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The Unchosen Ones: Lessons in resilience

By Kate Walker

In 2016, photographer R.J. Kern took 65 portraits of Minnesota 4-H youth who didn’t win their county fair livestock competitions. Four year later -- in the midst of the pandemic -- he returned to photograph the young subjects. He asked them what they carried forward from their previous experience: What life skills have they learned? What advice would they give other competitors? 

The portraits and reflections offer lessons on resilience and illustrate how young people learn from disappointments and rise from challenges. They also confirm what research tells us about how youth learn from emotions in youth programs and projects

Resilience is the ability to cope with stress, bounce back from hardships. and use what was learned from setbacks to better navigate future challenges. "You win some, you lose some, that’s just how 4-H goes", Nick from Otter Tail County tells Kern. 

In this video, 4-Hers share some of the life skills they’ve gained, from responsibility to patience, perseverance to communications skills. In this video, they offer advice to first-time competitors: work hard, stick with it, stay calm, be patient, try your best, learn from mistakes. According to Anna of Blue Earth County, “Give it your all, and even if it doesn't end up the way that you want, it will be okay.”

They also identify applying lessons on resilience to navigate the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, from coping with cancellations to impacting their relationships with family and friends.
For me, these stories illustrate the power of learning outside of earning a champion ribbon. When you look at the portraits in this gallery and hear these young people reflect on their experiences, what stands out to you?

-- Kate Walker, Extension professor and specialist in youth work practice

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  1. Thank you for sharing my work, Kate! The American family farm is on the precipice of crisis exacerbated by economics coupled with climate change and demographic shifts. The more time I spend with young people growing up on farms and the more I learn about their plans for their own futures, the more compelled I feel to use the tools I understand, pixels and light, to carry their stories and experiences to a broader audience.

    One question I have been thinking about: is there something about the rural experience of raising animals that creates a common bond across diverse ethnic groups?

  2. Thanks for highlighting this important topic of resilience in young people. During the past two years, I have witnessed disappointment in the eyes of my own children when things changed or didn't go as planned. In 4-H programs, youth have the opportunity to learn about so many different areas and they will benefit from each experience, even if it didn't go exactly as planned. I see dedication, hard work, and the ability to keep trying. I also think that the connections made with others, allow them to develop skills in relationship building, which are essential in today's workplace.

  3. My heart is overflowing with gratitude to R. J. Kern for capturing the spirit of rural Minnesota youth who love their livestock, and to Kate for bringing our attention to this work of art. Hearing the words of youth in the video as they express their dedication, despair, grit and hope during the pandemic and knowing the other challenges faced by rural living for decades speaks to the core of my life work...believing in and creating environments for youth resilience. I'm looking forward to holding the book I ordered in my hands and sharing the beautiful pictures with others to both tell the story of youth and encourage youth in their journey.


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