4-H is Fighting the Empathy Deficit

Getting my first 4-H calf ready for the local fair. Placing last the first time I went in the showring taught me empathy for my fellow competitors.

Reaching 100 years is an impressive milestone and to celebrate 4-H Ontario‘s centennial, I was invited to deliver a keynote at my local county’s celebration event. For weeks, I thought about what I might say. I could talk about how my 4-H experience helped me develop the skills I’ve leveraged in my career. Or I could reflect on 4-H today and it’s role in our society. Then, while attending a marketing conference in Boston last week, it struck me; one of the common themes all week was the need for companies to be more “human”. Of course, companies are made up of people, and if there is a lack of caring among companies today it’s because the same lack of empathy exists with the people working in the company. And at that moment I realized it; the most important thing 4-H has taught me, and thousands of 4-H members like me, is empathy.

Before I get to 4-H though, a little background on empathy. Google defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Put simply, it’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Says Oprah: “leadership is about empathy. It’s about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

While treating people like people seems like common sense (hello, the Golden Rule?!), it is talked about so much in the business world today, one can only assume it is not happening. Companies, people are so consumed with spreadsheets, data, “making the numbers” or the next great product, campaign or idea, we forget to treat each other like people. Barack Obama called it an “empathy deficit” and according to Sherry Turkle, it’s getting worse thanks to technology. Shocking. <- sarcasm

Indeed, the more technology permeates our lives and “connections replace conversation”, the less empathetic we are to each other. Empathy, the value which allows our society to function peacefully and ensures an acceptable living condition for all, is on the decline. In Simon Sinek’s Book, “Leaders Eat Last”, he shares a horrifying example of a psychology study where students were told to give increasingly intense, and potentially fatal, electric shocks to a supposed participant. Even though many questioned the instructions and protested, not one stopped or refused to continue, despite feeling concern they were causing harm. Of course, no shocks were actually given but the belief they were and subsequent results are nonetheless disturbing.

Now back to 4-H. They say empathy is learned behaviour, and reflecting on my 4-H experience, I realized it provided countless opportunities for me learn empathy. It’s fitting with the Royal only 2 weeks away, it was the first example which came to mind. For me, going to the Royal Winter Fair was the first time I remember going to the “city”. Riding downtown with my dad, I recall being amazed seeing the intricate maze of overpasses for the first time, and it was likely on one of these early November trips I also saw homelessness for the first time.

I never forgot this because growing up in a small town, I simply did not see women begging for spare change or men sleeping on the subway grate (I never saw a subway grate either, but that’s not the point). Maybe I heard of such things on the news, but until facing poverty up close, it was alarmingly easy to ignore. It was eye opening for a 12-year old from small-town Ontario, and despite the fact poverty is prevalent in rural Ontario, I realized we don’t see it the same.

Thankfully, participating in the Royal Winter Fair, conferences and 4-H Canada’s new Careers on the Grow internships get 4-H members into urban centres, exposing them to more learning than just offered thru the event itinerary. Locally, many 4-H clubs also volunteer with service organizations and outreach programs. This makes members more caring citizens by giving them greater context of the challenges facing others in society and how they can help.

Furthermore, one of the most common 4-H activities is a lesson in empathy: judging. When I was a 4-H member, we judged at every meeting, and when I taught my garden club how to judge produce this summer, like my leaders, I talked about its importance in daily decision making. What I never considered before was the empathetic qualities we install in judges. Just as I was taught, I teach 4-H members to never criticize the last place entry, to always say something positive and imagine how they would feel if it was their entry. 4-H trains judges to consider the feelings of others before they speak about their decisions. Is there any better example of empathy?

Granted, this is made easier to do after one has experienced last place. I’ll never forget my first 4-H show; I placed dead last in showmanship at the Bruce County Holstein Show. I still remember the smell of the straw in the damp trailer, where I hid, crying until my dad could coax me out and back into the ring. Even when I won in later years, I was grateful and respected my fellow show people. Staying friends was more important than winning.

In addition to respecting others, respect for one’s self was a key theme at Ontario 4-H Leadership Camp. I’d be willing to bet most 4-H alumni who have attended this event call it life-changing. It was for me. On March Break, tucked away next to a lake somewhere in central Ontario, free from the distraction of TV and whatever drama a 15 year-old girl faces, I discovered the confidence to be myself. At evening reflection, I discovered even the coolest kids have fears and self-doubt and we’re all different, and that’s OK. In just 5 days, I learned that real friendships are made of taking the time to understand each other without judging. The energy produced by these friendships, based on real connections, was incomparable and often why I think 4-H Leadership Camp is cited by many as one of their favourite 4-H memories.

Indeed, these are the experiences that really grow 4-H members’ capacity to care about the community and country beyond themselves. It’s why 4-H members are 4x more likely to volunteer in their communities and why employers pick their resumes out of the pile first. 4-H members are predisposed to putting the needs of others’ ahead of their own and as such, have mastered the secret to good communication and leadership, perhaps without even realizing.

Note: this keynote was dedicated to a 4-H friend, who left this earth too soon. May you be in a better place, Leanne Russwurm-Brusso and you will be forever in my memory. 

Bruce County 4-H Members
Leanne & I among the rest of the Bruce County 4-H dairy members at the 1998 Walkerton Little Royal.

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