From the Roundtable: Lessons in Civic Action Education from the National 4-H Conference

by Julianna Ezzo

Talking to high schoolers about sex is most adults’ worst nightmare.  Now, imagine that you were tasked with talking about sex, and issues like dating violence and sexual assault, with teenagers, and that these teens were all from different states, both red and blue.  Pretty stressful, right?  Differences in background, though, are not this groups’ only challenge.  Imagine that you, as the leader of this group, only have about fourteen hours of instructional time with these youth before they present their ideas to the federal government in an hour long illustrated-talk-style presentation, followed by another hour-long question and answer period.  The stakes just got a bit higher, did they not? 

While this may seem like a scenario that was destined for chaos, this was my reality as a Collegiate Facilitator at the 2019 National 4-H Conference.  I was handed twelve youth, from twelve different states, and after meeting on Sunday, my delegates presented to the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), which falls under the Administration for Children and Families within the United States Department of Health and Human Services, on Tuesday.  In the sessions leading up to the presentation, the Healthy Relationships Roundtable was asked, by the FYSB, to discuss the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, the challenges and strategies youth use when discussing, refusing, and negotiating intimacy with peers, the motivations of and factors that contribute to youth becoming intimate and abstaining from intimacy, and the emotions associated with the pressures to either become or withhold from intimacy.  After answering all of these questions, youth then designed model materials and programming initiatives for the FYSB.  Needless to say, the youth of the Healthy Relationships Roundtable worked hard to not only answer all of the challenge questions posed to them by the FYSB, but also create and generate the specific materials and aids that they thought would best assist the federal government in discussing sex with teenagers. 

For those unfamiliar with 4-H, you might be wondering just what this program is and how exactly it has access to US federal employees.  And for those who are vaguely familiar with 4-H, you are probably wondering why these farm kids are talking about healthy relationships and not their cows.  The answer to these questions lies in 4-H’s history, as it is a product of the Progressive Era and a long-time advocate of the “learn by doing” educational approach.

4-H: A Brief History of America’s Largest Youth Development Program

4-H members, often referred to as 4-Hers, frequently recite the phrase “Green Since 1902” when discussing the history of 4-H in the United States.  1902 is the year that AB Graham started hosting experimental and agricultural youth club meetings in Ohio.  Graham was inspired by Liberty Hyde Bailey, of Cornell University, who used funds from New York’s land grant college to better educate rural youth on agricultural topics.  The Morrill Act of 1862 established land grant universities in each state, which were tasked with improving both general education and the agricultural and mechanical arts.  Bailey then used New York’s land grant university as an avenue to reach youth, which inspired Graham.  By having his young club members participate in hands-on, experimental activities, Graham’s agricultural clubs became the personification of John Dewey’s “progressive education,” as club members were learning by doing (Wessel & Wessel, 1982, pp. 2-4).

            Local agricultural clubs, like Graham’s, remained largely unregulated for the next twelve years; the Smith-Lever Act would change that.  As youth agricultural clubs popped up throughout the country, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) took note of the work they did.  The USDA, at this point, was “stymied by adult farmers,” as they were unwilling to alter their agricultural methods and move “toward mechanized, industry-backed” agricultural practices (Rosenberg, 2016, p. 6).  To get rural communities to improve their agricultural methods, the USDA believed they needed to bypass stubborn farmers who were unwilling to change.  Thus, with the passage of the Smith Lever Act in 1914, Congress provided both its support and funds through the USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service (CES) (Rosenberg, 2016, p. 6; Wessel & Wessel, 1982, p. 25).  The agricultural club movement, which had already begun to brand itself under the name 4-H, now had a permanent home within the CES, where it received funds from the US government, direction and educational materials from the USDA, and reach across the country through the nation-wide network of land grant colleges (Wessel & Wessel, 1982, p. 25).  This unique structure, with the US government at the top, would allow these simple agricultural clubs to develop into a nation-wide organization.

