program and research study elevated youth of color as leaders for racial justice and exemplified community responsive, collaborative, creative work in Extension. I offered a critical and reflexive understanding of theory and young people led the way of implementation, providing insight to their lived realities and perceptions as well as new ways of facilitating Extension programs.
Why is engaging the community important to you and your work?
Too often education resembles an assembly line - a meaningless process of passing information from the educator to participants. In this mechanical model, students are merely expected to store, memorize and repeat information. Though academic excellence is highly valued, there is little application to real life scenarios or opportunities for critical thinking. Paulo Friere writes a lot about this in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Whether in a traditional classroom with a projector and slides or sitting on a neighborhood porch swing, I strive to make my classroom a place of imagination, where participants and educators gain glimpses of the kind of society in which we could live and where we experience change alongside one another. Through programs I've co-facilitated, including Community Voices, Dreamkeepers, and Coming Together for Racial Understanding, learning has been measured by participants' ability to self-reflect, critically examine a problem from multiple perspectives and advocate for solutions that uphold belonging, justice and equity. The outpouring of our friendship and trust building has resulted in recent big accomplishments, including a $50,000 research grant from The Ohio State University Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequalities, recognition from the State of Ohio in the form of Martin Luther King Jr. Health Equity, Educational Excellence, Community Building awards, and notoriety from peers and the campus community
What lessons have you learned from the community that have helped you as a university staff member?
One of the greatest lessons I've learned from the community that has helped me as a human being and as a university staff member is that community engagement is not a linear process with an end, rather it's a lifelong process of changing how we relate to ourselves and to one another. I used to purely intellectualize the work and viewed communities as laboratories for new ideas. My approach was insensitive to the harsh conditions many individuals and communities have learned to resist and survive. When a community member disrupted my deficit thinking, I began to integrate my whole being into the work, not just my head. What that meant for me is letting go of innocence, grieving my own losses to a society that is based on oppression and domination, developing a model for consensus building, and shifting from an expert model to one that strategizes with communities on what conditions facilitate health and wellness, workforce development, sustainable food systems, environmental quality, and youth empowerment.
What has been your favorite moment from your community-engagement work?
My favorite moment from all the community-engagement work I've facilitated is watching young people give such fearless, creative and inspiring calls to action. They've documented, in various ways, the power of youth participatory action, in which young people are given the right resources and training to improve their lives, their communities and the institutions intended to serve them. Through my leadership facilitating HEAL MAPPS, Dreamkeepers, and the Social Impact Challenge, young people have set the tone for Marion County and Marion County Extension to shift from its symbolic commitments to diversity toward a transformational framework based on everyone having a seat at the table. More information about this equity model can be found at go.osu.edu/mariondreamkeeperfinalreport.
What advice do you have for other staff members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement?
Authentic community engagement work is underappreciated, underpaid and unseen. No matter how much evidence you have for the value of the work you do, there will always be criticism that your work is unnecessary, ineffective or taking too much time. Do it anyway. Ninety-nine percent of the work is meetings, group chats, building PowerPoint decks, having difficult conversations and working through personal wounds and trauma. Start with yourself. Admit what you don't know. Sit and notice the tension of unjust realities in and outside our institution. Ask for support. Bring others along. One percent of the time transformation happens. Attitudes shift. Behaviors change. Systems evolve. Policies alter. Despite the recent rhetoric online and in the news, the consensus among social scientists (sociologists, anthropologists, economists, etc.) for decades has been that systemic racism and other forms of bias are characteristics of U.S. institutions. It is our responsibility as an accredited, secular institution to respond to the evidence and not back down from science. Be bold in your efforts to educate, and remember, education is not value neutral. In the words of Nelson Mandela, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."