4-H Youth Development increases accessibility to promote diversity, inclusion


Iowa State University’s 4-H Youth Development extension applied an innovative structure working toward diversity around working in isolation with their Champion teams.

Jack Nichols

Iowa State’s 4-H Youth Development chapter has a vision to be Iowa’s largest youth serving organization. Through several different Champion groups, 4-H promotes growth, diversity and inclusion along with community involvement and education.

Champion groups specific groups focused on various diverse qualities of Iowa’s youth. One of these groups is the Iowa 4-H Mental Health & Well-being Champion group. The group focuses on promoting awareness and education of the mental well-being of Iowa’s youth by offering resources.

“We have created our Iowa 4-H Mental Health & Well-being ‘toolbox’ folder for staff to access material and resources,” said Shelly Ramus, volunteer specialist at 4-H. “Staff can find the ‘Family Focused Mental Health & Well-being Resources’ folder as well as ‘Youth Focused Mental Health & Well-being’ resources in the toolbox and utilize these resources in their efforts to educate and create awareness on mental health.” 

4-H has collaborated with several organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Iowa, Iowa State affiliate Project STOMP and Iowa State Extension & Outreach Human Sciences, to prioritize education. 

“In another effort to support staff education on the topic of mental health & well-being, our champion group coordinated with NAMI for a joint workshop presentation for our Iowa 4-H staff,” Ramus said. “Several of our Champion group members helped to facilitate this workshop and presented on national and state data as well as recent research from the National 4-H study on youth mental health to provide a background of information on mental health.”

Project STOMP (Steps Toward Opioid Misuse Prevention) offers the Iowa State County Extension Office an opportunity to engage in substance abuse issues.

“The past two years, we have coordinated with Project STOMP to promote and offer the Youth Mental Health First Aid training for Iowa 4-H staff as well as Iowa State Extension staff, volunteers and community members,” Ramus said. “Two of our Champion group members are now facilitators for this course and will continue to collaborate with Iowa State Extension and Outreach Human Sciences to offer this training.”

The Mental Health & Well-being Champion group also supports various 4-H mental wellness programs, such as 4-H Mindful Teens; Mindful Mondays, a weekly family program that engages parents and their youth in mindfulness practices; and a Youth-Adult Mindfulness retreat this fall.

Another Champion group that promotes inclusion is the Youth Foster Care Champion group. The group seeks to support and engage with Iowa’s foster youth and foster families.

“We are working on planning activities and programs for these groups that work with foster care youth,” said Cheryl Connot, chairperson for the Champion group. “We are also developing a training class that will introduce extension and 4-H to staff of these various organizations to share with their families and get more of these youth involved in our program. We are planning to hold a retreat this fall and do some leadership activities with foster care youth along with many other activities.”

Connot said working with foster youth can be challenging, which warrants the need for strong inclusion efforts.

“Foster care youth have a unique situation compared to most of the 4-H members we serve,” Connot said. “Many of these youth move around between their home and foster home, so being involved in 4-H may not easily happen in a community they live in. This is why 4-H puts this group in the diversity and inclusion project.”

Connot said 4-H can be a great resource for youth by providing some grounding as the kids transition to more permanent homes.

“Foster care youth get the opportunity to participate in 4-H through organizations that work with them while they are in the foster care system,” Connot said. “This introduces them to 4-H, and our hope is they will want to continue being part of 4-H once they are back in their permanent home.”

Teen Equity Influencers are another inclusion effort by 4-H. Teen Equity Influencers bring together high school students in grades 7 through 11 and adult mentors from across the state to promote mutual understanding, increase leadership skills and prepare youth to make a difference in their communities. This group is supported through the Access Equity and Belonging Committee (AEBC) Champion group.

“Teen Influencers for Equity and Inclusion is a unique leadership opportunity in the areas of equity, inclusion and diversity within Iowa 4-H Youth Development,” said Anindita Das, stakeholder and Partnership Development Program coordinator. “These 25 youth in grades 7 to 11 are from across the state to join as liaison for AEBC. They partner with their adult mentors from across the state to promote mutual understanding to enhance leadership skills and make a difference in their communities.”

Das has worked with Teen Influencers on several different projects, and she has partnered with several faculty members at Iowa State. Specifically, Iowa 4-H won a 2021 PIRI Award for TechTHRIVE.

“The background of TechTHRIVE is the larger NSF project that focuses on high-speed wireless technology — ARA: Wireless Living Hub,” Das said. “This project is the first in the country and will have a huge impact on the rural economy and educational outreach.”

Das described the PIRI grant and what it will provide for the program.

“TechTHRIVE will receive $150,000 annually for up to three years — our vision is to create a team of experts, researchers, partitioners, community organizations and communities to accomplish the goals of TechTHRIVE,” Das said. “This is a really nice opportunity for 4-H programming and partnership with diverse communities across Iowa, but also connecting with other units of extension through workforce development, entrepreneurship and community engagement. This will also add to the gap in research within 4-H.”

Ben Pullen, co-chair of the Youth with Different Abilities Champion group within the AEBC, discussed how the group prioritized improving the process and providing accommodations to participating youth in 4-H programs as a first step.

“To begin, the team worked with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Office of Equal Opportunity to define the process for requesting accommodations,” Pullen said. “From there, the team developed resources to help staff understand how they can better help families access the resources available to them. These pieces included instructional videos as well as a desk aid. The desk aid has been published and distributed to all 4-H staff across the state.”

Finally, the Champion group on Race, Ethnicity, Immigrant and Refugee populations provides assistance and awareness to various communities on the benefits Iowa State Extension and Outreach and 4-H have to offer, including book studies, discussions and more.

“We also hosted a youth-focused 21 Day Racial Equity Challenge with weekly discussion sessions and are planning to extend the next round to 4-H programs across the region,” said Lisa Green, youth program specialist and co-chair of the group. “We are currently engaged in developing toolkits to help first-generation families navigate the complexities of 4-H that are often counterintuitive to some cultural norms.”

Green also discussed when the first Latin Outreach Family Camp was hosted two years ago. The event brought families from Dallas County, Polk County, Marshall County and Tama County to learn more about extension outreach and 4-H efforts.

“Adults attended sessions in Spanish from the different disciplines, including Human Sciences/Families, Food and Nutrition and 4-H,” Green said. “Youth participated in workshops around the 4-H priority areas of Arts & Communications, Healthy Living, Civic Engagement and Leadership and STEM. The participants also engaged in traditional camp activities as a family, including archery and fishing.”

According to Green, the event had many benefits in guiding 4-H toward its goal of diversity and inclusion.

“The event provided an opportunity for families to learn more about what services Iowa State Extension and Outreach has to offer and how youth benefit from 4-H,” Green said. “… We also continue to advocate for removing barriers to participation in 4-H, especially in regard to language, poverty-related issues, increasing a sense of belonging and inclusion and expanding perception of what 4-H is.”