Over the years, I have worked with many teens helping them develop an “elevator speech” as part of their community action work. For those of you unfamiliar, an elevator speech is a short synopsis of something that is important to you, and something that you can share in the time it takes to ride an elevator- that is, it is … short. We train youth to be able to talk about what is important to them this way because it is often the case that we only have a few minutes to share with another; to make an impression that what we are saying is worth considering.

For all my years of teaching youth this preparedness technique, I had never, actually, well… given an elevator speech myself. Until two times recently.

The first was in Washington DC last summer where I was attending the Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference. There was another conference of medical doctors taking place in the same hotel, and I found myself getting on an elevator with a couple of doctors from Norway as we all headed up to our rooms. One of the doctors asked me what the juvenile justice conference was about and I immediately thought: “WOW! This is a real elevator speech about to happen!” But I was prepared, and as I spoke about alternatives to incarceration for young people, alternatives that research shows have the power to save young lives, ensure equity, save money, and enhance communities, the doctor was listening hard. When the elevator reached his floor, his fellow doctor stepped out, but the doctor I was visiting with waved him off, saying ” I want to hear more about this… I’ll be right back down” as the door closed and he rode up to my floor with me so I could finish my story.

The second elevator speech opportunity happened last fall, not in an elevator, but in a hallway at the Greenbrier in West Virginia during the NAE4-HA conference. I ran into Jennifer Sirangelo, President and CEO of National 4-H Council, outside a ballroom where she introduced me to her mother, a long-time educator, who was attending the conference as Jennifer’s guest. Her mother asked me directly: “so what is it that you do for 4-H?” And again, I immediately thought “elevator speech! Sans the elevator!”

I said simply that I work to figure out how 4-H works its magic with young people, and then I help others ensure that they are doing all they can to make that 4-H magic happen. With a warm smile and a twinkling eye, she nodded and said: “well good. You keep doing that and all will be fine.” I could not help but smile in return.

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At the end of January I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas, just east of the big snow storm that landed on the western half of the state, to introduce the 4-H Thriving Model to the Kansas 4-H Team. It was a lovely morning general session, where I presented an overview of the model, followed by two more in-depth sessions in the afternoon. As I made my way though the morning presentation I became aware of something that I thought I could articulate better, and that is the understanding the difference between content outcomes and 4-H’s magic.

4-H Thriving Model fun with colleagues in Wichita Kansas

This awareness was raised again last week when I was visiting with a group of 4-H evaluators who are interested in helping support future research on the 4-H Thriving Model. As we shared our experiences with evaluation in 4-H, it became apparent that most of that experience is related to measuring content outcomes, and not on how 4-H works its magic.

At the heart of the 4-H program we work with youth and their interests to provide educational programs for them to learn content; Computer science, animal science, cooking, horticulture, civic engagement, leadership, you name it… we do it. The goal of the content area of 4-H programs is to build skill, mastery, and efficacy – all critically important to healthy youth development. Since we started evaluating 4-H programs in earnest in the early 2000s, our focus has been largely on measuring these learning outcomes.

While learning outcomes are important, measuring them alone does not help us understand how 4-H works its magic. For that we need to probe differently, into the process of what happens while youth are engaged learning the content of a particular program. This process is where youth development, as opposed to content learning, happens. It is the magic that happens when a young person joins 4-H to learn about bunnies as a 10 year old, and “graduates” from 4-H 8 years later having achieved key developmental outcomes, confident, responsible and ready to step into the next stage of life. If we do our job well, youth learn a lot of content in our programs, and in the process (note that word again) a whole lot of youth development is taking place too.

So the 4-H Thriving Model, at its heart, show us the process of youth development in 4-H – it describes how 4-H works its magic. The model also sets the stage for us to measure the magic in ways we have not been able to do so until now. Being able to measure the magic and the content outcomes that youth learn allows us to collectively tell the story of the impact of 4-H on young people. And this story should be one we all have ready in our elevator speeches! You never know when you might need it.

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

I received a text from a childhood friend shortly after Christmas, and without opening it, I had a feeling what it was going to say. My friend’s mom had passed away the day before, and she was writing to let me know. Mrs. “P” had lived a long life, so the news wasn’t completely unexpected. In recent years she had struggled with dramatically declining health (but not a declining spirit if the photo I saw of her at a Seattle Mariner’s game the year before was any indication.)

Before I texted my friend back, I sat for a few minutes in my study, suddenly flooded with memories of a person who, long before developmental science identified it, had embodied the first of many developmental relationships I had in my youth.

Warm and friendly, with a fierce sense of no-nonsense, wrapped up in a compassionate and supportive approach, Mrs. P gave generously of her time and support to many youth. She led our Camp Fire group, hauling us around the countryside in the back of her Ford Country Squire station wagon to sell mints door to door on a rainy February morning, and to monthly outings at the skating rink in the neighboring town. She taught me to sew, a skill that I have put to good use at various times in my life. And she sewed for me, including making (in one day) a trendy one-piece outfit for me to wear at horseshows. In third grade I was surprised with a birthday gift from my friend consisting of a whole Barbie wardrobe, including a long navy blue velvet gown with real sequins carefully hand sown, in Barbie size, by Mrs P.

Mrs. P. loved kids. She loved sports. She loved kids who played sports. It seemed like she knew every student athlete in our high school and cheered for their success as well as their teams. She gave generously, and she cared. She cared about me.

As high school turned into college and career and life, I lost contact with my friend and her mom. But when my dad passed away, one of the first sympathy cards I received was from Mrs. P. She expressed her sorrow, but also shared how proud she was of how much I had accomplished in my life. Given that I have always been high energy and outspoken, even as a little kid (surprise), I am sure there were many days when she questioned where I was headed. Her note of condolence sparked 20 more years of annual Christmas cards and letters. I looked forward to hearing every year from her, now a friend, not a mom, and called by her beautiful first name of Nina. I took the time to hand write her a letter every year, filling her in on all the happenings in my life. Until last year… my letter was returned after not being delivered to the address where she was now staying. And then this year… I didn’t write at all.

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In his powerfully personal Ted Talk entitled Getting Relationships Right, Kent Pekel, President and CEO of Search Institute talks about the relationship gap. Dr. Pekel points out that most youth development professionals, or really anyone working to help youth thrive, knows the critical importance of creating developmental relationships. At the same time, the investment in professional development and time to learn how to build developmental relationships has not followed. In a word, our practice does not often follow our principles.

Fostering developmental relationships is hard work. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes an investment. But it is possible, and important to get started. Dr. Pekel shares a simple method in the Four S Interview Protocol: What is your spark? What are your strengths? What are your struggles? and Where are your sources of support? This simple tool (which you can download for free at the Search Institute Website) can help all who work with youth begin the process of establishing a developmental relationship.

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A few years ago I met up with my childhood friend as our paths crossed of all places in the San Jose airport. We chatted comfortably, even with such a short time to do so, and with at least 35 years having past since we had last talked in person. And I had to chance to visit with her mom and dad a few Christmases ago when they were in the Seattle area for an extended stay. It was a special time with Mrs. P that December day, and I was so glad I got to see her one last time.

Nina P. was the first of many adults in my young life who invested in me, and throughout the course of my youth embodied all of the qualities of developmental relationships. There were others as well, and as time passed these adults grew into mentors and friends. The investment that Mrs. P. made in my life, and in the life of many other young people is an enduring legacy to the power of developmental relationships over time.

How will you start focusing on fostering developmental relationships in the youth with whom you work?

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold