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Portraits of greatness

By Savannah Aanerud

Savannah Aanerud wtih Minnesota 4-H youth outside the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC
What makes a leader a great one? My colleague Anna Rose and I recently had the privilege of leading 34 youth and 4 chaperones on the trip of a lifetime to Washington D.C. for the National 4-H Citizenship Washington Focus (CWF) Conference. CWF’s mission is that, "Youth will learn about leadership through the lens of American Democracy." We toured Smithsonian museums, national monuments, and Arlington Cemetery to explore what it means to be an agent of change. While touring the National Portrait Gallery, we explored democracy through the people who have helped shape our country, from poets to presidents and from activists to visionaries.

What is a portrait? 

One of my favorite definitions comes from the National Gallery of Ireland: "A portrait is an artwork that tells a person’s story. The artwork can be made of any material, from painting on canvas to a piece of performance art!" We saw portraits of impactful individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, George Washtingon, and Helen Keller. Observing youth walk around the museum with awe as they heard the stories behind these beautiful portraits gave me insight into how leadership begins. Being inspired by others’ stories encourages us to pursue our own calling. As I looked throughout the room of youth, I felt a sense of fulfillment. These youth are truly mountain movers, harbors of hope, agents of change; I was surrounded by living portraits of greatness.

Throughout our trip, I saw our youth lead with reverence as they walked throughout the Holocaust Museum. They led with bravery when they challenged themselves to have deep conversations about important policies, civic engagement, mental health, social justice, and local government throughout their educational workshops. I witnessed them lead with curiosity when they asked questions about our nation’s leaders, heroes, and visionaries. They championed teamwork while looking out for others throughout the heat of D.C., presenting National 4-H Lead to Change ideas with vision, and while interacting with members from various states that were also on the trip. In spite of this, I also noticed how our youth yearned for encouragement, investment, and love. I wonder if they realize that they were created for this greatness too. How can we help our youth discover that they are beautiful, wonderful...great?

When providing an immersive trip experience, it is important to consider what you can do to help participants discover more about themselves and the world around them. Here’s how Anna and I applied the essential elements of youth development to the hearts and minds of our 34 youth throughout our CWF experience:
  • Sharing words of affirmation encourages youth to believe in themselves (youth develop self-worth through meaningful contribution).
  • Reminding youth of their strengths helps them reflect on the "good" that they bring to the world and that they are needed (youth expand their capacity to enjoy life and know that success is possible).
  • Using engaging icebreaker games creates a place for open dialogue and healthy conversations (youth develop significant and quality relationships with peers and adults).
  • Encouraging youth to seek joy and purpose each day grows their confidence with solving problems and experiencing success (youth feel pride of competence and mastery).
By helping others see their light, we encourage them to live out their fullest potential and shine on others. What else can we do to help our youth believe in themselves, realize their potential, and recognize that they are great agents of change? The time is ours to help our youth see the beautiful living portraits within them.

-- Savannah Aanerud, Extension educator

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