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Study Examines LGBTQ+ Competencies Among 4-H Professionals

Three young women wearing 4-H pride T-shirts

A first-of-its-kind study revealed a gap between knowledge and skills of 4-H professionals in engaging and developing programs for LGBTQ+ youth in 4-H across North Carolina. 

The study also showed, however, a great deal of general support from 4-H professionals to increase their knowledge about – and understanding of – LGBTQ+ youth.

The study focused on assessing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of 4-H professionals in supporting LGBTQ+ youth and navigating difficult situations. The team conducted a statewide survey which had a 40% response rate. Nearly half of all North Carolina 4-H professionals and  26% of survey respondents work in designated urban or city suburban areas, while 74% work in rural counties.

The survey found that respondents were mostly familiar with LGBTQ+ terminology, but did not know how to apply that and other knowledge related to the development of LGBTQ+ youth in 4-H, says study co-author Maru Gonzalez, an assistant professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University. 

“They might know the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, but they might not know how to navigate particular situations, like how to support a young person during the coming out process or how to respond to an anti-LGBTQ+ epithet,” Gonzalez says. 

“Participants were more knowledgeable about how to support lesbian, gay and bisexual youth compared to transgender and gender expansive youth. Given previous research, we hypothesized that would be true because there are generally more misconceptions and misunderstandings about trans and gender expansive youth.”

Gonzalez says she and her colleagues also wanted to know if there’s a difference between professionals in suburban and urban areas versus rural counties in terms of knowledge, skills, dispositions, and willingness to learn. Professionals were classified as “urban/suburban” if they indicated that they were located in a county which is designated by the North Carolina Rural Center as an urban or regional city suburb.

In general, most survey participants had a basic understanding of terminology, but lacked skills to apply that knowledge in an effective way. Rural professionals tended to report lower knowledge, skills and dispositions overall when compared to professionals in urban/suburban areas.

“We found that rural professionals were lower in nearly all of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions and were significantly less likely to be connected with collaborators who could provide LGBTQ+ supportive and specific resources and programming,” says Gonzalez. Additionally, professionals in urban or suburban areas anticipated they would have more support if they were to take steps to create a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ youth.

“The whole purpose of this study was to bring awareness and start a conversation,” says Barker.

The group first began working on the study in fall 2019. The study was personal for paper co-author and former Hoke County 4-H program assistant Alex Barker, who was an LGBTQ+ youth who participated in 4-H when they were younger.

“I see the value of 4-H and the amazing stuff that we do, especially around our youth development framework and being strengths based,” says Barker. “Many of us got into 4-H because we are passionate about supporting youth in our communities. The whole purpose of this study was to bring awareness and start a conversation.”

As a program assistant, Barker saw the need for professional development and action within 4-H so they reached out to Gonzalez to discuss opportunities for working together. 

“As adults, it’s our job to shift those environments so that those young people can thrive,” says Clarke.

“Alex was instrumental in setting this study in motion,” says Gonzalez. “Their leadership speaks to the value and necessity of collaboration between Extension professionals on the ground and specialists and researchers who may not be as attuned to county needs.”

Megan Clarke, a study co-author who works at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at Duke University, says the ultimate goal is to make sure LGBTQ+ youth can thrive wherever they are. 

“We see these disproportionate risks among LGBTQ+ youth related to suicidality and self-harm and other trauma exposures and behavioral factors,” says Clarke. “As adults, it’s our job to shift those environments so that those young people can thrive. And this study gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Here, there is both willingness and readiness in this community of potentially supportive adults.’”

Christy Byrd, associate professor of developmental sciences at NC State, also co-authored the paper. 

Published: Journal of Youth Development

Authors: Maru Gonzalez, Christy Byrd, North Carolina State University; Megan Clarke, National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at Duke University; and Alex Barker, National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Abstract: Despite its status as the largest youth-serving organization in the United States, there is a dearth of empirical scholarship about LGBTQ+ youth within 4-H; research examining 4-H professionals’ competencies to effectively support LGBTQ+ youth is even more scarce. To address this gap in the literature, this quantitative study explored the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of 4-H professionals in North Carolina as they relate to working with LGBTQ+ youth. 75 professionals responded to an online survey. Professionals displayed higher levels of knowledge than skills or dispositions, were more knowledgeable about how to support LGB youth compared to transgender and gender expansive youth, and expressed the need for and substantial interest in professional development. Rural professionals tended to report lower knowledge, skills, and dispositions compared to professionals working in urban/suburban settings. This article presents the study’s findings and explores implications for future research and practice.