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.

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.

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 (

In February 2020, 4‑H commemorated Black History Month by featuring the stories of 4‑H alumni and Cooperative Extension* leaders at 1890 land grant universities**. It was an honor to tell their stories and highlight the great work of their institutions. But so much has changed in the last year. Priorities have shifted, programs have realigned, and resources were re-evaluated. I caught up with some of them to learn about how these historically Black colleges and universities have continued their work in supporting kids and communities.

Dr. Carolyn Williams, Extension Director at the Prairie View A&M University, celebrates 4‑H and Extension agents, noting, “I am so proud of how they transitioned into virtual educators while learning to use technology in the process.”

Dr. Maurice Smith embarked on a professional transition, leaving his role as Assistant Professor and 4‑H Youth Development Extension Specialist at Virginia State University to become a National Program Leader at the USDA-NIFA.

Here’s how Teki Hunt, Director of 4‑H Youth Development Programs at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff (UAPB), is working with community groups to deliver 4‑H resources and bring awareness to racial equity.

Since March 2020, we’ve primarily shifted to virtual platforms. I started a UAPB 4‑H Facebook page so I could continue doing live Healthy Living Sessions, as well as share 4‑H at Home activities and ideas from other 4‑H programs. We did a grab-and-go Healthy Snack bag from 4‑H and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which included instructions for a recipe contest we ran. Some of our afterschool groups are following a blended model—some in-person meetings with 10 kids or less, others online via Zoom.

In June 2020, our community held a Pine Bluff Solidarity Rally. My son—who has participated in 4‑H since about 3rd grade—was one of the speakers. Since then, we recently distributed a survey regarding our community and police relations as well as feelings of safety here in Pine Bluff. I developed the Spanish translation. This is completely voluntary and not connected to the university. University-related—in partnership with the University of Arkansas—we are working on the development of a Coming Together for Racial Understanding training.

*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.

**The Morrill Act of 1890 requires each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

 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 
As the president and CEO of National 4‑H Council, there is nothing more important to me than ensuring America’s young people have the skills to lead and change the world. I have dedicated my career to supporting children and their families, and I have never seen a more urgent need for investment in young people and their futures.

To witness the pain and growing disparities caused by the pandemic and systemic racism is heartbreaking.  COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities in mental health, access to education and employability – particularly among those communities already experiencing trauma, systemic social inequity and other disadvantages prior to the pandemic.

Too many young people are at risk of being left behind. The opportunity gap is widening—in virtually every corner of America. Much of the evidence of this is included in a new white paper – Beyond the Gap – prepared by youth development leaders, researchers, practitioners and young people, together with experts in the private and public sectors.

As a nation, we must invest more in positive youth development.

America’s Cooperative Extension System and 4‑H are working to bring a life-changing experience to millions more young people—10 million kids by 2025—because we believe that every child should have an equal opportunity to succeed. Not in the future. Right now.

Closing the opportunity gap means that the health, well-being and success of any young person isn’t determined by their zip code or the color of their skin. It means that all youth have access to positive youth development programming—and the necessary support and experiences to navigate the social and economic realities that we now face.

Closing the opportunity gap will take bold thinking and action.  It will require a collective effort. It means engaging youth development organizations, school systems, corporations, foundations, local, county, state and Federal governments.

In 4‑H, we are fortunate to have some powerful allies. Our partners—some of the largest brands in the world like Google, Microsoft, Walmart, Nationwide and others—are committed to creating opportunity for more young people. In addition, Federal Agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice support 4‑H in its work to scale and advance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that directly impact youth of color.

We must listen to young people.

Youth can lead us and teach us. Where adults see challenges, youth see opportunities to step up and give back. They are incredibly creative and inspiring. And they must have a role in creating their own futures. The resilience, confidence and strength of young people is what gives me hope—and youth are asking for more opportunities to positively impact their world.