            As Tracy S. Hoover, Jan F. Scholl, Anne H. Dunigan, and Nadezhda Mamontova argue in “A Historical Review of Leadership Development in the FFA and 4-H,” 4-H moved away from simply educating children on the best, most effective agricultural techniques.  4-H blossomed into a youth development organization through its learning by doing approach.  4-Hers were tasked with working with their peers, mentoring younger club members, and demonstrating their skills to others (Hoover, Scholl, Dunigan, & Mamontova, 2007, pp. 100 & 102).  In 4-H, learning about leadership happened naturally, as 4-Hers gained experience and expertise in the project area they chose.  4-H’s metamorphosis, from local agricultural clubs into the national youth development and leadership program which Hoover, Scholl, Dunigan, and Mamontova describe, is seen today at all levels of the program, including at the national level, through events like National 4-H Conference.

Why Healthy Relationships: An Explanation of National 4-H Conference

            According to the Iowa 4-H Foundation’s website, National 4-H Conference started in 1927 as the National 4-H Club Camp.  The organizers of the first-ever National 4-H Club Camp aimed to provide its delegates with the opportunity for the “development of leadership, recreation, and citizenship” (Iowa 4-H Foundation, 2012).  In 1927, the main goals of the program were to “bring together the most outstanding club members, and give them an opportunity to exchange ideas that they might share in their communities (Iowa 4-H Foundation, 2012).  While the venue may have changed – the delegates of the 1927 National 4-H Club Camp slept in tents on the National Mall, while today’s delegates stay at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland – the goals of the modern National 4-H Conference have changed very little overtime.  According to 4-H’s website, National 4-H Conference gives “4‑H youth… the opportunity to engage in personal development experiences that increase their knowledge, resources, and skills while discussing topics affecting youth and 4‑H programming nationwide” (National 4-H Council, 2019).  Thus, while the delegates learn a lot, both through their pre-conference research and on-site activities, delegates “are empowered to create positive social change in their communities and have the opportunity to practice and apply their skills in a real-world setting” through the roundtable and federal briefing experiences (National 4-H Council, 2019).  In fact, many delegates will be challenged, by their state 4-H program leader, to bring what they have learned home, and educate their community on their roundtable topic and/or attempt to implement some of the solutions which the roundtable thought of while generating their presentation. 

The roundtable topics for National 4-H Conference can be almost anything.  In my five years at the event, my topics were distracted driving (in 2014 and 2015), physical activity and exercise (in 2017), vocational job availability (in 2018), and healthy relationships (in 2019).  These, though, were just the topics with which I was personally involved.  My co-facilitators, many of whom also returned to this event multiple times, facilitated roundtables dealing with other “hot button” issues including the opioid crisis, mental health, bullying and cyber bullying, alternative energy resources, and emergency preparedness.  Just like 4-H had expanded its programming throughout its existence to include much more than, as the saying goes, “cooking and cows,” National 4-H Conference expanded its programming as well, while retaining the program-wide “learn by doing” approach which Hoover, Scholl, Dunigan, and Mamontova discuss.  At National 4-H Conference, youth voice matters, and youth are empowered by the opportunity they have to share their ideas with those in positions of power. 

Action Civics in Public Education: A Summary and Evaluation of Generation Citizen

As Alexander Pope, Laurel Stolte, and Alison K. Cohen demonstrate in their article, Closing the Civic Engagement Gap: The Potential of Action Civics, educational civic opportunities are not limited to 4-Hers.  In their article, Pope, Stolte, and Cohen discuss Generation Citizen, an action civics program designed for public education, which they describe as being “action-oriented, community-based, and student-centered” (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265).  The Generation Citizen framework is pretty simple: students chose an issue of importance, research how to take action, and then take the action that they determined would lead them to success (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 266).  More specifically, though, Generation Citizen is based upon this idea that “[s]tudents take charge of their learning,” as the process is only facilitated by the classroom teacher and a Generation Citizen collegiate volunteer (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265).  This type of “[s]tudent-centered, project-based learning,” according to Pope, Stolte, and Cohen, “improves student motivation, knowledge retention, understanding, enthusiasm, and appreciation of material” (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265).  Then, by having students carry out their action strategies, educators give their students the opportunity to “[take] real-world action on their issue of interest” and develop key life skills, like “oral and written persuasive communication” (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265). 

