Idaho Agricultural Educators
Set Bar for Advocacy
By: Julie Fritsch
Reprinted with persmission from Techniques Magazine
If you want to really figure out how to advocate for your students, your program and your profession, just spend some time talking to Idaho agricultural educator Shawn Dygert. His approach to advocacy has helped his local program grow, influenced how advocacy works at the state level, and has even made inroads nationally. And somehow, he makes it all sound fun.
To Dygert, who has been teaching agriculture at Kuna High School for 20 years, visiting legislators or working on bills is important, but doesn’t even begin to encompass the full meaning of advocacy. Dygert’s brand of advocacy starts at the heart of his program and runs straight through to Washington, D.C. It’s an approach that’s been adopted by his entire state, with great results.
Dygert and his two co-teachers at Kuna have two important tools for advocacy at the local level; a strong advisory committee, and excellent students who they regularly showcase to the community.
All agriculture programs in Idaho are required to maintain advisory committees to receive state funding, but Kuna’s is particularly effective. Everything the agriculture program does funnels through the committee, which is made up of 12 people who have influence, connections or interests that make them an asset.
“It’s important to have the right people on board,” said Dygert. “Because of that we’ve been able to get on board early with school expansions, expansion of our program, looking at where we need to be. We can start talking with people about a project now, maybe a year or two before we really want it to happen. Then every time a hurdle gets thrown up, we can deal with it without a panic.”
One of those advisory committee members is Allison Touchstone, who taught agriculture at Kuna for nine years, and is now an associate professor at the University of Idaho. Touchstone still lives in the community, and was invited to remain on the advisory committee when she left Kuna, so her involvement has been continuous.
“We like to look at our role as a partnership,” said Touchstone of the committee’s work with school and local decision makers. “That’s why we try to be proactive. We try to get out there and let everyone know what the agriculture program needs instead of trying to come in after the fact.”
The agriculture program at Kuna not only relies on members of the advisory committee to be its public face, but makes sure students are visible on a regular basis. One of the major functions the advisory committee helps plan and execute is the annual scholarship auction, where students offer services to community members in exchange for a donation to the agriculture program. “We’ve raised $20,000 in two hours with that,” said Touchstone. Even more importantly, the auction has become a great way for community members to interact with students, learn about the program, and get behind initiatives the agriculture program has coming up.
“What our teachers do is require kids to do more than just participate in the classroom,” said Karla Reynolds, Kuna High School principal. “They put the faces of kids out in the community as representatives. This has caused the ag program to get more positive support.
These teachers are driven to be advocates for agriculture and for kids – it’s just their personalities,” she continued. “The teachers spend a huge amount of time working in the community. It sets the tone for the kids. They realize the program isn’t just that hour and a half in the classroom – it extends well beyond that.
Our ag teachers are continuously advocating for all aspects of agriculture – not just the growth of their program. The advisory committee has done some amazing things. They’ve gotten the word out about school needs. When there’s a bond election (to raise funds for a new school or improvement), they’re the people who are the voice in the community. They can speak specifically because they see specific examples of need.”
Dygert, who serves as a precinct person for his local Republican party (an elected position), is also an advocate for agricultural education well beyond the local level. He is the legislative liaison for the Idaho Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association (IVATA), and is continuously building his network of contacts with legislators and other people of influence in Idaho and nationally.
“I’ve always had the position that if you’re a professional agriculture teacher, you should take your turn at the professional organization leadership,” said Dygert. “We’re not going to preserve the integrity of the profession by sitting back and hoping someone else takes care of it. “I’ve been vocal, and sometimes critical, so I’d better be willing to do something about it.”
“Shawn makes advocacy approachable, which is a tough thing to do,” said Ben Meyer, Idaho Agricultural Education Supervisor and FFA Advisor. ”He does a good job of encompassing things in a way that everybody feels they can be a part, and is always happy to share what he does.”
Besides Dygert, there are many Idaho agricultural educators who work at the state level to keep agricultural education front and center in the minds of legislators. IVATA has hosted a legislative lunch and FFA Day on the Hill since 1981. Named after a former Idaho secretary of state who was very involved in agricultural education, it is a well-attended event that gives teachers an opportunity allow their students to interact with legislators, and gives an entire day for issues related to agricultural education to be front and center.
“We try to invite people to interact with our students any time we can,” said Meyer of IVATA’s approach to advocacy. The organization also does other things throughout the year to maintain visibility, like inviting legislators to speak or judge events at the state FFA Convention.
“When the right people are in place and understand what you do, everything kind of takes care of itself,” said Meyer. He mentioned working with the state legislature just last year to advance a piece of legislation that closes a loophole which previously left FFA members open to potential lawsuits related to animals and fairs. “It went just about as smoothly as anyone could ever hope for,” he said, “and that’s probably due a lot to the fact that legislators already understood agricultural education and know what we’re trying to accomplish.”
IVATA also belongs to Food Producers, a lobbying group that meets weekly while the state legislature is in session to discuss upcoming legislation that affects agriculture. A retired agricultural educator attends the weekly meetings and keeps IVATA informed about issues coming up within the state legislature. If a there is something happening within agricultural education that needs to be brought to Food Producers’ attention, Dygert will attend and make a presentation to encourage the group to take up the cause.
Darrell Bolz, Representative in Idaho’s 10th district summed up the relationship between agricultural education and Idaho state legislators in this way. “I know who they are, and they know who I am, so there’s an open dialogue there.” He estimates that he sees Dygert several times throughout the year, in addition to a running interaction with agricultural education and FFA in general through being invited to events, open houses, and serving on agricultural-education related boards and committees.
Because of his role as legislative liaison with IVATA, Dygert is often the representative for agricultural educators nationally; both when it comes to issues that affect Idaho as well as those that affect agricultural education on a national scale. The last time Carl T. Perkins legislation was up for renewal, Dygert used his relationship with then-senator Larry Craig to advocate for the bill. He and other representatives from the National Association of Agricultural Educators visited Craig at his D.C. office to talk to him about the legislation. “We had a really good sit-down with his staff person who was in charge of education issues and presented him with a bullet point sheet of items that were important to have in the Perkins legislation,” said Dygert.
Although he has been to ACTE’s National Policy seminar one time, Dygert and the other instructors at Kuna send students and one instructor to the FFA Washington Leadership Conference every year. Besides the benefit students and instructors get from the conference itself, they gain from the time spent in D.C. “We go in a day early and make a congressional visit a priority,” said Dygert.
The approach Dygert and agricultural educators in Idaho take to advocacy proves that it isn’t just about calling your legislator when you have a problem, or an annual breakfast for your city council members. It’s an intrinsic part of every program, and something that happens naturally to some extent. Putting the network in place before you need it means it will be there when you do.