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Jessica Pierson Russo wants to make 4-H great for everybody

Citizenship and leadership are woven into all parts of the Minnesota 4-H urban youth development program. The more diversity there is in a community, the more we understand how important these skills are, according to Extension Educator Jessica Russo.

It's in the curriculum, in grant proposals, volunteer training and in programming. Through 4-H ambassador programs, campus visits, club exchanges and just everyday 4-H club experiences, youth are building skills to navigate relationships with people who are different from them.

Being a good citizen means relating well to others

Becoming a leader isn’t about getting others to follow you, Jessica says. It's about leveraging their skills in a team, as well as your own.

"You can't have citizenship without leadership," she said. "Citizenship tends to be a very politicized word, but we're not talking about nationality. It's about how to be good neighbors to each other. It's about taking a stand when you see something that's not right."

Sharing knowledge with other youth workers

4-H program leaders from other states call Jessica and colleague Jennifer Skuza regularly for advice on how to do urban 4-H programming well. They are nationally recognized for their work in this area. In 2004, they published Urban Youth Learn, a guide for youth-serving organizations wanting to create and maintain high-quality youth development in urban contexts. Next came Urban Youth Lead, a curriculum for programs to use with middle school youth.

In 2014, they published WeConnect: A Global Youth Citizenship Curriculum, which is now in its second edition. They train on this curriculum quite regularly across the U.S. and recently at the Global 4-H Summit in Ottawa, Canada.

What is Urban 4-H?

This is a question Jessica is asked often. The answer is not about geography. It's a way of devising programs to suit everyone, no matter their background or where they live.

"It's an approach that makes sure programming is adaptable and flexible enough to be accessible and appealing to anybody who might walk in the door. It makes 4-H great for everybody."

Empowering youth to believe in their future

Jessica has found the work rewarding. She points to program evaluations with youth, in which the question "why is 4-H important to you" yields answers about kindness, expanded world view, and comfort with strangers.

One ninth grader said, "When it comes to conflicts, like in school, solve them in the way the 4-H'ers do." A 4-H alum said "If it hadn't been for 4-H, I don't think I would have made it to Carleton College …I would probably have accepted other people's negative attitudes toward me…4-H taught me to have pride in my own identity and know that I can do it."

by Ann Nordby
Center for Youth Development
University of Minnesota Extension

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