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Two UF/IFAS experts chosen for national program to help solve community issues

COMMUNITIES Spranger 022315Muthusami Kumaran.  Family, Youth, and Community Sciences.

Spranger, left, and Kumaran

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Two University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty members will help a national effort to solve “wicked” community issues.

“Wicked issues” are not evil – they just can’t be easily fixed, said Michael Spranger, a professor in the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences and one of the UF/IFAS faculty members selected for the program. Wicked issues are incomplete, contradictory or continually changing and involve many people come from diverse sets of values and beliefs, Spranger said.

“These issues cannot be easily fixed with a technical solution, but may involve discussions with those impacted by the decision to find common ground,” he said.

Muthusami Kumaran, an assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences, will join Spranger in the training program.

Issues they tackle could include obesity and wellness, food safety and security, low-income housing, poverty, homelessness, public safety, economic development and environmental protection and all matters in between.

Community leaders will determine the problems they want to solve.

Spranger and Muthusami Kumaran are among 14 scholars chosen by the Kettering Foundation to spend the next 18 months learning more about the “deliberative process” with other scholars around the nation. Then they will train county Extension agents to help local leaders work through controversial problems through so-called “deliberative discussions.”

“You try to get people to look at others’ points of view,” Spranger said. “We hope to make these communities more aware of what these issues are.”

To do this, Spranger and Kumaran will get training at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. There, they will learn to facilitate what are called “centers for public life.”

Such centers counter the notion of problems being solved strictly by civic organizations and consultants and expand the definition to include people from all walks of life. They act as hubs for people to learn how to talk their way through areas of dissention and find common ground.

As parts of his UF/IFAS appointment, Spranger teaches a graduate course in community development and civic engagement. Kumaran teaches courses on nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations, community development and program planning and evaluation.

“Our job is to train the trainers,” Kumaran said, adding that their goal is to bring community and business leaders together, galvanize discussion and get them to find areas of agreement.

Spranger and Kumaran have already laid some groundwork across UF. Working with UF’s Center for Public Issues Education, they conducted a statewide webinar, “Resolving Community Issues: A Collaborative Approach to Wicked Issues” in March 2014.

Spranger and Kumaran want to explore new models or communication mechanisms with UF units, centers and departments that work on civic engagement as part of their project. One possibility is the idea of a virtual center that would create more synergy and collaboration among these programs.

They’ve already talked informally with staff at the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education, the new UF/IFAS Center for Leadership, the UF Center for Building Better Communities, the Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

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By Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, bradbuck@ufl.edu

Sources: Michael Spranger, 352-273-3557, spranger@ufl.edu

Muthusami Kumaran, 352-273-3524, kumaran@ufl.edu