4‑H is listening to young people and lifting up youth voice through a powerful new campaign – Opportunity4All – that will bring youth to the forefront of discussions about how we eliminate the opportunity gap. Recently, 4‑H youth joined 4‑H alums, thought leaders and other experts for a robust conversation on how best to address the disparities that are holding young people back. You can watch the program here.

Most importantly, we must live our values every day.

At National 4‑H Council, we are taking concrete steps to support and accelerate Cooperative Extension’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, but also to become a more diverse, inclusive and equitable organization ourselves.

We’ve established a new leadership position at National 4‑H Council to guide the implementation of our DEI strategy and training across Council, and with Extension 4‑H programs. We’re telling an inclusive and aspirational story of 4‑H with youth and alumni from all backgrounds and experiences. We are listening to our partners in higher ed—especially leadership at the 4‑H programs in our nation’s historically black colleges and universities.  And we are setting diversity goals for the composition of Council’s Board of Trustees, leadership and staff.

We are only at the beginning of this journey.  Positive youth development focuses on building youth assets, opportunities and voice – rather than focusing on problems.  A national commitment to positive youth development can transform our country’s social, economic and political imbalances—and create a more equitable and just America.

Our youth are an investment worth making.


To learn more about what 4‑H is doing in diversity, equity and inclusion, please visit our website for a compendium of DEI resources and information at

To hear the stories and the impact young leaders are making today, visit our web site at www.4‑

Teki Hunt’s 4‑H experience began in a diverse Arkansas community, where she participated in a multitude of projects, from fashion to shooting sports to cooking, to name a few.

Teki received her undergraduate degree at Spelman College, a historically black college for women.  Although she did not attend an 1890 land-grant university*, she knew the value and impact that those institutions have on communities. Teki is now director of 4‑H Youth Programs, as well as co-program director of the Peace Corps Prep Program at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff (UAPB).

Teki shared with me how her passion for early childhood development and special education led her to spearhead the development of the university’s 4‑H program.

Please can you tell me about your 4‑H experience in your community?

Teki Hunt (TH): I started 4‑H in the second grade in 1981. In the lower grades, the focus was on arts and crafts. When I entered the 5th grade, I participated and competed in events at the county office, such as bicycle safety, BB gun shooting, archery, gardening, and cooking. I even won for the county and competed in the state bicycle safety competition.

What were some of the standout skills you learned in 4‑H, or what experiences did you have that helped build the foundation of where you are today?

TH: The one thing that stood out for me was the interactions I had with other people during contests and presentations. I was accustomed to getting up in front of people at church, but it was a different, unfamiliar audience in 4‑H. I needed to be confident and comfortable, no matter where I was or the audience to which I was presenting. We were encouraged to step outside the box and expand our worlds. I think 4‑H is still good at that!

Were there any influences growing up that led you to study child development in college – whether it was a person or an experience that you had?

TH: Initially, I wanted to pursue a career in pediatrics because I always liked working with kids, so I started pursuing a degree in pre-med. However, I switched to child development because I wanted to build an ongoing relationship with kids. After babysitting a child with down syndrome—my first babysitting job—I ended up studying and earning my master’s degree in special education at the University of Georgia (UGA). That experience was a turning point in my education and career.

What did it take for you to get to where you are today? Did you face any challenges as an African American woman in your profession or when pursuing your education? If so, how did you overcome those?

TH: Our community was mixed when I was growing up. My Mom worked at a hospital as a nurse, and my Dad is an attorney, so we always interacted with people from different backgrounds. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I was treated like I didn’t belong. UGA was integrated and had been for a while.  When I was there, the students weren’t very accepting of me. I stuck it out, utilizing the graduate student support group and the multi-cultural center on campus.  I also attended a local multi-cultural church, so I found places of acceptance.

After graduate school, I joined the Peace Corps, with the hopes of working with open-minded individuals who wanted to assist in developing countries. Unfortunately, I was the only Black in my cohort and experienced stereotyping, both in the training lessons and personally. I was even told I wasn’t American because of my skin color and how I blended in with the native Dominicans. Although speaking up didn’t help, after completing my training, I was readily accepted in the community where I served.

