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 www.4-h.org/diversity

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

About the Author

Jennifer Sirangelo

President & CEO - National 4‑H Council

Jennifer is a believer in young people and their capacity to change the world. As President and CEO, she leads National 4‑H Council in its mission to increase investment and participation in high-quality 4‑H positive youth development programs for millions of young people around the world. Learn about 4‑H’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.