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A Conversation with New York State 4-H Director Andy Turner

By Katie Baildon
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
Hands-on youth development programming looks different these days, with more youth, educators, and 4-H volunteers gathering virtually and making full use of digital communication and learning platforms. What hasn’t changed is 4-H's enduring commitment to nurturing the heads, hearts, hands, and health of youth across the New York state.  

In this episode of “Extension Out Loud,” a podcast by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), Andy Turner, director of New York State 4-H Youth Development, shares how the program’s holistic, positive youth development approach is designed to support and grow the dynamic lives and interests of young people even, and perhaps especially in, times of uncertainty and transition.  

"I think it's likely that as we come out of the pandemic, there will be a great appetite for a lot of the things we do in 4-H and the way we do it, to have that hands-on, tangible experience and to be connected with other youth in a learning environment."  

NYS 4-H offers a vast menu of program options for youth to engage with from agriculture, food systems, and sustainability to S.T.E.M., civic engagement, and healthy living. Common among all 4-H programs is the positive youth development approach that engages youth in shaping their own learning and development path. In this episode, Andy shares a vision of the future that embraces 4-H's traditional values of curiosity and experimentation and invests in developing new pathways for youth engagement and growth.  

This conversation with Andy is the second episode of the latest Extension Out Loud series, “Leading Through Extension” which features key CCE voices discussing their approaches to extension work and how history – and this past tumultuous year — are shaping our path forward.   

Listen on:

PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm Paul Treadwell.


PAUL TREADWELL: This is the second episode in our Leading Through Extension series. And Katie, who do we talk to for this episode?

KATIE BAILDON: In this episode, we talk to Andy Turner. He's the 4-H youth development director and assistant director of Cornell Cooperative Extension.

PAUL TREADWELL: And Andy's had quite an extensive journey here in the Extension world, starting out in a local office and then moving to become executive director and then transitioning to campus. So we talked about the history of 4-H and its attempts to transition as society transitions.

KATIE BAILDON: And we talked about the model of positive youth development and what that means, especially during times when we are facing isolation and challenges that are in some ways unprecedented.

PAUL TREADWELL: If you could just tell us a little bit about who you are, what your role is, and how you came to be where you are.

ANDY TURNER: I am a Senior Extension Associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I'm the New York state 4-H program leader and an assistant director for Cornell Cooperative Extension. My career has spanned Extension from the beginning, going all the way back to 1989. I started my career as a 4-H community educator in Rockland County. From there, after nine years, worked in Greene County up in the Catskills as an executive director.

At the tail end of that 14-year period I was the executive director as well in Columbia County, and was there when those two associations decided to become one association.

The other highlight of that tenure there was our development of the Agroforestry Resource Center project, which certainly a career highlight for me, and the work that went into that and the vision we had behind that. I came to Cornell in 2012 was a state Extension specialist and then accepted an offer, opportunity, challenge to become 4-H program leader on an interim level in 2014. And after just a few months, I really realized this was something I wanted to do for a much longer period of time. So now I've been in this role since 2014 and have been thoroughly enjoying it, and have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of work with 4-H on the national extension level as well, which has been very rewarding.

PAUL TREADWELL: So what can you tell us about 4-H in New York state? And can you give us a little bit of history of 4-H?

ANDY TURNER: 4-H is really-- in a sense, it's that third component of the Extension system that evolved. The idea, of course, initially, was kind of that democratization of education, which I think is an incredible thing and pretty unique to the United States. I think we were really in the lead on that concept, that vision.

But in the beginning stages of Cooperative Extension, the education was really focused on agriculture in rural parts of the country because that's where most of the activity was. But a beautiful thing about Cooperative Extension, and particularly here in New York state, was early on there was an equal attention to the other side of what happens in a rural household, which, of course, at the time, was home economics, and involving women equally in the program and the educational outreach. And Cornell was a leader in that with Liberty Hyde Bailey, Martha Van Rensselaer, and others.

