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Kansas 4-H helps youth address difficult social & health topics

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Dozens of Kansas 4-H youth are receiving training to help people in their communities discuss issues that might not always be comfortable to talk about.

Kansas 4-H alum Jaryth Barten said an innovative program focused around guidelines from the National Issues Forum is helping youth lead the discussions around such topics as mass shootings, bullying, mental health, and social justice.

“We are bringing up the idea that it’s OK to disagree about things, and being able to listen to and develop an understanding of other people’s perspective in a way that generates a deliberation or discussion, rather than debate,” Barten said.

The program is called Stories Matter and is geared to include diverse groups, especially those who historically are under-represented. It incorporates elements of three other successful Kansas 4-H programs: Community Conversations, Visual Thinking Strategies and the Conversation Boot Camp.

“We know that people disagree with things; we’re not trying to cover up these disagreements,” said Barten, coordinator of Stories Matter. “But how can we do that in a responsible and civil way; that’s what we’re after. We want to focus on the issues rather than attacking each other personally, because that doesn’t lead to progress.”

Barten, who also is the Collegiate 4-H president and an organizational leadership and communications major at Fort Hays State University, said 4-H youth are receiving training so that they are the one’s facilitating the tough discussions in their communities. The skills they learn are based on research of past successes.

“Youth, especially, take these lessons very well and are able to do a lot with them,” Barten said. “We talk about things like empathy, active listening and communication styles. Before COVID-19, this would be happening in person, so right now we are doing this virtually.”

Youth are trained to remain neutral in the discussion, Barten said. “We’re preparing them to bring people together in small groups for difficult conversations that we wouldn’t normally be able to get together in the same room without it ending in some sort of aggression or shouting match.”

“We’re re-defining what it looks like with our youth to have discussions on these difficult topics.”

More information about Stories Matter is available online. Barten said many events across Kansas are shaping up for December. 

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