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Let's talk about the first-generation experience

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Earlier this year, Extension Youth Development professionals from Minnesota and 11 other North Central states began to explore how to better invite and retain “first-generation 4-Hers.” This is especially important in light of racially-motivated violent events such as those that occurred within the past week in North Minneapolis. They are symptoms of a racial pathology that will continue to plague our country, as well as our youth programs, if we don’t do anything about it, and if we don’t talk about it.

A “first generation 4-H’er” initiative is one way that Minnesota 4-H has begun to confront our own and others’ implicit biases in order to strengthen our organization’s diversity and equity. We integrated the definition of the term itself with the actions that we will take.

By “first-generation 4-H’ers,” we mean youth and families not previously engaged in 4-H and whom we will engage with:
  • a purposeful goal to reflect the community within the 4-H program and
  • an understanding that in many cases this will require specific and intentional work to engage communities and populations historically shut out and left behind.

Since the notion of a first-generation experience isn’t unique to 4-H, I wondered how we could learn from research conducted on the experience of first-generation college students -- those whose parents do not have a college degree. I found some interesting and helpful correlations.

Research shows that first-generation college students have lower grades and graduation rates than continuing-generation students (those with at least one parent with a college degree), whose families have the experience to help them navigate the often unspoken rules and expectations of college life and systems.

Similarly, in 4-H -- a large and sometimes complicated system with its own unspoken rules and expectations -- continuing-generation 4-H’ers generally have an easier time finding a way to fit into the program or influencing it to fit their needs. First-generation college students experience such challenges as culture shock, financial difficulties, difficulty finding resources, and feelings of frustration and a lack of identity. It’s not surprising that first-generation college students are more likely to drop out of college than continuing-generation students. We find the same to be true for our first-generation 4-Hers, who experience similar challenges.

A study conducted by Stanford and Northwestern universities found that talking about class differences, rather than ignoring them, helps first-generation students advance in college. The results showed that by providing a one-hour “difference-education” opportunity to talk about the difference in experience for students of varying income levels, they were able to eliminate the social-class achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. These results validate for me how important it is to talk about those things that are most difficult to talk about.

How do you think a similar discussion about differences in experience could make an impact on first-generation families in your program? How could an examination of our own implicit biases make an impact on our work? How does a person’s race influence their first-generation experience? What other strategies do you think would help your own youth program better welcome new participants?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. Great points and relevant research to consider in making 4-H more inclusive. Critical time for all of us to learn about ourselves and each other and the biases we hold. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Jessica for sharing relevant research and applying it well. We all have much work to do in learning about our biases and the ways in which they interfere with being truly inclusive. All the best.

  3. Jess, thank you for sharing this topic, which is clearly one that we are thinking about a great deal right now. I also appreciate you connecting it with the issues of racial alienation and tension that are so apparent right now, but which always form part of the fabric of our society. I find it critical to facilitate the conversations you refer to, and yet highly complicated given my identity as a White, middle-class, educated woman. I have to constantly take stock of my own biases. And yet I think that one of the most important thing we can facilitate is greater ability to talk across our differences, and that happens by taking a deep breath and going ahead and diving in, even when it is hard.

    1. Thank you, Kathryn, for your comments. It is so hard, isn't it, to get people to talk? But so important. But the reluctance is understandable, since I believe there are certain skills that need to be developed in order to engage in useful dialog about difficult issues. This is why I think it's important to intentionally create space for this kind of learning to happen. Some skills that I think are important for people to nurture:
      -ability to consider ideas from multiple viewpoints
      -ability to suspend judgement
      -willingness and ability to listen and keep silent rather than reacting right away to what you're hearing.

      There are many more. What others can you think of?

    2. Kathryn, I applaud your courage to dive in and start a dialogue. Your perspective as a white, educated, middle-class woman is your perspective--never devalue it! You represent the majority of 4-H leaders in your perspective. As you grow and develop and explore issues, your learning and insights will be very vaIuable to many in 4-H. I am the white mother of two black first generation 4-Hers. Both of my children have been in 4-H for years, we still do not feel like we are a part of the "family". We have made peace with this, but I am saddened that my children participate in 4-H for educational purposes only. The family is very cold and unfriendly from our perspective. This might be a great starting point for a club discussion.

  4. I think it's hard for people to see their privilege. With the Black Lives Matter movement, I didn't understand why they were protesting the way they were. It wasn't how I would have gone about it. Working in communities of color and talking with my family and friends. I felt reflective and wondered why I had such guilt. I have found myself checking my own biases and I can really see the blind spots of some of my loved ones. Now that I see more, I'm compelled to be as supportive to first generation 4-Hers and people of color in my everyday life. I still have my own blind spots, but I'm more willing to hear about them. I'm more ready to listen and change.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Joyce. When I first heard the "Black Lives Matter" slogan, I felt shocked that the sentiment even needed to be expressed. And then I realized that's part of the point of the movement. I think it's meant to be a shocking reminder that there are people out there--people of all situations, including many in positions of political power--who actually believe that the opposite is true. People are beyond frustrated--they are rallying for the world to take notice and recognize the daily feeling of desperation and exacerbation that particularly young black men experience because of racial bias and the systemic racism that results.

  5. What a great connection between first generation college students and first generation 4-Hers. The research on the impact of talking about class difference is really powerful. I agree with Kathryn and with your blog that taking a deep breath, diving in and talking about difference is critical. Unfortunately talking about difference does not come naturally to many of us and mistakes can result in hurtful messages. How can we help each other practice these skills so that we can have the vital and constructive conversations around difference that will help us move forward?

    1. Hi, Betsy. My reply to Kathryn's comment above provides some answers to the question of who to help each other practice skills for having those constructive conversations. I think practice is also important--such a simple thing, right? But we can start where people are more comfortable (generally socio-economic difference tends to be an easier topic) and work our way up to more difficult topics (e.g., racial, ethnic, gender, or religious differences).

  6. These forums and dialogues are the genesis of the type of development practices that must take place in order that we will see greater positive returns from the inevitable impact of Diversity & Inclusion.

  7. Great points and relevant research to consider in making 4-H more inclusive. Critical time for all of us to learn about ourselves and each other and the biases we hold. Thanks for sharing.


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