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.
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.
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.