This is Not Your Grandmother’s 4-H

4-H gives kids a chance to do hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture, and civic engagement.

By Christina DiCenzo

As a 4-H program coordinator, Christina DiCenzo ’18 sees the organization adapting to meet young people “where they’re at.” DiCenzo has learned a thing or two about adapting, too.

Let’s play a word association game. I say “4-H” and you say, “Cows? Farms?” When the 4-H program began in 1902, much of it did indeed have to do with cows and farms. The 4-H program democratizes academia: liberating knowledge from the ivory tower and delivering it into the hands of the community. The ruralized population of Rhode Island demanded knowledge of agricultural technology and home economics. 4-H-educated young people learned about things like baking, milking, planting, sewing, and other critical skills of the period.

In 2019, I arrived for my 4-H job interview in a black dress and heels only to discover our offices were housed on a working livestock farm. I stuck around because, despite the manure, 4-H is fundamentally about youth development, not agricultural training. Youth development means something different today than in 1902. In 2022, only 18% of Rhode Island’s population lives in a rural community. Most children in our state are not raised to pursue careers in agriculture, nor do they grow crops or raise livestock.

“Meeting children ‘where they’re at’ means that we must rise to meet new societal needs while still retaining enough of our 4-H essence to remain recognizable.”
—Christina DiCenzo ’18,
4-H program coordinator

Although 4-H’s roots are deeply embedded in agriculture, a changing demographic has challenged 4-H to branch into new areas such as STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math), fine art, and communications. In some states, there are staff listings as niche as “4-H wetlands specialist.” In short, this isn’t your grandmother’s 4-H program.

Still, agricultural education remains a valuable and pertinent subject for many Rhode Islanders. Generations of families turn to 4-H for our rich animal science programs. We must balance this more traditional need with the needs of urban communities. In any given month, I might plan both a horseback riding clinic and a teen science café.

This struggle to appeal to varied demographics is not unique to 4-H. Boy Scouts of America, with its historic ties to wilderness survival and public service, now offers badges for such activities as “computer programming” to recruit members. Meeting children “where they’re at,” as we often say in 4-H, means that we must
rise to meet new societal needs while still retaining enough of our 4-H essence to remain recognizable.

When it comes to individual 4-H educators, we all have past experiences and expectations that influence our perspectives. But if I refuse to suspend my perspective, how can I possibly meet kids where they’re at? In this regard, 4-H has taught me reflexivity and humility. We are what the remarkable young people we work with need us to be. Or, if we are not, we learn to be. •

Christina DiCenzo ’18 is 4-H program coordinator for URI’s Cooperative Extension Rhode Island 4-H program. She graduated from URI with a degree in wildlife and conservation biology, completed a URI graduate certificate in science writing and rhetoric, and is currently enrolled in URI’s master’s in environmental science and management program, with a focus on environmental communication.

Photo: COURTESY NATIONAL 4-H COUNCIL

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