The Challenge Program

A remarkable 4H program for teen-led community change

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 46
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

The 4H Challenge Program is another example, like the Family Community Leadership Program, of a profoundly powerful and positive program being developed through a conventional institution. Challenge, however, is not as far along as FCL, and so needs more help to get fully launched. If you can see the potential in this program and could help in any way, from fundraising expertise to simple willingness to help, please contact John Abell at 127 Johnson Hall, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, or 509/335-2833, or in the Puget Sound area, contact your local extension agent and ask about the Challenge program.

What is the 4H Challenge program?

John: Let me begin by describing our purpose. We’re finding a way to assist teenagers and the larger adult community from urban and suburban areas in learning how to identify the present use of natural resources, and then design a plan of action contributing to the sustainable use of natural systems and resources, and then implement that plan.

Robert: How will you put this goal into practice?

John: First of all, we’re looking at it as a volunteer organized and lead program, so our basic procedure is to provide training, curriculum materials and other support materials to adult volunteers who would then work with young people in informal units after school and on weekends. The program has three major activity areas or phases: personal and group development, research and design, and then community development.

Robert: More specifically, what are some of the actual activities that the kids and the adults might do?

John: We begin with what I’d call the whole human system look at transformation and transformational leadership – looking at the health of groups, group trust, decision-making, problem-solving, community skills and communication skills.

Robert: So the kids would get training in group process and leadership in some ways similar to what the Family Community Leadership program has been doing for adults?

John: Some of that but we’re going a bolder step in the sense that we’re going to be doing a lot of internal work as well. We’re showing them mind-mapping, creative visualization, we’re showing them various kinds of empowering tools – going through, giving voice to, and eliminating their fears. Dancing them out and doing all sorts of psychophysical things.

Robert: Like the material that Jean Houston has developed?

John: Yes, and we’ve translated it so that it would be safe and acceptable and fun, and involve both young people and adults working together. It is the introductory process that would bring the groups together. The adults would be given experience initially plus the theory behind it, and then they’d be asked to teach it to kids, and work with them.

Then the next step is a "ropes" course. The ropes course came out of the Outward Bound Movement. It is a series of outdoor activities that are problem-solving opportunities where there is a certain element of perceived fear, although there is actually a high degree of safety. Examples would be crossing a beam suspended between two trees 30 feet in the air, with a harness on. Another area would be climbing to the top of a pole, 30 feet in the air, and standing on the very top, and then jumping off onto a rope, swinging across, and doing a regain onto a ring, all with a harness. Another one’s a zip wire where from a high element to a low element they zip down from a tree on a cable about 50 yards. There are also team problems like "the wall" where there is a 12- foot wall and the group has to figure out how to get over it using the various sizes and capabilities and strengths of individuals and working out and communicating a way to solve the problem. There’s another problem that we call a nitro crossing. They have to swing across a specified area and they’re given a certain amount of equipment and they’re carrying a pail of "nitroglycerin." They have to be able to get it across without spilling any of it. Then there are lots of other activities that are close to the ground.

These problems help them work on developing group safety, coming into an agreement on how to conduct something safely with a group, and how to conduct their body/mind in relation to what they are trying to do, and then take action. It also provides opportunities to observe different groups so that they can see how leadership emerges, how problems are eventually solved.

Robert: This sounds to me like something that would be done on a pre-established course?

John: Right, and there’s one that has been built. It is right near the city of Bonny Lake, which is just 12 miles east of Puyallup. So it sits basically out in the country, but it is close to the major center of population in the state.

Robert: So the kids would have the adventure of going away from their hometown as well as having local meetings?

John: That’s right. We feel that this is a trigger mechanism to pull the group together, and then create bigger-than-life kinds of opportunities to perform. At the same time, it builds a real bonding within the group. People deal with fear blocks, work them out internally, and then build and focus their energy as a group. Plus, all the natural things that happen from acts of compassion and support are heightened as a result of the kinds of dynamics in a ropes course.