After college and the Peace Corps, what led you back to 4‑H to work with Cooperative Extension**?

TH: I returned to Arkansas to work in special education; I served in various early education centers that needed childhood special education services. The UAPB childcare center was one of the centers where I was assigned through the educational cooperative. In 2011, I was offered an adjunct position at the university to teach child development courses. Although I was hesitant, preferring to work with children under five, I accepted the opportunity and I liked the experience. Later, because I grew up in 4‑H, I was asked to help start the 4‑H program at UAPB. After helping co-advise the Collegiate 4‑H club, and earning the role of Assistant to the Dean, I was officially tasked with launching the 4‑H program. I was named the first Director of 4‑H Youth Development Programs at the university and learned the full scope of 4‑H through attending conferences and researching 4‑H programs in other states.

Can you talk a little bit about how 1890 land-grant universities and University of Arkansas Pine Bluff are continuing to open doors for African American students and youth, and expanding knowledge in communities?

TH: A lot of students don’t realize all the careers and opportunities that are available. However, when they attend a land-grant institution, they see the influence of USDA. We teach them the importance of agriculture and the science that powers it. We introduce students to their passion. We—and all historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—invest in the future success of our students. We want to make sure our students truly understand the value of our programs.

How do you think schools or other youth organizations, including 4‑H, can follow the example of the 1890s when it comes to encouraging more diversity and empowering young people to seek out more leadership roles?

TH: We need to encourage them at an early age, expose them to the career options available, and engage them when they’re still curious and open to new thoughts and experiences. It’s important to help kids recognize they have value and let them know that they can teach the teachers. We’re learning and growing together.

Where do you hope to see these kids in the future?

TH: I would love to see them engaged in a career that they love, giving back to their communities, and mentoring others like they were mentored in 4‑H. 4‑H and UAPB encourage kids and students to see beyond what’s in front of them and work with people who don’t look like them. I want them to spread their knowledge and understand the value in themselves and those around them.  I hope they explore beyond their communities and bring back ideas that will make their communities, land-grant universities, and the world better.


*The Morrill Act of 1890 requires each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

**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.


Dr. Dawn Mellion-Patin grew up in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, where she was encouraged to join her local 4-H club, which had a majority Caucasian membership at the time.

“There may have been one or two African American kids in the local 4-H club,” she remembers. “Now that I think about it, those of us who joined 4-H were hand-picked; I believe my teachers were trying to integrate 4-H.”

Although Dr. Mellion-Patin did not grow up around agriculture, she received undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degrees in the field, as she realized early on that was where she belonged. Today, Dr. Mellion-Patin is Vice Chancellor for Extension* and Outreach at Southern University. She shared with me her journey in agriculture, as well as her views on the impact of 1890 land grant universities**.

What was your 4-H experience like for you?

DMP: I was an active 4-H’er in elementary school from 1977 through 1980. Before joining, I noticed 4-H’ers were showing their projects—from animals to sewing to cooking—at our local annual fair. I think our teachers wanted us to have similar opportunities and experiences.

What are some of the stand-out skills or experiences you may have taken from 4-H that became the foundation of where you are today?

DMP: I would have to say confidence. I’m from the deep south of Louisiana, and when I was in elementary school, schools were just beginning to integrate. There were 30 kids in my class, 25 white students—with the majority placed in higher aptitude classes—and five black students. By encouraging me to join 4-H, my teachers made sure that I was exposed to more learning opportunities and experiences—like what my white classmates receivedwhere I gained confidence and improved my public speaking skills.

You talked about the influence of your teachers. Did you have any other mentors growing up who paved the way for you?

DMP: When I was growing up, my minister, doctor, and several other people in the community rallied behind me. However, most of my mentors have been individuals at various levels of my education. I have mentors who would not let me quit even when I wanted to. Sometimes it just takes people to lift your hopes. These types of mentors understand the importance of giving back and being of service to the community. I like to think that I’ve done the same for my students.

Did 4-H influence your decision to major in agriculture? 

