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Addressing racial injustice and disparities focus of new Illinois 4-H initiative

URBANA, Ill. – As the nation grappled with issues of social justice and racial equity, Illinois 4-H leadership intensified their commitment to understanding the experiences of staff, volunteers, and students in these specific areas. To create an environment that is both inclusive and supportive, Illinois 4-H has launched a new diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative.

“As we’ve watched events unfold this year, it became clear that Illinois 4-H needed to take bold action in addressing existing racism and disparities within our program,” states Illinois Extension Assistant Dean and Director of 4-H, Lisa Diaz. “We are committed to addressing and eliminating racism and systemic barriers faced throughout the 4-H organization so that all of our youth and adult leaders and staff feel equally seen and supported.”

Protecting youth from racist experiences, interactions, and messages at any of Illinois 4-H’s programs and events is at the core of the initiative. But the effort will also include programming designed to build the skills, confidence, and insightfulness needed for youth, volunteers, and staff to dialogue openly, honestly, and constructively about issues related to race and equity.

A cornerstone of the public-facing statement is the creation of the 4-H Real Talk video series led by Keith Jacobs, Illinois 4-H STEM specialist. The series shares compelling stories from University of Illinois Extension 4-H staff about their experiences with racism. 

“I realized that many people had not heard firsthand accounts of racism or micro aggressive experiences from their black and brown colleagues,” Jacobs says. “Unfortunately, the shared experiences of many people of color are not known, documented or acknowledged in a meaningful way. I hope that this series will spark conversation around the issue of racism and inequality, not only in the workplace but also within clubs and programs in the communities we serve. Our goal is that these conversations will lead to organizational change that diversifies 4-H to meet the needs of a diverse population.”

The next step in the initiative launch will be the creation of a 4-H DEI Task Force comprised of 4-H staff and volunteers. This group will conduct an internal audit and create action plans in collaboration with anti-racism consulting organization, Crossroads. The Task Force will focus on uncovering opportunities, activities, and experiences for marginalized youth who have not been well represented within the organization. According to Diaz, the goal is to cultivate and create an internal space that will provide great experiences for both youth and staff.

The initiative will also include funding for teen-led and staff-led DEI projects, professional development for all staff and volunteers, and the design of new 4-H program resources. The state initiative dovetails with the National 4-H campaign, Opportunity4All.

“We know that unequal access to education, technology, nutritious foods and inspiring mentors contribute to current opportunity gaps," Diaz says. "Talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not.  Our new initiative operates with similar tenets as the national one, but with specific action steps we can take right here in Illinois.”

4-H alum and National 4-H Council Board of Trustees member Robert Jones, chancellor of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has signed on to the initiative.

SourceLisa Diaz, 4-H Assistant Dean and Director, and Keith Jacobs, Illinois 4-H Stem Specialist
WriterCarissa Nelson, Media Communications Manager, 4-H State Office

About 4-H: Illinois 4-H helps youth learn skills for living. University of Illinois Extension provides 4-H programs in every county in Illinois. Illinois 4-H impacts the lives of 200,000 youth each year through sustained learning clubs and groups and short-term programming.

About Extension:  Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.