One of Generation Citizen’s strengths is that it allows students to choose the “important local community issues” that they will attempt to remedy (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265).  Giving students this choice is inherently engaging, as they get to pursue an issue they care about.  Another strength, which Pope, Stolte, and Cohen discuss early in their piece, is Generation Citizen’s “ability to work within the public education system” as it is “aligned with state education standards in history, English/language arts, and civics for each state in which it operates” (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265).  Not only has Generation Citizen’s compatibility with state standards made it so the program has gained “credibility and validity [within] the curriculum among school administrators and teachers, thereby increasing the likelihood of program uptake,” it has also made it so educators can better justify spending an extensive amount of class time on one topic/project (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 265). 

While it has its strengths, one of the inherent weaknesses of Generation Citizen is that its youth participants may not have their solutions or ideas heard by anyone who could implement major change.  Take, for example, two of Pope, Stolte, and Cohen’s four case studies.  In the first case study, students in Rhode Island attempted to change their school district’s busing system by having members of their community sign a petition.  Their efforts, based upon Pope, Stolte, and Cohen’s description, received no response from local officials, who could have changed the disliked busing system (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, pp. 265-266).  Pope, Stolte, and Cohen argue that the students’ experience was still valuable because it forced them to conduct “extensive research” which utilized “their critical analysis and higher-order thinking skills,” think cross-curricularly because their solution involved math and economics, and improve their “persuasive communication skills as they prepared to engage with governmental officials” and peers about their cause (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 266).  Undoubtedly, the development of those skills has value; however, it is disheartening for students to put in all this effort, to create petitions and conduct economic analyses, for their project to be overlooked by those in charge. 

The students in a separate case study had it even worse, as their project, which involved advocating on behalf of keeping their specialty high schools open, was disregarded, and their schools were closed (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 267).  Pope, Stolte, and Cohen are excited by this; they believe that students learned, through this failure, “that political change is difficult, and does not come overnight” and “hypothesize that the lessons learned from this experience will inform and motivate civic engagement and civic action in the future” (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 267).  While these lessons are, of course, valuable, the students who lost their school were, most likely, devastated that their project did not work and that their multi-media campaign was ignored.  There must be a way for students to still learn these lessons – that political change is difficult and that it does not happen overnight – while allowing students to feel empowered, and have their solutions heard by people who could implement their ideas and/or participate in the initiatives that they develop.  Here, then, is where the idea for a hybrid program, that takes the strengths of Generation Citizen and combines it with those of National 4-H Conference, emerges into an ideal civic action program for public education that empowers youth. 

A Merger: Student Choice of Generation Citizen with The Youth Empowerment of National 4-H Conference

            One of Generation Citizen’s biggest strengths, as established, is that it allows students to choose an issue in which they are interested.  That, plus its close alignment with state curriculums and standards, have made it gain popularity amongst educators.  The student choice found with Generation Citizen differs from that of National 4-H Conference, where youth only get to select their top three favorite topics from the list of roundtables, which was determined in advance by the federal partners.  This process, due to limited space in each roundtable and the finite number of facilitators, can leave delegates with a topic about which they are not passionate.  One of Generation Citizen’s weaknesses, though, is that the students can be left without their ideas being actualized or recognized.  While Pope, Stolte, and Cohen feel this is valuable, because youth are still enhancing critical thinking and communicative skills while also experiencing the woes of the democratic process, it is disheartening that students may leave this experience feeling as if their voice does not matter.  This, however, does not occur at National 4-H Conference, as all of the roundtables brief their federal agency, which makes delegates feel “empowered to create positive social change in their communities” because their thoughts were valued by federal employees (National 4-H Council, 2019). 

