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Why equity matters in youth development

By Kathryn Sharpe

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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  1. I couldn't agree more Kathryn. Youth organizations, especially those that are publically funded like 4-H, should have a mandate that they reflect the broad range of diversity within their community. Adequate reflection includes their participants, their staff, volunteers and leadership. Having diverse people involved at multiple levels through the organization will help to diversify programming, outreach and broader social and community impact. Certainly simply diversifying staff to reflect the community is not enough but it is a start. Implicit biases will inevitably become more explicit--a process that is often difficult, hard, sometimes painful--but this is how individual change leads to changes in social beliefs and norms. Thanks for raising the issue Kathryn!

  2. Thank you for your reply, Beki. Indeed, we as public institutions have a particular mandate to be truly serving all people. I agree that by engaging more diverse and representative people as participants, volunteers, and staff, it helps to catalyze important conversations about how to make the organization more equitable and welcoming. Something that many of us run up against, however, is how can we create an organizational culture where more (multiply) diverse people feel welcome if we are not yet diverse? I think that is where it is critical for all of us to do the "pre-work" of examining our implicit biases, consulting about our policies, and engaging in conversations about addressing systemic forms of discrimination. This is important so that we can create an environment that marginalized people can feel welcomed into when they do get hired, join the youth group, or decide to volunteer. What experiences do you have in how to make those critical conversations that arise as constructive as possible?

  3. Kathryn and Beki - great comments on a critical issue facing youth organizations and communities. Working on equity and inclusion is critical and your strategies make great sense though are difficult to implement. Part of the preparation of an organization is an intentional effort to develop empathy skills and an understanding of others perspectives. The work by the Susan Crown Exchange in their SEL challenge and resource materials on empathy are particularly worth noting. Learn more at

  4. Dale, thank you so much for pointing out these great resources. Indeed, empathy is at the heart of so much of equity work--and is especially important in building the motivation to make the challenges changes necessary. Thanks for sharing these practical resources that we all can use to help move ourselves and our organizations forward.


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