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When youth partner with adults, they become better leaders

Minnesota 4-H Photography
project development committee

Monthly column from Minnesota 4-H director Dorothy McCargo Freeman

The young man at the far right of this photo is named Evan. He's a 4-H'er from Hubbard County. For the past year, Evan has served on a team focused on enhancing youth learning in our 4-H photography project.

He is one of four youth on this 4-H Photography Project Development Committee. His commitment to centering the values and interests of young people inspires me.

"4-H has taught me that youth voice is really important," said Evan. "I'm glad I get to influence 4-H photography at the state level. It's great to be part of something so big."

Growing leadership skills through leading

Our goal in 4-H is to empower youth with the skills they need to lead for a lifetime. An important way we build those skills in young people is by letting them lead.

When young people experience personal power, the ability to influence their own lives and situations around them, there are many benefits:
  • Higher achievement and engagement in learning
  • Increased problem-solving and coping skills
  • Fewer problem behaviors like smoking and other types of substance abuse
When young people are able to expand and use their personal power, they discover their competence to lead.

The ideal environment for growth

Now growing leaders isn't about saying "off you go, young person" and leaving them to fend for themselves. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Adults must work closely with youth to ensure they form the best leadership skills.

In 4-H, we're committed to youth-adult partnerships, where adults and young people are equal players in solving community problems. They share power, make contributions that are valued equally and collaborate in decision-making.

Yes, it can be frustrating and uncomfortable, but the potential outcome in our youth is worth our effort. At our core, we are about growing true leaders. And what better way to go about that work than empowering youth from the very beginning?

Do you want to grow competent leaders?

4-H clubs and other group experiences are the perfect place to build leadership skills in young people. Are you a volunteer who wants to grow competent leaders? Here are a few things to try:
  1. Create a safe and supportive environment - if you don't have that, nothing else matters.
  2. Ask what the youth want and collaborate on goals - if you're not in agreement, then you're not ready to take action.
  3. Share decision-making power - if young people don't have this authority, you're not in a true partnership.
  4. Support learning from mistakes - both adults and youth have space to grow. If only young people are expected to learn, you're missing out.
  5. Embrace your place - prepare young people for their leadership experience quietly and in the background, letting them lead in the foreground.
Whether serving at a state level like Evan, or just beginning to explore local leadership, like Mela who I wrote about a few months ago, young people of all ages can become leaders in 4-H. Caring, supportive adult partners are essential.

Together, let's grow competent and confident leaders.


Dorothy McCargo Freeman


Norman, J. (2001) Building Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships. Advocates for Youth

Scales, P. and Leffert, N. (1999) Developmental Assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development. Search Institute.

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