            This guaranteed feeling of empowerment is something that Generation Citizen cannot promise its participants; however, merging the Generation Citizen program model with that of National 4-H Conference assures that all students experience it.  To ensure that students can both chose an issue of value in their community and have an opportunity to share their projects with someone who can assist them in either further implementing their ideas or affecting change, the following sequence of events would be followed.  Students would complete the Generation Citizen program following the basic model shared above, where students chose an issue of importance, research how to take action, and then take the action they determined would lead them to success (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 266).  By having students follow these steps, the previously determined benefits of Generation Citizen programming, including student choice and the connections to the curriculum, remain intact. 

After completing these steps, students monitor the success of their projects for a given period of time determined by the teacher.  Students then, in accordance with the National 4-H Conference model of civic education, present their ideas to others.  To make this presentational experience most impactful and empowering, it is encouraged that educators try to involve community members, including students’ families and local government officials – like the town’s mayor and county freeholders – in this presentation.  In a science-fair-like set-up, community members, including these invited local politicians, would circulate from one group of students to the other, asking them about the issue they chose, how they attempted to remedy it, and the outcome, if any, of their work.  Ending the Generation Citizen project with a National 4-H Conference briefing-like presentation enables students to both learn the lessons associated with a failed project – that political change is difficult and far from instantaneous – while still leaving the experience empowered, as people within their hometown, and those governing their community, were interested in their work and valued their attempt to better the community.

To Make the Best Better

            As evident by their article, Pope, Stolte, and Cohen (2011) believe that the Generation Citizen program is an excellent framework through which students can take on an active citizenship role in their communities.  In accordance with the 4-H motto, to make the best better, this article aimed to, after establishing the history of both 4-H and National 4-H Conference, evaluate and then improve upon the existing Generation Citizen framework, and make it better.  By applying the presentational aspect associated with National 4-H Conference to the Generation Citizen framework, a new civic action educational model emerges, one where students not only have a choice in their “hot button” issue, but one where students leave the experience feeling empowered, despite the initial success or failure of their brainstormed solutions. 

At the end of their article, Pope, Stolte, and Cohen state that “schools can empower the next generation of young people in figuring out how to make a difference” by giving “renewed attention to civic knowledge, skills, motivation, and participation” (Pope, Stolte, & Cohen, 2011, p. 268).  The original Generation Citizen model, undoubtedly “empowered” teens by helping them figure out how they can make a difference, but their experience may not have been empowering, depending on the success and reception of their projects.  The hybrid framework, though, allows for instantaneous empowerment, through the presentation to the community, while also retaining the empowerment that comes with learning to take civic action.  Merging the two models together then truly is an attempt to make the best better, and demonstrates the benefit of sharing ideas between traditional, public education and cooperative extension education through 4-H programming.   


Hoover, T. S., Scholl, J. F., Dunigan, A. H., & Mamontova, N. (2007). A historical review of leadership development in the FFA and 4-H. Journal of Agricultural Education, 48(3), 100-110.

Iowa 4-H Foundation. (2012, April 16).

National 4-H Conference History. Retrieved from Iowa 4-H Foundation website:

National 4-H Council. (2019). National 4-H Conference. Retrieved from 4-H website:!about

Pope, A., Stolte, L., & Cohen, A. K. (2011). Closing the civic engagement gap: The Potential of Action Civics. Social Education, 75(5), 265-268.

Rosenberg, G. (2016). The 4-H harvest: Sexuality and the state in rural America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press


Wessel, T., & Wessel, M. (1982). 4-H: An American idea 1900-1980. Chevy Chase, MD: National 4-H Council.

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