In a sense, 4-H was the third part of that whole process. If we're working with the farmers, we're working with the homeowner, how do we work with youth as well? And so I think the short answer there would be although the history of 4-H often is connected to that agrarian piece very closely, and there is, in fact, history that supports that with 4-H evolving out of Iowa and working with youth to experiment with new types of crops that maybe the farmers weren't ready to embrace, so 4-H became a way to work into that space with youth and, then hopefully transfer it to the adult farmers. And so Iowa is often quoted as the original source of 4-H work.

However, there was a huge component of things happening in New York state that aren't always part of the history, which I try to remind people of, which, again, has to do with our first dean of the College of Agriculture, Liberty Hyde Bailey In the early part of the 20th century, we had youth programming happening in New York state as outreach of the college with Liberty Hyde Bailey and Anna Botsford Comstock, another really great person in our history of Extension that probably needs a lot more attention.

They were doing nature programs for youth through the school system around New York state and rural school districts. And that, in a way, is how 4-H developed and evolved here in New York state, pretty much around the same time it was evolving in other parts of the country, but with a twist around nature study.

PAUL TREADWELL: I have a friend who has been connected on and off through Extension through generations. And he has shown me some old publications, these incredible mailings that would go out from Cornell to youth across New York state that would teach botany and biology. And some of them are just beautiful. The illustrations and the effort that was put into educating youth in real communities way back when was fascinating.

ANDY TURNER: One of my treasures is a original Anna Comstock book that summarizes a lot of that nature study work. And there's photographs. There's beautiful illustrations. And the idea was to get youth interested in nature and then broaden it from there.

But even in that early work, you can see that the context was thinking about the whole child and the ecosystem approach. It wasn't a simple learning facts and workforce development. It was about how do we create youth to really understand how the world works and will be curious about that and will want to have an influence on the world. That's what I think 4-H is about.

KATIE BAILDON: Nature study is obviously still a really important part of 4-H. What are some of the other core pieces?

ANDY TURNER: What I'd like to start with there is there is a subject matter-- we call them the pillars of 4-H that we're really emphasizing. And there are a lot of subcategories within those. But they would include S.T.E.M., of course, science, technology, engineering, and math. Then civic engagement, really working with youth to understand how they can become active in their communities, developing the skills to be effective communicators and leaders.

Third one is healthy living, helping youth to learn and experience how to be healthy human beings. And that includes nutrition. It includes physical activity and all the things you like to see to round out a healthy lifestyle. Even now, more and more, we're looking into mindfulness and how to introduce that and help young people handle stress, which is certainly really critical issue right now.

The fourth area that we embraced in New York, and I think nationally now as well, is yes, we have a strong history and connection to agriculture, and there's no reason not to embrace that. We're thinking of it more through the lens of agriculture and food systems and sustainability.

So those would be our four broad areas. But core to all of that is that whether you're talking about S.T.E.M. or civic engagement or agriculture programming, we're trying to lead with the idea that 4-H is a positive youth development organization, and that first and foremost, we're looking at the context for how we do the work, how we create space for youth to bring their whole selves into that space and to develop their emotional capacity and have positive interactions with adults who are there to guide them.

So the positive youth development lens is emerging and growing. There's more science all the time to support what youth need to thrive. So for us in New York, and really across the country, help our educators and volunteers understand and embrace that science and think about how we can apply those principles to our programming.

KATIE BAILDON: In a previous episode, we talked to Dr. Tony Burrow about some of the work of PRYDE and getting 4-H youth involved in the research process. Could you talk a little bit about how that work informs the 4-H programming?

ANDY TURNER: It's very exciting. I think when the 4-H unit of extension at Cornell, we were moved into the College of Human Ecology just a year or two before I came into the position. The thinking there was to create a way for 4-H to integrate more with faculty resources, particularly in the Human Development department of the College of Human Ecology, and also within the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research where we are, and Tony wonderfully is now the director of the BCTR.

