Meet the people of 4-H who are breaking down barriers, creating change, and inspiring others.

As educators, community activists, industry experts, innovators, and leaders, these 4-H trailblazers are paving the way for generations to come. Get to know this month's trailblazing youth, alumni, and supporters who have created change and opportunity within their communities and bring the 4-H mission to life.

Featured 4-H Trailblazers

Jesse Lee Eller

CEO & Founder, Studio 5 - Learning + Development, Inc.

As CEO and Founder of a Certified LGBT Business Enterprise® by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, he understands what it means to honor and value the diversity of people and of thought. Through his leadership and guidance, Studio 5 empowers people to do the best work of their lives through meaningful thought partnerships with the world’s leading human-centered organizations. In 2015, Jesse founded and launched the Cultivating Change Foundation - the largest organization globally that focuses on valuing and elevating LGBT agriculturists.

Marcus Hollan

Chief People Officer, Studio 5 - Learning + Development, Inc.

With a passion for people development and organizational change, Marcus served as the Executive Director of the Cultivating Change Foundation, a 501(c)(3) aimed at valuing and elevating LGBT agriculturists through advocacy, education, and community. At Studio 5, his focus is on building the ecosystem to attract and retain top tier talent by creating the conditions that produce a meaningful employee experience. He believes that human capital is the most valuable asset to have and that the development of people in an organization is vital to its success.

Ann Veneman

Former Secretary of Agriculture, USDA

Once named one of Forbes most powerful women, Ann Veneman has earned her place in history, both nationally and internationally. Veneman’s first notable role was serving as the Secretary of Agriculture, where she is the only woman to date to hold the position. In 2005, she was appointed as the fifth executive director of UNICEF, where she advocated for solving global hunger and children’s and women’s rights.

Dr. Carrie Castille

Director, USDA-NIFA

From Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University to state director of the Louisiana Rural Development, Dr. Carrie Castille has spent her career being a champion for education, agriculture, and rural issues. After several roles and a number of Louisiana state honors— she was the first woman inducted into the University of Louisiana Lafayette College of Engineering Hall of Distinction—today, Dr. Castille is the first woman to serve as director of USDA-NIFA in a non-acting capacity.


Congresswoman Terri Sewell

US Representative, Alabama

Congresswoman Terri Sewell credits her experiences in Alabama 4-H and a number of mentors for investing in her. Among her many accomplishments, she is notably the first woman elected to Congress in Alabama and the first Black woman to serve in the Alabama Congressional Delegation. Today, she uses her platform to advocate for voter rights and equality.

Jennifer Sirangelo

President & CEO, National 4-H Council

As the first female to serve as president and CEO at National 4-H Council, she has been named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business and recipient of the Female Executive of the Year Award.

As co-chair of the Congressional 4-H Caucus, I join a group of 55 Representatives who are advocates, champions and alumni of 4-H, raising awareness of the organization’s impact on young people and communities across the United States. We are a community of leaders who use our national platforms to impact the districts we serve locally.

As one of eight children born to migrant farm workers in Laredo, Texas—in a household where we primarily spoke Spanish—I was raised with a passion for advancement and an unwavering work ethic. My parents emphasized education, and to them at that time, a high school education was a great achievement. However, they continued to support me as I went beyond what was expected of me, earning a Juris Doctor and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

Today, as the most degreed member of Congress, I credit my education to what my parents instilled in me and their vision for my future.  Due to their influence, my public service to Texas is still informed by the values of my local communities.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m proud to join 4-H in their commemoration of recognition for Hispanic and Latinx individuals across the nation. The campaign, “La Comunidad,” exemplifies the importance of community and celebrates all aspects of what a community means to us all. Today, it is my honor to represent and give back to my community by serving as the U.S. Representative of the 28th District of Texas.

I support my community through the continued development and expansion of the Texas Grant Program, which allows thousands of students the chance to achieve a college education, particularly minorities. I address local agricultural, and nutrition needs by serving on the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, which provides funding for farmers, ranchers, nutrition programs, food banks, school lunches, and more. Most importantly, I represent my community by being a voice for underserved and underrepresented communities who deserve fair and equitable opportunities to thrive.

Coincidentally, this week is National 4-H Week, a time to celebrate the life-changing experiences and opportunities 4-H provides to all its members in every corner of the nation. It is a celebration of the diversity of 4-H, and how all young people—our future community leaders—have a safe and inclusive space to succeed within their communities and our country.

A community is where we experience fellowship and share commonalities with the people around us. Family, friends, togetherness, hope, experiences, opportunities—that is how we define a community, and this is what 4-H represents.


Henry Cuellar
Member of Congress
28th District of Texas

In 4‑H, we recognize that the Hispanic community consists of various groups representing different Latin American countries contributing significantly to the American mosaic. As we continue to grow, we are committed to strengthening our understanding of all the diverse communities we serve. This Hispanic Heritage Month, 4‑H honors and celebrates the Hispanic/Latinx youth, professionals and families within our community.

