Partnership promotes DEI for SNAP-Ed staff

Partnership promotes DEI for SNAP-Ed staff

Over the summer, OSU Extension and the Office of Outreach and Engagement partnered to bring a series of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) workshops to staff working in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) program.

SNAP-Ed is a free, evidence-based program that helps people lead healthy, active lives. The program teaches people how to make their SNAP dollars stretch, how to shop for and cook healthy meals, and how to stay physically active. Initiatives include nutrition education classes, social marketing campaigns, and efforts to improve policies, systems, and the environment of communities. In Ohio, SNAP-ED is present in every county.

"Diversity training can focus on increasing awareness and building skills to facilitate positive intergroup interactions, reduce prejudice and discrimination, and enhance skills and knowledge for people to interact with diverse others," said Whitney Gherman, Extension educator in Marion County and a facilitator for the program. "However, DEI programs can fail, especially training, as they are usually short-term, include negative messaging about the fallout from discrimination, and include dated advice."

Approaches to diversity training can vary, but there is evidence that effective training can occur when it is integrated into the participant's context, targets both awareness, and skills development, and is conducted over a significant period of time.

"The training series we offered included both awareness and skills development as well as dialogue training and practice to encourage both cognitive and attitudinal learning," said Ana Claudia Zubieta, director of Ohio SNAP-Ed. "Although the series was short-term, the pilot program is part of a larger initiative to increase DEI literacy among all SNAP-Ed employees."

"Nicole Nieto (assistant vice provost, Office of Outreach and Engagement) and Whitney Gherman brought a unique trauma-informed and somatic approach into their facilitation and delivery of DEI content," Zubieta said. "This approach helped lessen tensions and attitude polarization among participants."

In preliminary results presented by Jera Niewoehner-Green, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership and project co-investigator, many of the participants respected the "laid-back attitude," "the freedom to choose," and the facilitator energy.

Though some may have attributed it to the personal qualities of the facilitators, safety, flexibility, and choice were intentionally designed as part of the program and understood by the organizers as a prerequisite to equity and justice work.

"If participants don't experience a felt sense of safety or if the cost of disagreement is too high, they may experience an internal conflict between learning and self-protecting," Gherman explained.

Additional feedback will be collected from follow-up focus groups facilitated by Niewoehner-Green in November.

Each session was held virtually over Zoom with more than 100 participants and breakout room dialogues.

"A surprising outcome was how engaged participants were throughout the program," Gherman said. "Many felt safe enough to express their perspective and were willing to hold tension around unfamiliar topics."

After the series ended though, the facilitators found there were a surprising number of participants who chose to skip follow-up survey questions and "prefer not to say" when asked about their satisfaction with the program.

"SNAP-Ed will continue to foster trust with our staff and appropriately pace our DEI plan of work to nurture inclusion while avoiding equity detours that ignore the urgency some in our organization feel in the long periods of DEI absence in SNAP-Ed," Zubieta said.

SNAP-Ed is funded by USDA's Food and Nutrition Service and serves in partnership with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Ohio State University Extension.