DMP: My first major was pre-med chemistry, and 4-H did not influence that. I started focusing more on agriculture and realized very early on that it was where I was supposed to be. I changed my undergrad major to plant and soil sciences. When I got into agriculture, I remembered my 4-H experiences and started reading more about the field. It was wonderful learning about and studying agriculture for the first time! As a kid, I did not associate my involvement in 4-H with agriculture, but by the time I got to college, everything came full circle.

What led you back to Extension after finishing college?

DMP: I received my master’s degree in agricultural education at Southern, and those studies took me from being a student of Extension to a practitioner of Extension. When pursuing my doctorate at Iowa State University, I decided to major in Extension agriculture and Extension education, because I knew the positive impact 4-H had on me as a child. After receiving my doctorate, I had an opportunity to go back to my alma mater, where I earned an outreach and a teaching appointment. In 2003, I resigned from my tenure teaching post and joined Extension full-time.

What did it take for you to get to where you are today, and how did you overcome the obstacles of being an African American woman in your profession?

DMP: It took self-confidence, for which I can credit my mentors who always encouraged my growth and development. Reading also enables me to feel more confident and comfortable in conversations and situations in which I may lack experience.

I was also in the Louisiana Army National Guard for eight years, before attending Iowa State. When you have that type of experience, it sets you apart from your peers. When my studies became challenging or when I experienced unbelievable isolation in graduate school, I had to dig deep. As African Americans, we’re always told, “You have to be better; you can’t be average; you have to do more.” It was something I heard from the 1st grade, so I never got comfortable and continued pushing for more.

How are 1890 institutions continuing to open doors for students, and how are you expanding that knowledge in the community? 

DMP: Two of the biggest things that these universities contribute to future generations are exposure and a combination of compassion and tolerance. We fully understand the challenges that some of the students face who come through the door. We still receive first-generation college students, students who come from marginalized backgrounds, and students who’ve had a rough way to go—both African American and Caucasian. A lot of the university staff were also first-generation college students, so we understand and show compassion for their struggle, and offer a lot of encouragement.

What do you think it will take to empower more minority youth to seek out leadership roles through youth development organizations and schools? 

DMP: There needs to be more exposure to impactful opportunities. Through a grant program, we have several gardens for elementary and middle school students. Access to these gardens has inspired the kids to consider agriculture as a major at Southern University. A lot of kids just aren’t familiar with the career opportunities available, so it’s essential to show them.

What is your vision for the next generation of African Americans in education, leadership, and agriculture, or any other profession?

DMP: I would like them to have a broader reach, a more significant focus, and increased opportunity. My generation feels responsible for uplifting our communities. In this new age of technology, nothing should be limited to a community any longer. I want the next generation to be bold enough to step through the doors that are opening and open new doors. I hope that they have the confidence to know that they belong, to have the skillsets to make them valuable contributing members of society, and to have the wisdom to know what they need to accomplish.

*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.**The Morrill Act of 1890 requires each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).


4-H alumni aren’t the only ones with a 4-H story to tell. For many of those involved in 4-H, their experience began as a volunteer. That was the case for Dr. Maurice Smith, Assistant Professor and 4-H Youth Development Extension* Specialist at Virginia State University (VSU).

In 2008 in Sussex County, Virginia, Dr. Smith—who was attending Virginia State at the time—was introduced to 4-H by his mentors, who also happened to be 4-H Agents in the counties of Prince George, Greensville/Emporia, and the City of Suffolk. They suggested he volunteer at a local 4-H Camp.

“As a young black male—and as a junior in college—it wasn’t the norm to say, ‘I want to go to a camp and be outdoors,’” he recalls, “so going to my first outdoor camp was a shock!”

After becoming a camp volunteer, his passion for youth development began. In his current role, Dr. Smith works with state programs and program teams on civic engagement and leadership development. In addition, Dr. Smith conducts research related to civic engagement as it pertains to urban minorities, serves on many 4-H committees, and is an advisor to the VSU 4-H Collegiate Club and Virginia 4-H Ambassadors Academy.