As a part of our celebration, we learn from our community of leaders within the 4‑H and Cooperative Extension system who foster a welcoming and inclusive space for Hispanic youth and families. Meet Laura Valencia, Extension Agent II, 4‑H Youth Development, University of Florida IFAS Extension, Dr. Lupita Fabregas, Director, Missouri 4‑H Center for Youth Development, and Liliana Vega, 4‑H Youth Development Advisor, University of California.

How does your 4‑H program engage Hispanic youth and their families/communities?

Laura Valencia (LV):
 As a 4‑H agent with UF/IFAS Extension Osceola County, my goal is to ensure our county’s diverse youth population has equitable access to the 4‑H youth development program. We accomplished that by providing a wide range of culturally relevant opportunities to our community (Osceola County is 55% Hispanic/Latino). For instance, Juntos 4‑H is a program that helps Latino youth in grades 8 to 12 and their families gain the knowledge and skills they need to bridge the gap between high school and higher education. Additionally, 4‑H Soccer for Success uses a holistic approach that looks at the child and the community to address the many barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Lastly, 4‑H is improving the Osceola County community by helping children establish healthy habits and critical life skills by making these opportunities more accessible.

Lupita Fabregas (LF): In Missouri, we designed a strategy to engage new audiences—a road map. A holistic multilevel approach with specific actions taken by our team to create a culture of inclusion into their Extension programing. Those actions include: reviewing policies and procedures; marketing campaigns; redesigning job descriptions; redefining effort levels and specific growth objectives; selecting an Intercultural Competence framework to improve academic and staff intercultural competence; inclusion of the term ‘parity’ to reach new audiences; and selecting areas around the state with a larger Latino population. We also develop and grow programs like Soccer for Success and Juntos 4‑H to engage Latino communities. Lastly, we focus efforts on writing grants to support engaging new audiences while accepting the challenge of building an inclusive and engaging culture.

Liliana Vega (LVega): In San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara County, we create culturally relevant and responsive youth programs for Latinx youth and families. This includes partnering with local community organizations to make youth programs are accessible and culturally appropriate to Latinx families. We also look for ways to bring the program to Latinx families rather than expecting them to come to us or come to a program if it is not inclusive of their needs. Lastly, we recognize that 4‑H can and should look different to meet the needs of Latinx youth and families to foster positive youth development and support a positive racial-ethnic identity.

Why is it essential to incorporate culture to foster a welcoming space for Hispanic youth and families?

 As a Youth Development Extension Agent, I play a crucial role in helping our youth feel like they belong, not just in our program but in their community. I know first-hand the difference creating a sense of belonging can make in a child’s life. When you belong, you feel safe. Today, amid national conversations about equity and inclusion, more than ever, youth need to know they are cared about by others and feel a sense of connection. Participating in experiences like 4‑H creates fellowship, gives the opportunity to feel physically and emotionally safe, and helps youth thrive.

LF: Culture is who we are and affects all aspects of our lives, from the food we eat to the kind of programs we would like to join. Latinos like me need to see our culture reflected in programs like 4‑H. From examples of programming that foster and appreciate our cultural values to welcoming communities that embrace our culture with respect and appreciation.

LVega: In all bodies of youth development research, research indicates the need to express care and foster a sense of belonging. For Latinx families, this includes welcoming their whole identities, including their culture, cultural values and customs, and racial and ethnic identities. For youth of color, developing and fostering a positive racial/ethnic identity is critical. The more we can help Latinx youth feel valued, respected, and welcomed, the more we ensure they have a positive sense of self, thus leading to positive youth development.

Dr. Peggy Whitson has spent more time in space than any other American. She is the first woman to command the International Space Station, the first non-military Chief of the Astronaut Corps, and has completed 10 spacewalks – the most of any female astronaut. But before she became comfortable living in zero gravity, she had her hands planted firmly in the earth. She grew up on a farm outside Beaconsfield, Iowa, where her family raised cattle and hogs and grew corn and soybeans.

She knew early on she loved science, and soon she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. So how does a kid go from living and working on a farm to working on the International Space Station? We asked, and she graciously answered.

What 4‑H activities did you participate in growing up?

Dr. Peggy Whitson (PW): I showed heifers. I did woodworking. I did sewing. I did some baking projects. But for me, the most valuable thing was learning to do public speaking. Being a very shy person, that was an incredibly valuable lesson. I can’t imagine being where I am today had I not learned about public speaking and being able to do that effectively.

When did you first set the goal of becoming an astronaut?

PW: My first inspiration was, of course, when I was nine years old and I watched the walk on the moon. But seeing the first female astronauts selected the year I graduated from high school (1978), it seemed like it was possible for me, too. And so, for me, that’s when my dream became a goal.


Whitson developed public speaking skills through 4-H presentations.

What was the process of taking that goal and making it a reality? You had to at some point figure out a path, when did it come together?