And that really connects to the work of Yuri Bronfenbrenner and thinking about development of human beings through an ecological lens, looking at all the pieces that come into play for youth development. So what's happening in the home environment, what's happening at school, what's going on in the community. So much more of a holistic systems thinking approach to it.

And PRYDE was really the next logical step in that process, the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement, the idea that we could create more of a connection between the county educators and the work they're doing and the youth and the research expertise here at the university. So PRYDE's trying to bridge those two things. And I think it's working really well. We've had some significant increase in research on 4-H and what's actually happening there, and some of that certainly being led by Tony and his work with a sense of purpose, which I think is a really great way to look at what 4-H does, and how do we help you develop that.

To me the language in some of the other models is around thriving youth, and Tony's talking about a sense of purpose. But there's a lot of similarities there in terms of helping a young person find a spark, something that really gets them thinking about the future and may lead to a career choice or a college choice.

So PRYDE is giving us that way to bring that research piece more closely and more thoughtfully into the program in both directions. So learning from the work we're doing, researchers studying 4-H programs, engaging with undergraduates around that, and also bringing up new questions that really come from the front line educators more than from the university.

PAUL TREADWELL: I want to jump back. So 4-H. Why 4-H? Why not 5H? Why not 3H? Tell us about the 4-H part.

ANDY TURNER: It's often taken for granted and not really thought about. But to me, it's a beautiful thing if you think about the four H's are head, heart, hands, and health. And there was an intentional process behind that. If you talk to leaders who go back a ways, they'll talk about the fourfold development of 4-H. And that's what they're talking about. Again, that it's a holistic program. It's not about transferring knowledge only. Certainly knowledge transfer happens, but it's about developing the human capacity.

So thinking about the cognition and what happens in the developing brain. It's very easy to transfer that 4-Hs. It's still relevant. It still applies to the research happening now in youth development.

So the head, we're concerned about cognitive development and thinking about things intellectually and exploring problems and having curiosity. The heart, really, for me speaks to helping youth develop empathy and care about each other and care about their communities, and that's always been a component of the 4-H program.

I think health is obvious, but what it means to be a healthy person changes, and the research changes and the challenges change. And certainly right now, what we're seeing is a tremendous amount of challenge around mental health with youth, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and a lot of alarming statistics there. So a program like 4-H that provides another outlet and a way to have a positive interaction with the world perhaps could be even more important in that kind of a scenario.

And then, of course, hands. And why I think that's important is because we've always been an experiential education-based process. That goes all the way back to Dewey, really. And looking at how youth and how humans learn through experience, through tangible activity goes right back to that nature study that Liberty Hyde Bailey and Anna Botsford Comstock were doing. And it works.

Youth join 4-H not because we talk about theory and the research and the positive development piece. They join because they want to have those experiences. So whether that takes the form of raising an animal, building a robot, doing model rocketry, coding-- there's so many examples-- that is a critical way to get youth engaged and have the kind of experiences.

But if we're clever, we can create pathways for them to learn and grow and really design their own pathway. When I think of great examples of youth who have had transformational experiences in 4-H, and there are many, at some point, they started to really figure out what's their spark. What is the thing that really gets them excited about the future? And they start to move in those directions.

So if you start with an experiential, hands-on approach, but then allow the youth the opportunity to grow within that and to start to take ownership for their own learning, that's pretty clever, and that's really how it's designed. The challenge is how do we get that experience to more youth, in particular the youth who need it the most?

And I think that's what 4-H is talking about now at the national level and we're talking about in New York, is that we know this thing works if we have the resources in place and we have the opportunities in place for youth to experience it. Question is, how do we scale it up and get it to those places? So as you know, Katie and Paul, if you look at statistics and zip codes from the United States, you can get a pretty good idea of young person's ability to thrive, to go to college, to have a good career, to live a long and healthy life. Unfortunately, a pretty strong indication just by their zip code.

