As the demographic makeup of the U.S. undergoes a sea change of diversification, 4-H and other national historical legacy youth development organizations face a critical question: What will it take to stay relevant in the 21st Century?
This year, as part of the Northstar Youth Worker Fellowship, I undertook a research project to explore this question. My conclusion? We must work to create equity in our programs.
Many legacy organizations were created to reach out to the marginalized young people of a century ago, such as isolated rural children of immigrant families or low-income youth living in urban tenements. Over time, they have come to serve primarily the majority population. This may be because they were founded with the goal of assimilation, welcoming youth of the dominant culture and excluding those who didn't fit the mold.
Now, as the youth population diversifies, merely seeking to engage more diverse participants and staff is not enough. We must address institutional racism and power imbalances that result in disparities in experience and outcomes. We must work for equity, and achieving equity requires us to addresses root issues such as balance of power, access to programs and opportunity, allocation of resources and decision-making power. We must also recognize that we are dealing with layers of implicit bias that have accumulated over all the years of the organization’s history. All of the policies, rules, and unspoken expectations reflect the unconscious judgments of those who have been a part of the organization.
So how can we begin to address that bias and shift our organizational culture to be more culturally responsive and equitable? This is an enormous undertaking, but here are a few practical strategies:
- When hiring: Rethink the requirement for previous experience in the organization. If an organization has not had a diverse membership, then the requirement of previous experience limits the pool of candidates exclude and will hobble efforts to hire staff members who represent the community’s diversity.
- Make it everyone’s job: Every employee and volunteer should be told explicitly that they play a key role in advancing equity and diversity, and that their performance will be measured against it.
- Decision-making power: Who holds the power to make decisions about policies and resource allocation? Work to create teams that represent the multiple diversities of the community and that include people who have previously been excluded – including youth. Challenge traditions that ensure exclusivity, such as budget decisions only being made by people with elected positions). Including a broader range of perspectives at the table also helps to mitigate the effects of implicit bias.
What are other tangible steps that you take, or would like to take, to advance equity in your own programs?
-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator
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