PW: I didn’t know exactly how to make it come together, but I was really interested in science and I figured, astronauts had to be smart people. And I knew I wanted to be a scientist. In that first female astronaut class, there was a biochemist, and it made me think, ‘Oh, hey, I could pursue my interest in biology and chemistry and make that into becoming an astronaut.’

When I finished graduate school, I started applying to become an astronaut. It took 10 years of applications and rejections before I was finally accepted to the training program. But I started at NASA with a fellowship. From there, I ended up getting a job with one of the contractors that worked at NASA, then I started working for NASA directly a few years after that. And then, after 10 years, they decided I might be okay to become an astronaut.

It took 10 years to make it into the astronaut training program. People usually don’t see the rejection and “No’s” before someone’s achievement.

PW: There were a lot of “No’s” along the way. And in retrospect, those 10 years made me a better astronaut. Those years made me a leader. You need to learn along the way that even if your path is not a straight line, you have to learn from all the lessons that are around you, what you’re being exposed to. I really think it’s very, very important for young people to realize that you can go through life taking the easy path and do the things that are just easy for you, but you’re never going to find out what you’re truly capable of unless you push beyond your comfort zone.

How do kids today become an astronaut? How should they pursue their dream? 

PW: The number one thing is that NASA is looking for astronauts in all kinds of fields – science, engineering, every field. It’s really important to know what it is that drives you and motivates you because you need to be really good at it in order to be noticed out of thousands of people who are going to apply for the same job. You have to be a really good team player. You have to have enough different experiences in life to demonstrate that you know how to be adaptable. So, you need to be very good at something, and you also need to be a jack of all trades.

What about physical requirements?

PW: You have to be able to do spacewalks and you have to be able to think in three dimensions to do robotics. And so, it’s all part of the big picture, being able to do lots of different things.

What does an astronaut do when they aren’t in space and if they aren’t selected for the mission? Do astronauts go years without going into orbit?

PW: When I came through the Astronaut Office, there was, on average, around five to seven years between missions. Most of your life is a ground job. And that ground job is usually helping someone who is currently in orbit, like working in mission control or working on procedures for crew members who are going to be flying in the future. Or working on training to improve the training process, so we can get it done more efficiently and more effectively.

Statistics show American students are underperforming in STEM compared to other countries. What should we be doing differently from an educational standpoint?

PW: For young girls, it’s perceived as not being cool as they reach teenage years. So, it’s been my goal to promote that, “Hey, nerds are cool too.” We need to promote it and show our young people that you can do this and that there are other people who have done it. I think seeing role models that are like them helps. It certainly did for me. When I graduated high school, seeing those first female astronauts truly helped me believe that this dream I had could be real.


Whitson showed heifers as a teen. Here, she teaches a calf to lead.

You hold the female record for spacewalks (10) and you’re third overall. What is it like to spacewalk?

PW: It’s like being in a spaceship built for one. And your spaceship is providing your oxygen. It’s providing the pressurization and it’s getting rid of the carbon dioxide. It’s controlling the temperature, just like a regular spaceship does, but it does it inside of one little spaceship.

What is the hardest thing to get used to in space?

PW: Your whole life is spent in gravity and when you don’t have it anymore, you have to really adapt everything in your life. You don’t think about how many things would just be different. The paper floating off your desk, you floating out of your chair. You couldn’t type on your computer because it would push you away.

You spent 665 days in space, which is a record. Did you ever get bored up there?

PW: Some of the tests are a little bit boring now and then, but I guess I stayed motivated because I recognized that even if I was fixing the toilet or cleaning the vents, I was helping keep the space station alive. I was living and working in space, and for me, that was enough motivation to keep me going. If you don’t have anything to do, you can always look out the window and there is always something amazing to see.

Is there something that you really miss about space?

PW: Being there.

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

The need for access, equity and belonging remains critical, as we continue to bear witness to the devastating effects of discrimination and injustice on our communities. As the chairs of the 4‑H Program Leaders Working Group, Access, Equity and Belonging Committee (AEBC), we believe that the Cooperative Extension System is ideally placed to advance the important work of ensuring access, equity and belonging amongst our youth.

Every person deserves to feel a sense of belonging and value, but for this to happen, we need to commit to practically, emotionally and intellectually transforming ourselves and our communities. As a system, Cooperative Extension has long realized that we will not be able to solve the complex problems of our changing world if we don’t encourage a diversity of values, perspectives and beliefs. This is where the 4‑H PLWG, AEBC comes in.

The purpose of the Committee is to support the 4‑H System’s opportunity statement. 

We are committed to:

  • reaching 10 million youth who fully reflect the demographics and social conditions of the nation by 2027;
  • providing opportunities for all 4‑H youth that are grounded in Positive Youth Development;
  • embracing the rich diversity of the youth, families and communities that comprise our nation; and
  • working to close the widening gap in wellbeing and economic prosperity for youth and communities.

We believe that when we build a more inclusive, diverse and equitable organization, all 4‑H members will excel in social mobility and communities will thrive.

