“Where’s your beautiful accent from?” I asked. She told me she was from Mississippi, and I replied that “To a New Yorker, that’s exotic.”
The audience laughed. I was at a meeting in San Antonio with people who worked with universities across the United States. Over the course of the day, I heard a wide range of wonderful accents as I met people from Alabama and Alaska, Nebraska and North Dakota, Texas and Tennessee, and pretty much every other state.
In that one conference hall, it was like a slice of America
More than just talk
There were over 300 people there, and the meeting was organized by extension.org, a part of the U.S. Cooperative Extensions system. (Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I until they started experimenting with Working Out Loud circles.)
“Extension provides non-formal education and learning activities to people throughout the country — to farmers and other residents of rural communities as well as to people living in urban areas. It emphasizes taking knowledge gained through research and education and bringing it directly to the people to create positive changes. "
What started over 100 years ago in response to farming issues had grown to cover topics as different as food safety, personal finance, and even “bee health.”
Perhaps the most striking thing - even more than their accents or their accomplishments - was their attitude. These were some of the nicest, most caring people I had ever met. Not just a few of them. Literally everyone I met was positive and kind and helpful.
Though they’re part of a large organization and all that that can entail, they clearly cared deeply about their work. They all seemed purposeful and committed. Against a backdrop of sameness spreading across America - the same stores, the same bad food, the growing cynicism - here was a chorus of different voices trying to make a difference.
It’s a strange thing to say about a conference, but it made me hopeful.