For more than a century, boys and girls with an abiding curiosity about harvesting corn and raising cattle found refuge in 4-H clubs, which developed deep roots in the farming communities that make up the fruited plains between America’s coastal population centers.
But a new effort, slated to begin this month, is seeking to broaden the group’s traditional scope beyond agriculture, aiming to push it into the 21st century by forging more of a connection with the nation’s urban youth. The local organizations want to move from the countryside into the cities.
“We just know we need to break out of this limited view that people have of 4-H,” said Jennifer Sirangelo, chief executive of the National 4-H Council. “We’re still connected to our roots in agriculture, but we are so much more.”
The campaign to rebrand 4-H is part of a strategy to increase membership and diversity in the historically white and rural leadership development club, which dates to 1902.
By 2025, the group aims to add 4 million members, largely by doubling the number of black and Hispanic children who participate in 4-H activities by expanding the group’s reach into urban and suburban communities.
Part of the transformation will involve emphasizing 4-H projects surrounding science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields — promoting activities such as rocketry or building drones.
“What has happened is very quietly, in an under-the-radar, very humble way, we’ve evolved into an organization with a global reach,” Sirangelo said. “We just believe that 4-H has been a secret for far too long.”
Sirangelo said that typical 4-H activities include hands-on work such as growing lettuce in a hydroponics lab, then having children learn about nutrition by preparing a salad and selling leftover greens to teach entrepreneurial skills.
“They come out of 4-H with confidence and resilience and the ability to overcome obstacles,” Sirangelo said.
There are about 6 million children from kindergarten to high school who take part in activities sponsored by 4-H, with white children making up more than half of the total membership. Sirangelo said that by 2025, the group wants to enroll 10 million students annually. The plan, she said, is for many of the newest members to come from minority families. Today, there are 1.7 million 4-H members who are black or Hispanic, and the group seeks a total of 4.2 million within the next decade.
Sirangelo said that demographic data collected by the organization shows that there are about 30 million children in the country who are underserved and could benefit from leadershipdevelopment programs such as 4-H.
“We want to ensure that our program has a welcome mat in every community,” Sirangelo said. “We know if we don’t get them ready for leadership, we may have a huge leadership void affecting every industry and sector in the future.”
In Damascus, Md., on Thursday, more than a dozen 4-H members crammed into pews at a Methodist church for a monthly meeting that began with a gavel knock and the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the 4-H pledge: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking; my heart to greater loyalty; my hands to larger service; and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
The Montgomery County students listened to presentations on the history of popcorn — including that kernels as ancient as 1,000 years old can still be popped for consumption — and they learned about sewing a throw pillow from scratch, and how to sharpen kitchen knives with a whetstone and steel.
Kumar Thotapally said that he saw how 4-H made his children better leaders and more confident in themselves. His daughter Shreya, a 15-year-old at Clarksburg High, is now the club’s treasurer and has learned about fundraising and accounting.
“When I was young, I used to be shy and I didn’t like public speaking,” Shreya said. “Now, I got a first place in a publicspeaking competition.”
Shreya said that 4-H also has expanded her horizons and allowed her to learn new skills such as stitching garments for a fashion show and cooking chili for a country fair. She said she thinks people often think of 4-H as just “the farm type and the cattle. Our group is more broad.”
Sirangelo said that the new campaign aims to show that the club’s offerings are diverse and that there is something in 4-H for millions of students, regardless of their interests.
“I truly believe that every young person has the potential to be a true leader,” Sirangelo said, adding that 4-H can make it a reality. “We really believe they have power today to change our world and make it better.”