Access refers to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to take part in all Extension programs and activities. Studies have shown that youth who enjoy access to diverse cultures and experiences show “evidence of enhanced learning and better preparation for participation in a democratic society, and generally possess enhanced cognitive skills along with a clearer sense of identity.” [1]

Equity means giving everyone the same opportunities in life by eliminating the barriers that exist for marginalized members of society. While equality aims to provide the same things to all people, equity considers that different people need different things in order to enjoy full and healthy lives.

Belonging is a feeling of community. When we feel like we belong, we can be our authentic selves and are comfortable speaking out as we don’t fear retaliation. Belonging has shown to have a positive impact on young people, as they feel more engaged and motivated if they believe that they are valued for their unique contributions.

We encourage you to engage with our three online self-directed modules, which are designed for Extension administrators, 4‑H professionals and volunteers who would like to create a more inclusive organizational culture:

  • Module One: Introduces foundational terms related to cultural competencies and equitable practices (Extension administrators/4‑H professionals).
  • Module Two: Explores the dimensions of culture (Extension administrators/4‑H professionals).
  • Module Three: Describes how to work toward cultural competency; lists the attitudes, skills and knowledge that are required to be culturally responsive; and explains how to recognize and improve an organizational culture (Volunteers).

Our website also offers curated resources and materials to supplement the learning from the modules.

Authentic dialogue and the development of one’s cultural competencies and empathy require lifelong self-reflection, learning about diverse groups and communities, and a commitment to better understanding the historical barriers that exist for marginalized groups in society. Please join us on our exciting journey to provide every young person with an equal opportunity to succeed!

Dr. Fe Moncloa is a 4‑H Youth Development Advisor, UCCE Santa Clara County
Dr. Nia Imani Fields is an Extension Assistant Director, Maryland 4‑H Program Leader (University of Maryland)

[1] Office of the University Provost | Middle Tennessee State University (

National Agriculture Day is March 23 here in the U.S., and it has me thinking about the long, unlikely road that led me to agriculture and the importance it plays to the future of my own family and this bigger global community I’m a part of.

Despite my role today and the great pride I have in my work, the truth is, I didn’t think agriculture was for me.

I mean like, not at all.

I grew up on a farm near the small town of Millersville, Missouri. I’m proud to say it’s the same farm my mom, dad, brother and more than 200 of the world’s finest Black Angus cows occupy today.  But, as a teenager, I was convinced I wanted nothing to do with ag once I left the farm.

I worked alongside my dad many days after school, most weekends and every day during the summer. As many of you know, one scorching July of baling hay – the old-fashioned way, with square bales – can quickly turn a person off the idea of farming for a living. As I did my chores, drove tractors, cared for cows and tended to crops, I dreamed of going someplace like Chicago or New York, anywhere but Millersville.

But I learned that sometimes you can’t really appreciate what small-town America and what agriculture has to offer until you leave and come back.

My parents were horrified when I announced my intention to major in Art History and English. While reluctantly supportive, my two very practical parents put their blind faith in me and a power higher than any of us to help guide my path. But what’s really interesting is that English and Art History eventually put me on a career path that took me as far away as the high-tech PR industry in cities like Seattle, Silicon Valley, Houston, Austin and Dallas before leading me straight back to farming first at Monsanto and now at Bayer.

I started to realize what I should have known from the beginning: All the cool things my dad did on the farm, all the biology and science, I loved all that stuff. I just wasn’t very good at them from a technical perspective. But what I was good at was taking those complex ideas and translating them into concepts that were simple to understand and communicate. I can feel my dad giving me that knowing “I told you so look” right now as I write this.

And that’s what my job at Bayer now allows me to do – which is talk about some pretty mind-blowing science we create for farmers every day and explain how that science works to benefit our entire world. The wonderful things that are happening in agriculture impact everyone on the planet, and science is at the core of it all.

National Agriculture Day is a perfect moment in time to have a focused, important conversation about the intersection of science and agriculture and opportunity. And that’s what’s so awesome about 4‑H – they bring people into that conversation.

I’m proud of the work we do at Bayer and the rich tradition of every ag institution participating in National Agriculture Day. Way back when, I was a 4‑H kid. I showed steers at the local county fair, grew prize-winning tomatoes with my grandma in her garden, and went to the Southeast Missouri District Fair in Cape Girardeau to exhibit them all. My mom took me to ceramics classes through 4‑H. I learned how to tie knots and macramé. I went to summer camps where I met lifelong friends.

All these wonderful programs continue to help close the agriculture gap by showing kids what’s possible for their futures, shaping them in ways they might not even be aware of yet. In 4‑H, I even learned public speaking skills that eventually prepared me for my role in communications. Being a 14-year-old kid full of nerves speaking in front of a crowd turned out to very helpful as a professional later in life.

Now, I have kids of my own. And while they don’t seem interested in agriculture either – the way their dad was at their age – it’s hard to say where their journey will lead them. These days I feel like my own father … gently pushing the opportunities an agri-business degree might open up to them.

