As I developed and tested the 4-H Thriving Model I braced myself for pushback and healthy criticism to challenge my thinking and scholarship, and to question my right to propose such a bold new direction for the 4-H program specifically, and the youth development field in general. While there have certainly been helpful suggestions and insights from the academic community, all of which improved the final model, the overwhelming (literally) positive response, support, and encouragement I have received for this work has astonished me. It also gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going. It caused me to think that I might be on to something important, and if I can see it through, it may make a lasting contribution to the 4-H program that I believe in so dearly.
I am a product of the 4-H program, having spent 9 years in the 4-H horse project in Skagit County, Washington. It is easy for me to connect who I am today, and the adult path and choices I have made to the foundation I received in 4-H. Without having a model to describe it, participating in 4-H helped me thrive, and shaped my identity as a young person, living on in my life today. Our 4-H files are filled with success stories of the youth we work with, and if we look closely, we can probably describe those stories through the lens of the 4-H Thriving Model. Yet we have learned in this age of accountability, that stories of success are not credible evidence of impact for many program stakeholders.
I started the work on the 4-H Thriving Model for a singular reason: to help us tell the story of the impact of 4-H more definitely and more credibly. To do so, I believed we needed to align our work with the academic models of youth development, and look deliberately and carefully at the process of how 4-H impacts youth. We know that it does- we just didn’t have a reliable way of describing how it does. Taking the step into the scholarly world of developmental science, putting my ideas out there, building on the research, thoughts and ideas of the scholars I respect and admire so much, felt a bit like walking into a party where I had not been invited, and taking my place at the main table. To a certain extent, that feeling was unjustified as the scholarly “table” is intended to be a place for building on the work of those who have gone before. Nonetheless, I felt very vulnerable and exposed.
Despite these feelings, I kept going because of my desire to help 4-H tell its story better, and to help 4-H educators and volunteers understand the ways in which they can make the most difference in the lives of youth.
I have learned so much in this process, and the support, enthusiasm, affirmation, and yes the critical challenges, have all shaped my work. And as I watch 4-H educators put the model into practice, I know it has been worth it. Sometimes courage and vulnerability are the very things we need to move forward – and isn’t that something we ask of youth we work with on the path to thriving?