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K-State Research and Extension
123 Umberger Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506-3401

May 19, 2020

4-H Youth Lead Effort to Encourage Civil Discourse

Submitted by Pat Melgares

A Kansas 4-H official says a program that has been tested with several hundred youth, volunteers and Extension agents will help introduce innovative ways to have tough conversations on society’s issues.

The program, called Community Conversations, is an idea to train youth to use their leadership and communication skills for reasoned, public discussion, said Aliah Mestrovich Seay, a 4-H youth development specialist for culture and communication skills development.

“We have been looking for ways to enhance the 4-H communication project area and tie it to leadership communication,” Mestrovich Seay said. “What we are hoping for in Community Conversations is that young people will take the lead and find new ways of interacting in their communities.”

A pilot program has been offered the past year across Kansas, she said, with much of the program moving online in recent months. Kansas 4-H is working with the K-State Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy.

“The issues that our young people want to talk about center around mental issues,” said Lorenza Lockett, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, which is assisting with the project.

“They want to address things like mass shootings and things that are going on in our world today that affect their lives in more ways than it has affected previous generations,” Lockett said. “These young people are getting more involved in speaking on issues like that.”

Kansas 4-H alum Jaryth Barten, currently an organizational leadership and communication studies major at Fort Hays State University, said Community Conversations has capitalized on important issues outlined by a couple partner agencies, the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums.

Some of the topics those groups have addressed that can be uncomfortable to talk about in public include health care, gun violence, climate change, immigration and politics.

“We’ve helped to facilitate these discussions with online software that includes a chat feature, but we’ve been experimenting with that lately to see if we can merge with video, such as through Zoom, since so many people have gotten used to using that recently,” Barten said.

Mestrovich Seay said the group plans to launch the online version of Community Conversations on May 22. Then, 4-H youth facilitators will lead online conversations during the virtual 4-H Campference at the end of June.

“I love the format we are using,” Lockett said. “We are talking about deliberation, as opposed to debating topics. We are talking about seeking common ground, as opposed to trying to prove who’s right and who’s wrong. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

“What’s important,” he added, “is that when we have these topics, we face them humanely. It’s important to address them respectfully so that we can go forward together.”