My dad’s got this great saying: “The older you get, the smarter I’m going to become.” So, if anything, my path proved his old adage true. My parents are proud that I’m as passionate as I am about the work I do in food and agriculture, and the way it supports the work that they and my brother do on the farm. The experiences in 4‑H helped prepare me for a life and career I’m blessed to have.

So, in an odd way, maybe we were both right.

National 4‑H Council and the Invisalign® brand have launched a partnership to empower and recognize young people who are creating change in their communities through acts of kindness and service—big and small. Because everyone—especially our youth—should be seen and celebrated for the good they are doing in the world.

I caught up with Kamal Bhandal, VP of Global Brand and Consumer Marketing for Align Technology, to talk more about the Invisalign® ChangeMakers Initiative and how the mother of two is inspiring her children to be a positive influence in their community.

What is a ‘ChangeMaker’?

Kamal Bhandal (KB): Simply put, a ‘ChangeMaker’ is someone who springs into action to solve a problem for the greater good of a community.

In what ways do you think the Invisalign® ChangeMakers Initiative will inspire young people to become change agents in their community?

KB: Everywhere you look, young people are actively driving change within their communities. In some instances, it may be a young person who leads a local blanket drive to donate to the local shelter, or it may be the young leader who activates their local school district to provide school lunches for families during the pandemic. There are many more examples all around the country, and often these are local stories that aren’t widely known, but provide tremendous impact in the community.

Align Technology’s Invisalign brand, in partnership with National 4‑H Council, has launched the Invisalign® ChangeMakers initiative to shine a light on these stories and elevate the young people who are driving change within their communities and bringing smiles. In doing so, we hope that more young people can see how teens just like them and feel connected to a larger youth community. Our collective goal with this partnership is to spotlight those inspiring stories so that every young person can see themselves as someone who can drive positive change within their communities.

Can you share some of the work Align Technology leads to inspire change in communities and how today’s youth can help support those efforts?

KB: Align is committed to improving the lives of our employees, customers, patients, stakeholders, and the communities in which we live and work. Our philanthropic philosophy is to support organizations whose visions tie closely to our own – improving smiles, empowering our customers through partnerships with learning institutions and foundations, and supporting and educating teens.

We are committed to developing youth leaders around the world. Here in the US, we’re actively partnering with leading organizations—like 4‑H—who are also committed to shaping and developing youth. Other partners include Junior Achievement including their S.H.E. Leads program, Boys & Girls Clubs of America,  and Cristo Rey San Jose High School.  Our partnerships with these organizations include mentoring, program support, as well as workshops that cultivate critical business and STEM skills, corporate work-study programs, and internships. Today’s youth can support these efforts by getting involved with the local chapters of any one of these programs.

As a mom of school-aged children, how are you inspiring them to be ChangeMakers? Why are those teachings so important?

KB: As a mom of a teen and a tween, I try to focus on a few things: (1) exposing the kids to a range of perspectives; (2) fostering empathy for others; and (3) supporting areas of individual interest. The teen years are a critical time in brain development as teenagers have an increased capacity to appreciate various perspectives. By learning about different communities and various ways to solve problems, it not only helps increase awareness of the variety of challenges that exist within communities, but it also stimulates more creative thinking on how problems can be solved. When it comes to having empathy for others, we try to create learning experiences that foster a sense of empathy—such as through volunteering or random acts of kindness—and provide support for a specific area of interest that is important for each of them. However small or large the individual interest area may be, we try to support and encourage the kids to drive change that will create positive impact, and also experience how that feels.

How do we continue to give young people a platform to share their ideas, experiences and innovation, and how will those ideas impact the future?

KB: Organizations like 4‑H that celebrate and support youth in cultivating their ideas are critical. Today’s youth are full of ideas and creative solutions that can help drive positive changes that will enhance the lives of others who are a part of their community – large or small. To give young people a platform to share their ideas, it’s critical that we:

  • Create communities to help our youth feel that they are part of a bigger movement. People crave feeling a sense of belonging—being a part of a community—and young people especially need this today. If surrounded by other ChangeMakers who are trying to drive change within their communities, youth today may be inspired to take their own ideas and spring into action.
  • Offer mentorship to advocate and make connections to unleash creativity– our youth need to feel that there are people in their corner advocating for their ideas, cultivating those ideas to bring them to life, and helping remove roadblocks if and when needed along the way. So many of us have networks full of relationships that may assist a young leader in bringing their idea forward – it’s on all of us to make introductions to people who may help a young person move forward and bring their ideas to life. Talented youth who are full of ideas about how to drive positive change are everywhere. We must provide platforms and mentorship that nurture and unleash their creativity—our future depends on it.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Jehiel Oliver, an Ohio 4‑H alumnus who is leading ag innovation on a global scale. He is the founder and CEO of Hello Tractor, an agricultural technology company that connects tractor owners with smallholder farmers in need of tractor services. Under his leadership, Hello Tractor serves more than 500,000 small farmers in Africa with access to over 3,000 tractor owners.I learned more about Jehiel’s work, his family’s history in agriculture, and how he thinks young people today can drive more agriculture innovation.

