Present…But Not

Aug 1, 2023

Three weeks ago my colleague and I were discussing the successes and challenges with our Teens as Teachers programs. Teen participation in Sacramento 4-H YES and Cooking Academy projects exploded this year as we had 69 high-school youth delivering these weekly sessions at afterschool sites. In Sacramento 4-H, participation overall has rebounded: our camps are full and clubs numbers approach those pre-Covid. But post-pandemic programming hasn't been without challenges.

“We need to do a better job of communicating,” my colleague lamented. “I send emails, text messages, even confirm things with the teens and program staff on the phone, but often they just don't follow through. I don't know what else to do.”

I thought back to situations throughout the year: adults who would say they'd send in paperwork but didn't; young people who would commit to tasks then cease communication; a potential volunteer who left orientation excited but couldn't let us know she had changed her mind. The issue doesn't seem to be lack of communication. The issue appears to be one of engagement and accountability. It's not that people don't know what to do, but that they lack follow-through in doing what needs to be done.

Covid challenged us to work and learn in new ways. I can't help but wonder if the strategies of remote classrooms, courses, meetings and work environments have nurtured a sense of anonymity or unimportance. We know how difficult it was for many youth to connect online with their teachers and assignments. In the workplace, we've learned how to log into a Zoom meeting while simultaneously focusing on other tasks. Participants are present, but not fully. Perhaps inadvertently our virtual way of working has developed a sense of disconnection—from our commitments and from each other. 

Building connection, responsibility and commitment is what we do in 4-H. 4-H clubs, camps and projects should be places where members feel like they belong, where their ideas are heard, and where they assume responsibility. We expect follow-through on tasks undertaken. Caring, committed adults—who know, understand, and support young people in their growth—are there to model accountability. 4-H is relevant now more than ever as we help youth (and quite frankly, adults too) embrace the responsibilities they take on and to understand the consequences of lack of commitment.

We lost a lot as a result of Covid. Membership, certainly. But even as membership grows we confront a broader problem of disengagement, not just in our organization, but in society in general. 4-H is an optimal place to combat the apathy the pandemic seeded. I have confidence that with time, and the power of personal relationships like those forged in 4-H, we'll strengthen commitment to being fully present to each other and the tasks at hand.

By Marianne Bird
Author - 4-H Youth Development Advisor