A 4-H Civics Lesson

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You may have noticed politics is a pretty hot topic these days (this may be the understatement of the year!). Although many adults follow the news closely and are up to date with what is going on locally and nationwide, research has shown that many young people are increasingly out of touch with politics and government.

An article by the Harvard Institute of Politics cited a study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) out of Tufts University after the 2012 presidential election that included data and feedback from over 6,000 young people and 720 high school civics teachers nationally. The results were a little disturbing. The data found that less than half of young Americans vote, and this includes presidential elections. Barely 10 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 even met the pedestrian criteria of “informed engagement” as it related to their knowledge of and participation in the political process. There is also a great disparity in socioeconomic groups and their level of civic engagement. Higher income Caucasian students are four to six times more likely than Hispanic or Black students from low-income households to exceed the “proficient” level on national assessment tests in the discipline of civics. Only 7 percent of students whose parents did not graduate from high school and who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch actually reached a level designated as “proficient.” More surprisingly yet, teachers were hesitant to delve too far into politics in the classroom. Nearly a quarter of educators surveyed believed parents and adults in the community would have a negative perception about politics being discussed during a classroom course, even one that was focused on government and civics during an election year. Based on this alarming data, the next generation may be faced with a pronounced lack of understanding and comprehension of the importance of civic engagement and the necessity of involvement as it relates to our country’s political system.

The overarching goal of our 4-H program in Lee County is to assist young people in developing the skills they need to be successful. One of these skills is an understanding of what it means to be a citizen in this country and the privilege and responsibility of being an active participant in the democratic process. We do not want to teach kids “what” to think, but rather encourage them to ask questions, become more knowledgeable about government, better informed on local issues that may impact them and their families, and take a more active role as an informed citizen and future voter.

During this summer, 4-H is offering a number of programs to reach these civic related objectives. Earlier this week, local youth attended the 4-H Citizenship Focus, a three-day event held in Raleigh featuring meetings with state legislators, panel discussions on relevant youth issues, as well as group activities and workshops focusing on topics like conflict and compromise, understanding the Supreme Court, and even how to campaign and run for office for those aspiring politicians. Beginning next week, 12 local young people will take part in the 5th annual summer session of the Lee County Young Commissioner program. This two-week program aimed at increasing knowledge and understanding of local government allows young people the opportunities to meet and hold discussions with local elected officials from the city and county. The alumni of the first four Lee County Young Commissioner classes also currently meet throughout the year as a 4-H Club, and continue to assist with the planning and implementation of the two week summer session.

Later in the summer at the end of July, teen 4-H members will head to N.C. State University for a week long 4-H Congress where they will learn about what it means to be a leader locally and at the state level. During 4-H Congress, youth even have the opportunity to run for elected 4-H office, filling positions that are voted on by their peers from across the state.

In early August, Lee County 4-H will be represented at the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) meeting in Durham at “Youth Voice 2017”. Along with 4-H members and County Commissioners from across the state at this meeting, discussion will center on local issues facing county governments as well as the challenges and opportunities for our state and its young people.

As you can see, through 4-H in Lee County there are so many ways to become an informed and active citizen while also preparing to be a leader for tomorrow!

Information used for this article was found in, “Groundbreaking Report Released on Educating America’s Youth for Civic & Political Participation” at the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP): The Kennedy School website.

http://iop.harvard.edu/about/newsletter-press-release/groundbreaking-report-released-educating-america%E2%80%99s-youth-civic

Bill Stone is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.