Where did your 4‑H story begin, and what was the experience like for you growing up?

Jehiel Oliver (JO): I was a part of 4‑H from the first through third grades in Cleveland, Ohio. It was my teacher who was administering 4‑H curriculum and introduced me to the 4‑H program. There were so many different things we learned, including agriculture. 4‑H is what introduced me to agriculture. I’m from the east side of Cleveland, and we don’t have farms. So that was one of the first introductions to figuratively and literally getting my hands dirty.

Who were some of your inspirations growing up?

JO: Family is always a primary source of inspiration. I come from a very hardworking family that always prioritizes doing things with your time, like taking action within your community. That has defined my career. Even where I am today—and my decision to go into investment banking—was driven by a gap that I saw within my community. I saw people who didn’t understand finance and didn’t have the same resources other communities had. So I figured that if I can develop this skill set, I can be of value within my community. That evolved to broadening my perspective globally. I can use finance to benefit global communities, which led me into agriculture—using finance to help farmers across Africa and parts of Asia where Hello Tractor operates.

Can you share some of your family history in agriculture?

JO: My great uncle, who I knew very well, used to work at John Deere as a technician for over 30 years in Alabama. And what was inspiring for me to learn was he used to volunteer at Tuskegee University towards the end of George Washington Carver’s career. He is also responsible for introducing many agriculture best practices that we know of today. He worked as a Cooperative Extension agent with Thomas Monroe Campbell, the first Cooperative Extension Agent and helped launch the Extension System. Together, they supported ex-slaves and Black sharecroppers to introduce best practices into their farming activities. That work allowed them to grow more, earn more income, and be better stewards of the land. And I’m doing the same thing in countries in Africa and Asia, which kind of brings his legacy full circle.

Why do you think it’s important to tell stories like that of your uncle and other African-American farmers and pioneers in agriculture? 

JO: Our history often gets overlooked. That’s why Black History Month exists because those stories aren’t always being told. However, in understanding those stories, you begin to see yourself in new spaces because you can trace back. I have a legacy in this industry. It wouldn’t be so difficult for a young person to see themselves as a farmer if they knew that some of the best farmers in American history were African Americans. I think having that understanding is important. It certainly gave me a lot of confidence as a professional and brought even more excitement to the work that I was doing.

What inspired you to start Hello Tractor? 

JO: I wanted to be as impactful as possible, and I’m also a big believer in using commercial markets to solve massive problems. You scale the solution and address issues by leveraging commercial players who have financial interests in supporting you in solving the problem. I started my career in finance, where I eventually worked in microfinance—which is popular in parts of Asia and Africa. These were banks that generally serve lower-income populations to provide loans and other financial services that typically aren’t extended to those populations. That attracted me to this idea that I can use my financial background to support low-income communities in these emerging markets, leading to an awareness of farmers’ challenges. Many of the borrowers in these banks are low-income farmers who make their money on the farm. However, many of the microfinance institutions would not lend to agricultural activities because of the risks. That piqued some curiosity on supporting farming in these developing countries and supporting the farmer while minimizing the risk. I landed on mechanization, and as a result, founded Hello Tractor.

Farmers pay for mechanization services every year. It’s something that they need as it increases their income, yield and productivity. It also addresses some of the changes affecting farmers in emerging markets, such as rapid urbanization and aging farm populations, and depleting laborers. So, machines are needed now more than ever, and Hello Tractor was my solution to this labor gap in these rural communities. If you’re growing on a small plot of land—like most of our farmers do—you can’t afford to own your equipment. But having access to a tractor is just as good. We built a circular economy model around this concept that farmers can book services from a tractor owner that will be affordable, reliable and convenient. And as those tractor owners deliver those services, they can earn income. It’s been a little over six years now, and we’ve seen some extraordinary success stories coming out of the work that we’re doing through Hello Tractor.

What are some ways we can provide young people with meaningful experiences and opportunities to discover their passion for agriculture, especially when they feel like those opportunities are out of reach? 

JO: I think there’s a wealth of opportunity for a young person, especially now with technology and innovation taking hold in agriculture. Now is the time to get in front of the innovation curve, learn as much as you can, and bring those learnings back to the farm. I think curiosity will be an essential ingredient to their success as they think about a career in agriculture. There are so many ideas that can fill the gap.

What advice do you have for Black 4‑H youth and young alumni who want to positively impact the world through their work?

JO: I’m so impressed with these young kids that I come across who, for them, the sky quite literally is the limit, but have already overcome so much. The tools that are developed as you overcome all these challenges are opportunities. I think a lot of times, we look at the wrong side of the narrative. We think about challenges, and there’s this prevailing narrative around bias towards Blacks and women—which I can’t speak to directly. But if you think about the other side of that narrative, you have overcome all these obstacles that it takes a special kind of person to overcome. I guarantee you that it is unique, and it’s something that you can build on. It shouldn’t be viewed as a limiting factor; it should be seen as an asset. That pressure creates diamonds out of coal, and there are so many little diamonds around us who don’t know that that’s what they are. So, we must help those young people recognize that in themselves. Anyone who faces adversity and gets through these high-pressure situations, there’s value in those experiences, and it’s something of which you should be proud.