During our conversation, Dr. Smith shared why he believes that it is vital to promote agriculture to young people, as well as how he is getting more African American youth involved in 4-H.


Please share how your 4-H experience began.
Dr. Maurice Smith 

My 4-H journey started as a camp volunteer. I was finalizing my studies at Virginia State University, majoring in agriculture, business, and economics, and my mentors encouraged me to come to camp to mentor youth in my area of study, as well as share my local perspective on agriculture. While volunteering, I noticed a change in learning and behavior that a child can go through at camp that I’d never seen before. This experience and the advice of my mentors helped me frame my perspective, which inspired me to pursue a career in 4-H, youth development, and agriculture.

Did you have any experiences in grade school that may have led you to want to work with youth and be a mentor?

Growing up, no, however, my grandparents’ family were surrounded by agriculture. My father and mother pushed me to major in agriculture because of the scholarship opportunity and resources available in agriculture at Virginia State.I think we had a 4-H program in Sussex County. However, there were difficulties, including getting African American parents to understand the importance of 4-H. That’s why my research on African American youth and families is instrumental in helping strengthen enrollment.

It sounds like you have a passion for working with youth and mentoring them. Can you share what you hope young people will gain from being in programs like 4-H that will help them to expand their knowledge of agriculture?

MS: I hope they gain leadership and social skills, as well as a sense of belonging. A lot of these small things can help them as they start their careers and make them lifelong contributing citizens. Young people also need to learn a sense of awareness. In 4-H, instead of saying, “I know what I want to do and be when I grow up,” there’s a different perspective. Instead, the question is, “What types of skills do you need to be successful in what you want to be when you grow up?” We’re preparing young leaders to be successful in their futures.

How do you think schools and other organizations like 4-H can encourage more diversity and inclusion, and how can they empower more minority students to be leaders or seek out leadership roles?

MS: I think there needs to be a constant and continual branding of 4-H. My research revolves around the involvement of the African American community and parent involvement in 4-H. For example, to recruit more African American young men into 4‑H, do we have our coaches and barbers who serve as role models volunteering? Do we have African American leaders in the community serving as volunteers? Are church groups, community groups, fraternities, and sororities volunteering? Does our 4-H merchandise appeal to African American audiences?  I want to come up with new and innovative ideas to get the African American community more involved.

Can you tell me how Virginia State and other 1890 land-grant universities** or historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) continue to open doors for students and expand knowledge in communities?

MS: Our current president, Dr. Makola Abdullah, and his wife are instrumental in working with 4-H. They love 4-H. His wife is helping us create a program in the surrounding localities on STEAM awareness, utilizing VSU student leaders and activities to come up with initiatives to work with 4-H. We had a big STEM camp in January 2019 with the university president and our colleagues to raise awareness of 4-H. Now we are coming up with more ideas to increase funding for the 1890 universities. We are thinking of ways to raise funds to help the poor, socially disadvantaged and underserved youth in this state who might want to attend Virginia State, but do not have the funds.

Lastly, how are you strengthening enrollment in 4-H, and what do you hope members get from participation?

MS: We plan and develop 4-H programs according to the needs of the community, but we should think more about the interests of the child. Along with collaborating with VSU, we must include those insights, so we have interesting programs, and are maintaining inclusion, enrollment, and excitement in 4-H.

*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.**The Morrill Act of 1890 requires each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

As a child in the 1960s, Lonnette Marsh grew up in South Carolina with an appreciation for farming and a passion for sewing. Her experience on her family’s farm provided many life lessons, which she was able to apply to her life beyond the land.“

I appreciate the knowledge and experiences that I had growing up on a farm,” she explains, “but fortunately, my parents also stressed the importance of education.

”Her experience working “sun-up to sundown” alongside her family taught her the value of hard work, which she has carried with her throughout her career, leading to her current role as Western Regional Extension* Director at North Carolina A&T State University.

During our conversation, Marsh described her farming experiences, shared how her father’s passing shaped the course of her education, and explained how she is hoping to expand learning and leadership opportunities to minority youth today.Please describe your 4-H experience and where it began.