So what we're talking about is 4-H is we need to be a bridge for young people to overcome some of those challenges. So the program needs to be in those locations. In order to make that happen, we need to have people on the ground. We need to have support for that. And we need to think about how we deploy our resources as well to make sure we're having an impact in those parts of our country.

So that's a big part of our conversation right now in 4-H. How do we grow the program and reach more youth, including the youth we're already reaching in communities. It's not an either or, but it is important that we think about how we reach places where the program could make a huge, huge difference.

PAUL TREADWELL: Being part of the Cooperative Extension system, we are not the most agile in making pinpoint changes. So this is a process. So can you speak a little bit about, for you, what the process has been like to see this attempt to broaden or open out 4-H to move beyond the traditional rural roots into a more urban environment, into working with underserved youth and things like that? What transitions have you undergone, with transitions has the organization undergone?

ANDY TURNER: It's a great question. There's a lot of different ways to approach that. But personally, I would say my thought on this is that the kind of change we're looking at for our organization, for Cooperative Extension for 4-H in order to be effective in reaching new audiences, it's a culture change process. And it's a major effort to do that. And the more I've done work in this area of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the more work you do, the more work you realize you need to continue to do. That's the number one thing.

I've had the opportunity-- I've been blessed with mentors who have helped me to see things that I wouldn't have seen, I don't think, Eduardo Gonzalez, Jr., being a key person. Some of the initial supervisors I had in Rockland County in my first 4-H position who were bringing identities to the work that were new to me and weren't part of the kind of dominant identities of our culture and opened my eyes, really, quite frankly. But things like the Opening Doors workshop and the work we're doing in 4-H with diversity, equity, and inclusion have helped.

I think part of the challenge is that as I learn more about the culture we come from in Extension, which comes from dominant white privilege, and even, you could say, white supremacy culture, there's a lot of transition that needs to take place to think about things in a different way.

So the first step is to be aware of it and to realize that you can think great things about your organization and its history, but also be willing to see parts of the history that are less comfortable to look at and that need to change in order to be effective and to grow. So being able to hold both of those things at the same time, I think, is important, and not be afraid to have the difficult conversations.

The other thing is that sometimes I think we're too focused on strategic plans in extension. And again, I think that comes out of the culture. We want to change things fast. And I'm often reminded of a couple of people, but Peter Drucker for one-- I may not get the quote exactly right, but something to the effect of culture eats strategy for breakfast.

So if you're focused more strategic planning than on the development of the individuals within the organization and their own growth, you probably won't get very far. It might look like you're getting somewhere because you've got some things you can put on a piece of paper. But if you're really talking about getting to the changes that need to happen, in my experience, it's much more about creating processes for individuals within the organization to grow and learn new things, make mistakes and change.

And the result, then, is as more and more people have those kinds of paradigm shifts, the organization does, in fact, start to shift and the culture will change. But it takes a lot of time, I think, to do it. So in 4-H, I think we're in some part of that process, at some stage of that process. I'm encouraged by it. We have a lot of positive examples, success stories already. But I think we have a lot further to go to implement the kinds of shifts we need in the way we think, the way we plan programs, the way we reach out to new communities in order to be successful in the long term.

KATIE BAILDON: Could you share a bit more about what some of those difficult changes that need to happen are, and what are some of the approaches that you're taking?

ANDY TURNER: So I think there's different parts of it. I would say some of it has to do with the way our funding streams work. And that might be particularly challenging in New York state where, unlike most states, the funding is so localized. So there is a tremendous amount of understandable need to really figure out what it is the local county funders are looking for in the program and to address that.

So a place where there's a strong component of rural and urban, it might be more difficult to figure out how to bring resources and program effort and focus into the urban part of the county based on the history of Extension and the agrarian component. So part of it has to be creating funding opportunities that allow us to do things in communities where we haven't been present to the same extent.