That’s just a prelude really to community involvement. We’re hoping to break off the casts of feelings of impotence, and then start taking action, so it’s really part of a larger process.

We’re also using Gibb’s work on trust (Trust, by Jack Gibb) as a primary element. We are putting together experiential models that will speak to each level of trust that he talks about so that we have activities that are working towards those different levels of trust. He has a continuum that goes all the way from highly competitive kinds of relationships to rapture. We’re not sure we’ll get that far, but we want to allow people to experience at least some of those different levels of trust.

Robert: OK, so once they’ve done some initial group building and trust building and confidence building, then what’s the next step for them?

John: This will depend on the local groups, but the next steps that we are developing material for are natural resource inventory field trips and a quality of life survey. In particular we want to take a look at energy consumption as it relates to the non-renewable energy base and then put units of value on all consumable items in terms of energy. We want to look at that in terms of our total ecological area, bioregion or whatever, and see how that relates in terms of what our long range situation might be. That’s a big piece of work, technically, and much remains to be done. There is a similar project that was done in Australia. They represent their findings in a picture book, and the kids actually look at different scenarios for what happens to education, what happens to water, what happens to forests, what happens to food distribution, what happens to homes and the quality of homes, what happens to transportation – all these greater parts of the whole.

Our hope is to have the kids in the Challenge Program look at not only current resource use patterns, but also to survey the community as to what its preferred image of the future would be. Then by making use of modeling and trend analysis, be able to come back to the community and say their resource use in this and that area will lead to a future that’s not what they want and if they want to get the future they want then they’ll need to make such and such changes. Of course it is extremely difficult to develop these predictions because there are so many variables, but certain trend analysis can be done. Then we’ll put this in a picture language, and let the community really make the decisions.

Robert: Are you expecting to develop any computer software with this?

John: Yes, that’s being developed, but there’s still a lot of work that technically has to be done. Our hope, however, is that the kids would be sampling data in specific areas, such as forest practices, soil conservation, fisheries, etc., and so would see in detail a piece of the larger whole. Then they’d run their simulations with the computer and get back the larger view of things and how all those connections are being made. They would see the relationship of forest to soil erosion, to water, to watershed development, to siltation and the dams and what happens when the streams run with salmon. Basically charting that whole relationship, and ultimately what happens to biological capital in the economy.

Robert: It would be wonderful if you could get some of the kids developing related software, since there is a growing pool of young, rather skilled programmers whose energy could perhaps very enthusiastically go in that direction.

John: Yes, I think we may have kids who can think systematically and could dialogue with ecologists and land resource managers and do some amazing things. That resource hasn’t been really considered yet.

Robert: So the hope is that as the program gets running, kids who are involved in these 4H programs will be able to get a clearer picture about their community’s resource use and what that implies for the future, and then communicate that back out to the community. How will they do this communicating?

John: We’re trying to set up a community advisory system for community development so that there would be a group of people representing various sectors of the community that would be willing to sit in and advise the young people in ways to get that information to the public. It’s sort of a mentor relationship.

Robert: So far we have been talking about the vision for the overall program, but how much of this has actually been developed.

John: We’ve got it as far as developing the materials for the ropes course and the introduction. We have a pilot program about to start, and we are starting to do training for adult volunteers. We are doing some development work on the later stages, but our funds are flat right now, so we are needing a lot of help to fully make this a reality.

Robert: What can people who share the vision of the Challenge Program do to help?

John: There are so many different levels of opportunity. Just on the volunteer end, there are job descriptions for three different kinds of volunteers. One would be a volunteer Challenge Leader, a person who would receive the training to work directly with the young people. We also have a Community Resource Leader, sort of a networker in the community, someone who could identify problem areas, sites to be investigated, open doors, help with fund raising, serve in an advisory role, help to interface that whole process, would understand the flow of it, and about where the young people would be at any one time. They can bridge between the community and the group leader, who would probably be more occupied with group development and the health of that group. Then there’s an Outdoor Activity Leader, and we’re looking at people who love the outdoors – naturalists, backpackers or whatever – that would be willing to serve as a safety net in a group going out, and to conduct activities, hiking and climbing or whatever. Then we’re also planning a Native American Vision Quest or wilderness experience that would be a celebration, so ultimately we would be looking for people with a very spiritual connection with the Earth. So I think that it could become the "cast of thousands," so to speak. People can tap in at many different levels – the computer folks who are really interested in simulation, modeling and data crunching; and the biological scientists, particularly for tours where there’s a site investigation and data analysis, having people available to help the kids do good descriptive work of the resources they’re looking at.