Lonnette Marsh (LM): My 4-H experience began when I was in the 4th grade, in Chesterfield, South Carolina. We had monthly meetings which were split between girls and boys; my fondest memories are of my sewing projects.

Were there any stand-out skills that you learned during 4-H, or skills you learned from a mentor, that became the foundation of where you are today?

LM: My 4-H sewing projects stuck with me, so I took Home Economics classes in high school. I later followed that track, majoring in clothing and textiles—now called fashion merchandising—at North Carolina A&T. After doing an internship in retail, though, I realized that wasn’t the field for me.

My 4-H Extension Agent was a mentor to me. She seemed to have it all together, and I aspired to be like her growing up. She instilled in us the value of manners, as well as how to carry ourselves, how to present ourselves, and how to walk appropriately; skills that you need as a young female. Both my parents were also great role models.

How did your experience and interest in Home Economics and sewing lead you to Extension?

LM: Two of my instructors at A&T encouraged me to consider Extension as a career. North Carolina Extension was not hiring, so I applied for a position in Virginia. That’s where I started my career – as a 4-H Agent in Bedford in 1988. That’s also where I learned about all aspects of Cooperative Extension*, including 4-H Youth Development, which was called Home Economics at the time. After 23 years with Virginia Cooperative Extension, ending as the Central District Director, I moved back to North Carolina in 2011.

Were there any obstacles that you faced along the way to get to where you are today?

LM: I don’t consider them obstacles; I like to think of them as opportunities. During my senior year at A&T, my mother became sick and my father passed away a month before I graduated. While this slightly changed some of my plans, it did not deter me from getting my master’s degree in home economics and continuing my Cooperative Extension career.

In fact, my father’s death and my mother’s sickness helped me to understand that if I could get through what I thought was a life-ending situation, then I could get through anything. Whenever I’ve come up against a challenge or an opportunity, I’ve thought back to how I felt then and used that to encourage myself to go on.

Do you think that there was an expectation from your parents to pursue farming full-time as a career?

LM: They just wanted my sister and me to get an education. However, my father also wanted to leave us our family land, which we were to either farm or build on. My sister and I still own that land. I plant and harvest trees on my portion, which makes me a small farmer.

I want to get your perspective on 1890 land grant universities**. Can you share with me how these universities are continuing to open doors for students and expanding knowledge in the community, whether it’s in ag or other areas?

LM: The concern many of the 1890 land grant universities face today is ag literacy. We are having to help young people, and even older people, understand today’s agriculture. This isn’t just limited to 1890s, but it seems that much more difficult for those universities. As a result, we collaborate and create new ways to attract students and help them understand the value offered through agriculture programs. Once we get them to see that ag is the foundation, it becomes a little easier to steer them towards these majors. Additionally, as 1890s we are looking at ways to get young people interested in production agriculture, including helping them to see how technology plays a key role in today’s farming. Even in Cooperative Extension we play a key role in ag literacy. If we can get the young people in 4-H, we can help them see the wide array of opportunities that exist.

Can you share how you think schools and other youth organizations like 4-H can continue to encourage diversity and inclusion, and empower young people to seek out or follow a path that will result in a leadership opportunity?

LM: I think it needs to start in elementary school. Even at this age, there are leadership opportunities in the classrooms. Youth can become line leaders or lead a project. Schools can also invite speakers or plan career fairs so students will learn about the opportunities that are available to them. Other options can include job shadowing opportunities and college campus visits. They all expose students to various types of leadership roles.

Lastly, what is your vision for the next generation of leaders? 

LM: Ironically, my vision is the vision of my alma mater, NC A&T: “North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University is a preeminent land grant institution where high-achieving scholars are engaged in transformative teaching and learning, civic outreach, interdisciplinary research and innovative solutions to global challenges.” And part of the responsibility of getting students ready for A&T, or any other institution of higher learning, is the work, the experiences and opportunities offered by 4-H.