And that's working with educators, looking to find new funding sources, reaching out to those communities, and realizing that it has to be a process of learning from each other. Where it's worked well, the process is about building the relationships and sense of trust first and really relying on the community organizations already there to help us, as opposed to us coming in with a program that we want to deliver.

One of the programs that's been really helpful in this area is Children Youth and Families at Risk, or CYFAR, which is funded through USDA NIFA but it's specifically designed to help Extension address communities that we haven't. And we've had multiple success stories with CYFAR programs here in New York state. And to me, in some ways, it's the best model I've seen in Extension for how to reach new audiences effectively. It creates a whole new way of working with new communities. And the funding is over, like, a five-year period, which really helped as well to have more of a sustained effort. So that's a good model.

I think the other thing is there are some elements, certainly, that are more policy. You do have to have an attention to policy and building staff capacity. I think that's a big one is creating opportunities for staff to be exposed to new ways of thinking. And in New York, the way we've been doing that is through our diversity, equity, and inclusion cohort model. And the idea developed with Eduardo Gonzalez, Jr. Is to have a deeper dive into some of these issues and learn about identity development how it plays out, and how we can develop new approaches and new ways of creating dialogue.

So it's a two-year process for educators to really learn and take a personal approach to this, and then think about, well, how do I apply this in my work and my context? And I think over time, we'll start to see more and more of a shift in culture as a result of that kind of deeper level work with staff.

PAUL TREADWELL: I want to jump back again and talk about you have 4-H staff, and you have youth, and you also have volunteers. What are the elements that make up a good 4-H program, and what role do volunteers play? And how many of them are there across New York state?

ANDY TURNER: There are core elements that hopefully, you will find in all of our 4-H programs. They would include some of the things we've talked about, such as a focus on a hands-on approach to learning, very much having the youth experience the program directly and learn from there.

I think a key component-- we wouldn't always necessarily refer to it as mentoring-- but a key component is to have a focus on having adults involved, too, whether it's a volunteer, which it often is, particularly if you're talking about 4-H community clubs. But it might also be an after-school provider who's either an Extension staff person or a collaborator.

But either way, we want that to be a developmental relationship. So the adults are expressing caring, and they're challenging growth. They're positive, but they're also challenging and looking to help the youth push more and learn things, go beyond their comfort zone. And another thing we'd really like to focus on is always having youth voice more and more as you're talking about older youth in the program, but giving the youth more and more control over their own learning and their own process and directing things. And so adults who kind of are able to share that power and step back and allow the youth to lead more.

And then I think a key thing, and this goes to the diversity, equity, and inclusion piece, too, is really focusing on creating a sense of belonging for youth. We want them to feel comfortable in the space and that requires thought. It requires planning and training, particularly as you work with more and more diverse youth from different backgrounds and settings. What do they need to feel safe and supported?

Sometimes it's small things. But we have to be bringing that goal of creating belonging and comfort into it. It has to be intentional. There is a great diversity in the depth of programming that youth might experience in 4-H also. We have youth that are in 4-H for 10 or more years, starting as soon as they're eligible as five-year-old Clover Buds going all the up to 19.

And more often they would be in the 4-H Community Club program, where there's much more of a structured process to some extent, where it's often project learning-oriented. So you're in a 4-H club and you're doing a dairy science project, and there's a cycle to that. But within that and across the program, there hopefully are ways to do things, no matter what your experience is, including learning public speaking skills, learning about community engagement, and having some way of sharing what you're doing with others.

But we also have a lot of programs that are shorter-term that might be offered over a four- or five-week period or through a school-based approach. So there is a tremendous diversity. Participation was challenged, obviously, during this COVID year, but on a typical year, we're reaching somewhere between 170 and 200,000 youth across New York state. In almost every county there's 4-H programming happening. And the diversity of what they're doing in each county can be amazing.

