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Taylor Marrs, Oklahoma 4-H member, practices with his group during the National 4-H Conference. Image courtesy Photo by Johnny Bivera.

Voices Carry: National 4-H Conference Provides Youth Voice on National Issues

Nifa Authors
Matt Browning, Public Affairs Specialist

Taylor Marrs waves away the microphone on the table in front of him, stands up from his padded chair, and addresses a crowded room of people who cannot help but listen to his every word. The Oklahoma teenager is speaking with the passion and intensity some might say is beyond his years. 

His audience consists of employees with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), listening both in-person and virtually, as well as several of his fellow youth delegates from National 4-H Conference. 

Each year, hundreds of 4-H members like Marrs travel to Washington, D.C., from across the U.S. and its territories to take part in National 4-H Conference – a nearly weeklong celebration of all things 4-H. While opportunities for networking, sightseeing and fun pepper the agenda, attendees know they are in the nation’s capital to work – and that is what they do. The 4-H members are placed into groups and spend the bulk of their time in D.C. preparing a Youth Perspective Briefing. The presentations are developed in response to a challenge question submitted by a federal agency about a topic for which that agency is seeking youth input. 

“The Youth Perspective Briefings are a fundamental part of National 4-H Conference,” said Dr. Maurice Smith, national program leader in NIFA’s Division of Youth and 4-H and 2024 Conference co-chair. “The roundtable experience provides young people an opportunity to think critically about current issues, investigate and discuss the agency’s current efforts, provide a youth perspective, and recommend new ideas to bring about positive change.”

The OJJDP asked what, on the surface, might seem like a simple question: What makes you feel safe?

“It is paramount that the youths we serve feel safe in the spaces they enter,” said Diamond Lewis, program manager in OJJDP’s State and Tribal Relations Assistance Division. “We felt it necessary to obtain firsthand knowledge of the issues they have seen arise around them and get their perspectives on recommended solutions. It is important for us to continue to find ways to incorporate youth voices when developing policies intended to ensure their health and safety.”

The youths took the question much further, detailing their biggest concerns, issues and even fears relating to their feelings of safety in schools and among their peers. 

The members researched their topic and framed the presentation around statistics about issues such as mental health, drug abuse, discrimination and gun control. After two days of preparation and rehearsal, they entered a conference room at the DOJ offices and began their talk, with each member of the team taking a turn to speak.

For the outgoing Marrs, it was an easy ask.

“It's not every day that you're able to go advocate for change to people who can actually do something about it,” he said. “I live in a state where I am an outlier in nearly every way. My ideas, qualities and characteristics are out of the norm. My drawing to the DOJ was knowing I would get to share an experience that was unique to me and my experience in safety – or a lack thereof – to the people who would care about it the most.”

His teammate, Caitlin Packer from Vermont, agreed.

“I’ve been to programs that are about restorative justice and have been interested since a young age in the justice system and how it works,” Packer said. “This seemed like it was an opportunity to be able to speak to people from the DOJ and have a bridge of communications with them about topics that I am very interested in. The chance to be a representative youth voice to people in positions of power was incredible.”

DOJ staff listened intently as the 4-H members each took their turn sharing information, including statistics about the safety-related topics they had identified as most prevalent. While some members injected personal stories relating to safety into their portions of the briefing, others focused on the data. 

Then the floor was opened to questions. 

As DOJ staff asked more probing inquiries, suddenly the 4-H members began to go deeper into their stories. They shared personal experiences with such issues as racial discrimination, sexual orientation, suicide and drug addiction, among others.

“I felt a lot of anxiety about the presentation and how it was going to go, but the DOJ was so open to hearing us and made it feel like a conversation,” Packer said. 

“The youth did an absolutely amazing job,” said Lewis. “Their presentation was very well prepared and thought out. We received feedback from OJJDP staff that the youth were ‘compelling and inspiring.’ The level of effort and intentionality was apparent. The presentation was extremely professional, and the youth should be very proud of themselves!”

While the presentation impressed the intended audience, and helped OJJDP effectively assess their agency’s youth initiatives, the impact on the 4-H members was even deeper.

“A lot of it was the delegates connecting and sharing experiences,” said Packer. “It made me analyze my life in that there are things I have had to deal with that they haven’t, and there were things they have gone through that I have never had to deal with. Learning about others’ lived experience was a way to open my mind to things I have not thought about before.”

These kinds of connections happen routinely at National 4-H Conference. 

“My favorite part of attending Conference was meeting so many new people, and I know I have acquired friends for life after having attended,” Marrs said. “Over those few days I was reminded why 4-H is the greatest youth organization in the world, and I'm proud to simply be a piece of that.”

Are you interested in attending the 2025 National 4-H Conference? Stay tuned. Details will be announced soon. Email National4-HConference@usda.gov or visit online at nifa.usda.gov/national-4-h-conference for more information.                                                                                                                                            

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