*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.**The Morrill Act of 1890 requires each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Black History Month is not only about celebrating people and their stories, but about highlighting what so many have overcome in order for them to have a story to tell. Instances of discrimination and inequality are key moments in African American history, and those experiences were often a turning point in the personal and professional stories we hear. After all, stories of success aren’t always easy, especially for African Americans.


In 1968, Carolyn Williams joined 4-H to cope with the loss of her father. After joining her local 4-H in Palestine, Texas, a diverse rural town in Anderson County, she describes the opportunity as one that “turned all of our lives around.”

Today, Dr. Carolyn Williams is Executive Associate Director of Cooperative Extension* at Prairie View A&M University. Just as her involvement in 4-H became a pivotal moment in her life, she hopes to inspire young people—particularly minority youth—to take advantage of the opportunities available to them through Cooperative Extension.

I was lucky enough to learn more about her experience in a then-segregated 4-H, about how her dreams of becoming a musician evolved into wanting to become an Extension Agent, and about the challenges she faced as an African American woman in academia.

Can you talk a little bit about your 4-H experience?

Carolyn Williams (CW): It was a positive experience. I was kind of shy, so 4-H helped bring me out of my shell. My 4-H agent at the time, who was African American, was very caring. She wanted us to reach our full potential. I inherited the gifts of sewing and cooking from my mom and my aunt, and 4-H was a perfect program for me to focus on those skills.

It seems like your 4-H experience was similar to those of today’s 4-H’ers. Were there any differences between your 4-H journey and those of 4-H’ers today?


CW: When I was in 4-H our clubs were segregated, so we had black clubs and white clubs. That’s not the case today, but there’s still an opportunity to create more inclusivity. I also didn’t experience programs like National 4-H Congress and Conference, but I appreciate that youth in our communities today have those opportunities.

Can you recall any of your mentors or influences on you while you were growing up?

CW: My mom, who was an amazing woman, as well as my Extension Agent. She made sure we had good posture, enunciated our words, made eye contact, and were confident. We must continue to help our youth today with those soft skills. Many of our current programs help elevate those skills, but we need to do more. We need to show more care and concern while providing programs that help youth grow, improve and advance.

Do you think your 4-H experience influenced your decision to study Home Economics and Education at Prairie View A&M?

CW: My interest in home economics and education started while I was in 4-H. My Extension Agents, as well as agents from other counties, were constantly motivating us. When I finished high school and attended Prairie View, they were still in my life and encouraging me to do well in school, which led me to want to be an Extension Agent. I have a strong background in music—I play the piano and the organ—and I thought I would go that route, however after graduating from high school, I wanted to work for Extension.

I later went on to receive my Ph.D. at Texas A&M in agricultural education, with a focus on leadership and pedagogy, which prepared me for where I am today.


Were there any challenges as an African American woman getting to where you are today, whether it was in school, your collegiate studies, or getting into your profession?

CW: The big word: Discrimination! I applied for several positions during my 19 years of employment prior to returning to Prairie View. I knew I was qualified for those positions, but I only received one interview, even after receiving superior service awards.

How is Prairie View A&M expanding knowledge and opportunities in the community?

CW: Our 4-H program is the pipeline to a scholarship. We receive funds from San Antonio Livestock Show, Houston Livestock Show, and through the new Farm Bill. We also bring youth on campus for a three-day leadership laboratory. During that time they are exposed to campus life, learn about careers in agriculture and Extension, and find out about available job opportunities. They also get to participate in the 1890** Scholars Program, where they’re offered internships at USDA agencies and offices.

How do you think other schools and organizations like 4-H can continue to encourage equity in education while empowering more kids in diverse populations to be future leaders?

CW: We need to be authentic, honest and transparent about engaging youth in opportunities that will enhance their learning, skills, speaking ability and confidence. It must be an intentional process.

I hope to see more young people of color take on leadership roles, and 4-H prepares them for that. We must elevate our future leaders through exposure and experience. We also need to encourage a holistic approach to learning so that we prepare them for the world.

*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.**The Morrill Act of 1890 requires each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).