*The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small-business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.


This interview is a part of a series of blogs supporting 4‑H’s Community Impact program emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion – an effort sponsored by Nationwide®

Nationwide, the Nationwide N and Eagle and Nationwide is on your side are service marks of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. © 2021 Nationwide

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Avery Williamson has quite an impressive NFL career that spans seven years. What’s also inspiring is his love of farming. The fourth-generation farmer and Tennessee 4‑H alumnus has a passion for agriculture, and he’s paying it forward to the next generation of diverse farmers.

I caught up with Avery to discuss why it’s important to find your passion and create more opportunities for diversity in agriculture.

What was life like growing up on your family’s farm?

Avery Williamson (AW): I grew up on my family’s farm in Milan, Tennessee. It was right down the street from where my grandpa and great-grandpa’s farms used to be. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid and started helping my dad around the farm when I was six years old. My dad was a truck driver, so when he was away, he would leave me in charge and give me responsibilities on the farm, including feeding and taking care of our cows. It wasn’t easy at times because I’d usually have to work on the farm before school or afterwards when most of my friends were out having fun.

After I went to college and entered the NFL, my dad continued to work on the farm after retiring. During my second year in the NFL, I learned that one of my teammates had a farm. So that inspired me to invest in our family farm. I purchased new equipment, more cows, and the rest is history. I love it. Unfortunately, I don’t get to go back as much as I want to right now, but it’s something I really love. I’m passionate about farming, and it’s what I want to do when I retire. I think managing a farm is something that not many people think a Black athlete would be doing.

How did your experience in agriculture shape who you are today?

AW: My dad always said that the hard work I did on the farm made me tough for football. It instilled a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility at a young age. When I was in 5th grade, I knew I wanted to get into football, so to work out, I built a track in our hay fields to pull a car tire back and forth every day, rain or shine, in between school and my farm chores. I eventually worked my way up to a tractor tire before I went to college.

In elementary school, I learned a lot about agriculture and taking care of cows through Tennessee 4‑H. 4‑H supported my passion and interest in farming, building skills that helped with our family farm and in business which I still use to this day.

Why do you think it’s important to uplift stories like yours or those of other Black farmers? 

AW: It’s so cool for kids to hear these stories because it could inspire them to explore careers or interests in agriculture. The world runs on agriculture—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. We’ll rely on young people to bring fresh ideas and talent to the agriculture industry in the future. That means making sure all voices are heard. As an athlete, I have a great platform. So hopefully telling my story and stories of my family will inspire others.

What are some of the challenges facing Black farmers today?

AW: For my family, even growing up, we continue to face racism. Others would see the hard work we put into our farm, the resources we have, and think we aren’t deserving of them because we are Black. A year ago, someone opened the gate to our farm, and nearly all of our cows got out. We experience these kinds of incidents to this day. But we never let it deter us from what we love to do. We’re proud that our family has always had our own land, all the way back to my great-grandpa.

In what ways are you inspiring young people to find their passion, as you found yours, whether in agriculture, sports, or other interests?  

AW: I try to lead by example and help young people to see their own potential by continuing to show my work ethic and my passion. I’ve stayed consistent. I tell kids all the time that even when you are successful in something, you have to keep pushing. Continue to motivate yourself through the good and bad moments.

So, what brought you back to 4‑H, and why are you partnering with the organization? 

AW: My 4‑H and agriculture experiences helped shape who I am today. I am so much more than a football player because of it. So I wanted people to see that side of me and to pay it forward. Through my partnership with 4‑H, I’ve been able to share what a day in the life of a farmer is like by inviting aspiring farmer, Ohio 4‑H’er Joyona Helsel to my farm. We had so much fun. We rode in my tractor, baled hay, and picked fresh vegetables from the garden. Joyona even tried a beet for the first time. I love to share these experiences with young people and show them that there’s more to farming than they might think. And I hope to continue to open up my farm to more kids. I want to use my platform to give kids opportunities and experiences that could inspire an interest in agriculture.

What are some other ways we can continue providing young people with meaningful experiences that will impact and change the course of their future?

AW: Hands-on experiences are key. For example, it’s essential to get kids out on the farm when it comes to agriculture. Let them experience it. Every kid learns differently. Along with traditional classroom learning, kids need the opportunity to see it, live it, and experience firsthand what interests them. It can be life changing.

What advice would you give to a young person who has a passion for agriculture and wants to find their purpose in the field? 

AW: Don’t give up on what you love to do. There are a lot of opportunities, especially for Black farmers. For any person of color, you can be successful in agriculture.