Robert: What are some of the other things people can do to develop the overall system?

John: Right now we have an almost completed grant proposal, but we’re floundering and we need someone to take it and say, "This is what you need to do," or "I’ll get a team of people together and we can figure this thing out. "

We’re also trying to systematize our work projects and put them on a time line; then we need to put a budget to it and we really need help in budget analysis, and time phasing.

Robert: So you could use some help from people with business and management savvy.

John: Absolutely.

Robert: Most of these things we’ve been talking about are things that people in Washington State could plug into. Are there any things that someone in another area of the country could do?

John: This is a national pilot, so what happens in Washington will have some bearing on its adoption elsewhere. Each state works a little bit independently in 4H; however, when they see something good coming down the pike that’s working, it gets around pretty fast. In this case we have to figure out how we can keep it simple enough for people to realize that there isn’t going to be a whole lot of management involved and stress on the organization, and if that can be done, and people just step forward to do it, and are willing to volunteer, then it will smoothly bring people across to the other side – the organization itself won’t block it.

Robert: It sounds to me as though one of the major areas where you are needing what might be called technical help is in terms of developing the Quality Of Life survey process and the computer modeling and being able, from simple surveys, to develop reasonably accurate scenarios.

John: That’s right. Also we want to put together a large compendium of appropriate and intermediate technology materials that could be put in the community action notebook. That would be based on the state of the art – how far people have gone in permaculture, what can be done with solar, and biomass, and different types of applications, and how they can be put together in local applications.

Robert: So this is yet another step. Not only do the kids survey what is, and what the community would like to see, and then see how well those match up in projections into the future; but if they don’t match up, then they’re also supposed to have sources they can draw on for how to make changes so that the preferred future could happen?

John: That’s right. We’d like to have some small scale models available for people to look at and begin to work with. They may use these directly or develop their own variations, but we’d like them to actually put some effort to trying to make some changes on a small scale. It might be something as simple as revegetation, or more complex, as a solar application of some kind, or doing an inventory on what would be possible in a community.

Robert: It seems to me that one of your challenges is to help those who could really make a difference with the Challenge program have the leap of imagination to get them involved.

John: You know, if you look at the inception of 4H 80 years ago, it was very innovative and wholistic. You can see that in the motto – I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to greater living for myself, my community, my country and my world. If you think about that from a planetary perspective, it’s all right there. Initially 4H was grass roots rural, and it created the green revolution. The land grant system realized that, through children, it could teach farming, home and health practices. Now it’s grown to the largest youth organization in the world. Over time it has lost some of its early innovative energy, but the basic philosophy is supportive of what we are trying to do with the Challenge program.

My hope all along has been that this program can visibly demonstrate some models of how society can look at things a little differently. I see a real need to create some alternatives for a larger public so people can use their energy, intelligence, creativity, and higher sense of integrity for themselves, in a group, and for the planet. Initially it has to be catalyzed by a group of people who are already focused in that direction, but I think we now have some tools to involve a larger public.

One of my dreams, my real visions, is to create a huge synthesis of a bioregion including social data, economic data and biological data. We then put together the software that can best represent the flows of energy in that bioregion – economic relationships with natural systems, human uses, and social systems, and this then becomes the basis for community decision-making. If people are out canvassing door to door using good survey instruments, and they are doing it in large enough numbers, then a whole shift can occur very rapidly when people realize new possibilities by asking certain kinds of questions.

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