Sea Grant Extension specialist Flaxen Conway helps distressed coastal communities deal with contentious issues – and groups.
Retired fisherman Scott McMullen sums up Flaxen Conway with one word: “peacemaker.”
In Oregon port towns from Astoria to Brookings, the OSU sociology professor is known for guiding factions often at odds — fishermen, scientists, policymakers, resource managers — toward common ground on some of the toughest issues facing rural communities.
“She runs meetings with groups that could be very contentious,” says McMullen, who owned and operated a shrimper-dragger for over 20 years. “Fishermen are oftentimes vocal and opinionated, but Flaxen keeps it under control. Amazingly, there’s never anybody yelling or throwing chairs.”
A specialist for Oregon Sea Grant Extension, Conway works with distressed coastal communities, helping to ease the tensions that flare when scarce resources and government policies bump up against ordinary people. With several Northwest fisheries declining, many shore-based families are facing financial insecurity and emotional upheaval. The 2006 salmon fishing closures were just the most recent blow to their livelihoods. Over her 13 years with Sea Grant, Conway has seen families struggle with the collapse of the commercial groundfish industry in 2000 and weather the severe salmon shortages of the mid-1990s.
“We’re used to evaluating the biological dimensions of resource management, but we rarely evaluate the social dimensions,” says Conway. “Sea Grant Extension is making sure that those human dimensions don’t get shortchanged.”
Her focus is what she calls “cross-community communication” — getting groups with competing interests and conflicting perspectives to talk. As a “neutral convener,” Sea Grant Extension opens avenues for collaboration among stakeholders more accustomed to competitive or adversarial stances.
When the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared a disaster in the West Coast groundfish fishery (mainly rockfish and ling cod) six years ago, Conway pulled together a coast-wide, community-driven coalition to connect people to resources and jobs. The Groundfish Disaster Outreach Project helped hundreds of families secure food, housing, mental health services, and new careers.
The old paradigm of extension education — the “expert” extending scientific information to the masses — has evolved into a new model in which expertise is recognized on both sides, Conway says. Knowledge sharing runs both directions. “I’m constantly learning along with the people I’m working with. It’s a process of co-discovery.”
Coastal communities project news release