S.T.E.M. is actually our largest area of focus in 4-H right now. Another piece that's a really important part of what we do in New York, and I think brings a really exciting lens to 4-H work as well, is the camp program.

KATIE BAILDON: So I was thinking, back when you were talking about what the four H's stand for, and I feel like each one of those elements of 4-H has really been challenged and tried in the past year. If you think about health, we've been in a pandemic. And head and heart, we've been isolated. We've been examining white supremacy and trying to dismantle it in ways that are new for a lot of people. And we had the presidential election and the climate crisis. I mean, just so many overlapping things happening.

So my question is sort of two-part. One is how do you think 4-H may be prepared for some of these challenges that people are facing? And what are some of the ways that it has adapted in response to some of these challenges?

ANDY TURNER: I think the recognition of the challenge, and in some circles, it's starting to be called a youth mental health crisis, is something that we're very aware of. And I anticipate research is going to continue to show the depth of that challenge. But on a very positive note, I think that we are well-positioned to play a really important role there. In my view, I think it's likely that as we come out of the pandemic, there will be a great appetite for a lot of the things we do in 4-H and the way we do it, to have that hands-on, tangible experience and to be connected with other youth in a learning environment.

And the role of the adult in really focusing on some of the basics is going to be key, then, I think. And less and less concern about whether we're getting to where we think we should be in a project, or in getting ready for the fare or completing something. But more and more attention shifted to how are these young people doing? How is everybody feeling? Helping our educators and our volunteers understand that if something comes up-- a microaggression happens in a 4-H meeting or a young person is obviously struggling-- it's OK to step away from what you were working on and just focus on that. And I think that's going to be key for a considerable amount of time as we move forward.

However, at the same time, I think 4-H educators have done an amazing job of finding ways to stay connected with youth through the pandemic and developing virtual approaches, working with youth to find that space where there's something we can still offer them that allows them to have that connection to the 4-H program that they've grown to love and really appreciate. Even if it's not the same right now, they still feel that, and they still have the sense that they'll be able to return to that.

So I think that we have been innovative and effective, and we're trying to gauge just where is the appetite for virtual. But there's clearly some things we've learned here that we can carry on with beyond COVID-19. In other words, there may be elements of online virtual learning that actually can support youth in a different way.

So we have an example now with a coding program that's virtually-delivered across the state. We've got an educator, John Bowe, who's developed a couple of virtual natural resources programs that have participation from across the state. So you're creating different kinds of communities now that are really important for young people.

And if we can figure out how to maintain those pieces, but then also have those local, hands-on experiences that go with the virtual, I think we've created something stronger that takes advantage of our decentralization. So the innovation for the virtual program could be coming from anywhere in New York state, and youth can participate. And then we're also building and maintaining that local program.

The other thing I think 4-H offers that's really important, it's not just what you do locally. We have really innovative, strong programs that happen at the state level that bring youth together at places like the state fair or a career explorations program on campus, and then also national programs. And youth can be transformed by those experiences.

But I do think that component of 4-H each builds leadership and creates opportunities for youth to connect with each other can happen effectively in virtual spaces. And hopefully, we'll be able to develop some really powerful hybrid models moving forward that builds on the strengths of both pieces. So I think we're poised to be effective in that way.

I think the question for all youth organizations, probably, is how do we balance what we offer with the competitive nature just of the schedule for young people? And that's something that 4-H faces, but all youth organizations face. There's challenges to that.

And in some ways, the online world is one of those competitors. How do we take advantage of that, realize that that's a thing, but provide youth with more than what they would get just by random virtual experiences they might be able to create on their own, but by adding value by teaching a new skill, connecting them with youth, connecting them with adults, and hopefully helping them to spark an interest that can lead them somewhere really exciting.

So it's not going to be easy. But we've learned a lot from the experience we've all been through over this past year.

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