This interview is a part of a series of blogs supporting 4‑H’s Community Impact program emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion – an effort sponsored by Nationwide®

Nationwide, the Nationwide N and Eagle and Nationwide is on your side are service marks of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. © 2021 Nationwide 

Young leaders in every industry are using their voices and stories to create a legacy of success and inspire the next generation. Kyle Bridgeforth—partner at the fifth generation Bridgeforth Farms—is lending his voice and passion to the advancement of diversity in agriculture.Here’s how the Alabama 4‑H and Morehouse College alumnus is helping his family’s farm thrive.Where did your 4‑H experience begin, and describe what that experience was like for you in your community?

Kyle Bridgeforth (KB): I went to a small school in Alabama where a 4‑H leader would visit every month or two to show us projects. Outside of the classroom, the 4‑H program would take us to tree farms and other outdoor activities. Although I grew up on a farm, I experienced agriculture with my classmates in fun ways.

Share how your experiences or the skills learned in 4‑H influenced or guided your career path.

KB: Growing up on a farm and being involved in agriculture was the guiding light for my entire career. I learned that being outdoors and being engaged in the community are passions for me. I wanted those experiences to be a part of my career and lifestyle. Participating in 4‑H gave me a project-based mentality. Before I start the process of growing a crop, I’m thinking about the end goal rather than just the goal at hand. With my 4‑H experience in mind, I start a project and see it through.

When beginning my career journey, I had multiple career opportunities and jobs before I settled into farming. In college, I interned at a bank. I later worked in Washington, D.C. for the United States Trade Representative, where I worked on the agricultural side of free trade agreements. Then, I found myself back in farming. I give 4‑H and the farm I grew up on credit for that.

Who were some of your influences or mentors growing up?

KB: I’m blessed and fortunate to be a fifth-generation farmer, so our family’s history was something we talked about every day. From the first generation to the fourth generation post-slavery, I heard stories about what farming was like for all of those generational experiences. I learned about our second-generation’s goals of going to college and growing a business during the Jim Crow era. Those stories influenced my perspective on farming and work life in general.

My family is my community, and they are great examples for me. In popular media, Martin Luther King is a huge influence for me. Although he’s someone I never met, I went to Morehouse College because of his legacy and how much he impacted me at a young age.

In a 2019 New York Times article, your uncle stated of your grandfather: “His goal, and his father’s goal, was to do everything they could do to keep the land and pass it on to the next generation better than they found it.” Talk about what that statement means to you as a fifth-generation farmer. 

KB: Well, I think it’s a great reminder that in all things, the first step is to survive and make it to the next year. It was a large and ambitious goal, and that mindset still sticks with me today. While it may not be as dire now as it was back then, we try to keep that mentality. Yes, it’s a business and a farm. But we always take an ethical, moral approach to the work that we do. When dealing with land, the decisions you make today will affect you for the next ten years. So we always have a long-term approach, and the decisions we make naturally flow into our lifestyles. I’m always looking ahead. And that’s a great example set by early founders of the farm.

How do you keep your son in mind? What are you doing today to prepare your son to fill your shoes and those before you? 

KB: Well, it seems that after I had a kid, he became a part of those long-term goals. We need to ensure that the farm and business are in good shape. As challenging as the farming industry is, it takes preparation, dedication and commitment to ensure that we’re running an efficient business that will be around by the time he’s my age. We also try to embrace as much growth and technology as possible. I hope his interest is in farming. I’m certainly not going to pressure him into it, especially if it’s not something that he innately wants to do. But I want to be there for him no matter what his goals are. I want there to be a business here that he feels like he can fit into. And we do that just by keeping a healthy, positive, stable, and family-oriented culture, while still preparing to teach him as much about the farm and the business as I can.

Describe some opportunities available for African American youth to help foster their passion for agriculture. How can those opportunities create life-changing experiences?

KB: Within farming, the Black community is largely underrepresented, as well as our culture in the industry. A young Black kid who’s never been on a farm or doesn’t know anyone that’s worked on a farm may not understand the benefits of agriculture. So, I think it starts with exposure. And that experience can change career or lifestyle goals. It can open up opportunities that they didn’t know existed. I believe it is important, especially for young Black kids, to understand that agriculture is a massive industry. It doesn’t always mean working in a field every day. Whether it’s digital marketing, finance, health science, or any other element within agriculture, you have to be exposed to the industry to find your fit. There are a lot of big companies and money in the agriculture space. I’d like to see more recruitment from larger companies, like USDA, Bayer, Dow DuPont. And even recruitment from historically Black colleges and universities.

Lastly, how do you hope your work and passion will inspire the next generation of Black and diverse farmers? 

KB: Hopefully, I can be a testament. I hope that others will relate to the story I tell and the experiences I’ve had. I want to be an example of how your passion for agriculture can help you find your place in the industry.

This interview is a part of a series of blogs supporting 4‑H’s Community Impact program emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion – an effort sponsored by Nationwide®

Nationwide, the Nationwide N and Eagle and Nationwide is on your side are service marks of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. © 2021 Nationwide