Urban 4-H: Changing Minds, Changing Lives

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A high-tech agricultural lab. Produce grown without soil. High school students in white lab coats running experiments—four floors above the metal detectors that greet them each morning. All in the middle of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

One thing’s for sure: this isn’t your parent’s 4-H.

The 4-H club program started in rural America, through the United States Department of Agriculture, at the turn of the 20th century.

It was originally conceived as a way to bring public education to country life while introducing new agricultural farming methods. The underlying concept was that positively engaging the under-served youth of America’s rural areas could have long-term impact on improving lives in these areas.

“When 4-H started in the early 1900s, we were pretty much a rural country, with pockets of urban centers. As the communities grew and transitioned and changed, so has 4-H,” said Lisa Lauxman, Director, Division Youth & 4-H, Institute for Youth, Family and Community, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Over a hundred years after 4-H—the 4”H’s” are “head, heart, hands & health”—got its start in rural America, the organization continues to expand upon its mission to change lives by positively engaging under-served youth.

Although federally-funded, all 4-H programs are administered on a state-level through each state’s designated land-grant university. In New York State, Cornell University is the land grant institution that administers 4-H, chiefly through the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

The Extension’s Hydroponic and Aquaponic Lab, founded in 2005, at New York City’s Food and Finance High School, located in Hell’s Kitchen, is just one example of how 4-H continues to expand in its quest to provide America’s youth with positive development experience.

At this lab, students work with Dr. Philson Warner, a Cornell applied scientist and learn how to apply new technology to solve problems, such as sustainable farming.

These students, and 4-Hrs, aren’t sitting around listening to Warner lecture. They are there to get their hands dirty and learn.

After donning their lab coats, a select group of six students gather around a medium-sized table to receive their assignments for the afternoon. Some are tasked to collect water samples, while others run analyses on water quality. When they step into the lab, they are transformed from high school students into young professionals.

“The best part of working in the lab was the science behind the plants and how they grow,” said Kheeda Cruickshank, 23, a former Food & Finance High Schooler, 4-H member and Lab participant said, via email.

Warner expects that his students will go on to college and aim high in that expectation.

Warner said that in the early days of the program, many students did not apply to Cornell University, because they could not see themselves attending Cornell. However, over the past few college application cycles, he has noted an increase in students applying to the Ivy League university.

The Hydroponics Lab is more than just a lab.

It was a part of a curriculum, developed in part by Dr. Warner that provides experiential activities to teach both science and its application to the real world. Within this program, as known as the Grow with the Flow curriculum, students learn how to design and build a hydroponics system; how to harvest and sell produce to New York City markets.

The best part about the program, however, may be that much of the produce grown there is also used in the school.

“Those basil, and lettuce that we planted was cooked in the kitchen and incorporated into our recipes during our culinary classes,” Cruickshank said, via email.

The Extension’s program may be high-tech, yet it remains true to a 4-H’s core: youth.

“The focus has always been about youth.” Lauxman said. “More than anything, youth want a sense of belonging. They want to feel like they can be engaged and make a difference.”

Indeed, it is this focus—what many inside 4-H call “positive youth development” that drives 4-H’s adaptability in urban communities.

Brandon Mathurin, 16, a Midwood High School junior and founder of can attest to its focus. Mathurin started with 4-H in elementary school.

Brandon Mathurin and Midwood's High School's 4-H club on a beautification project
Brandon Mathurin and Midwood’s High School’s 4-H club on a beautification project

“A goal of 4-H back then was to basically engage the children in learning about healthy living, geospatial sciences, whatever the topic was,” Mathurin said.

Midwood High School's 4-H club.
Midwood High School’s 4-H club.

Although urban communities are distinctly different from rural ones, youth can still derive the same benefits.

“Getting back to the 4-H’s—that’s what 4-H is about. And you can have these varied experiences and still experience the same benefits,” said Jessica Pierson Russo, the Director of Urban Youth Development Office, University of Minnesota Extension. “If you’re showing a pig or if you’re developing a video about racism in your community, you’re still getting the same things out of 4-H.”

Discrimination against Arab-Americans and South Asians continues to rise

Discrimination and bigotry are as American as apple pie. A cursory glance through a history book will confirm this simple fact.

What’s new on the continuum of collective bigotry in America are its intended targets and the collateral damage inflicted upon other groups.

“Most people are not aware that Arabs and Muslims have been vilified in American culture for more than a century,” said Dr. Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.”

Although negative stereotypes have, as Shaheen says, been around for over a century, anti-Arab bigotry reached a zenith in the weeks following 9/11, with the FBI reporting a 1,600% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001.

The intense virulence and concomitant rhetoric produced a fear that compelled some Arab-Americans to hide their heritage and ancestry.

Catherine Joseph, 21, a Stony Brook University senior, was in second grade when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. She was too young to fully grasp the significance of the events, but she was yet aware that something terrible had happened.

“I remember so vividly being out to dinner shortly after 9/11 with my family when I began nagging my father about visiting Lebanon,” Joseph said, via email. “Being both Italian-American and Lebanese-American, I was always compelled by both of these cultures. He looked at me and replied: ‘From now on when people ask, you are strictly Italian-American.’ For years following the attacks, I did exactly as my father said.”

“I had no idea that he was shielding me from the harsh stereotypes and discrimination associated with being Arab-American.”

In the almost-14 years since 9/11, discrimination against Arabs, Arab-Americans and those perceived as belonging to those groups continues to rise.

South Asians, Sikhs, Hindus and some non-Arab Middle Easterners are often targeted because they are mistaken for being Arab.

Amir Razani, 20, is well-acquainted with this mis-perception.

“I identify as Iranian-American or just simply Persian,” said Razani, via email. “I do sometimes get mistaken for being Arab-American simply because most people don’t really know what Persian is or where Persians are from. Even when I say I am from Iran, some people still think that Iranians are Arab, which isn’t true.”

According to the United States Department of Justice, hate crimes against these communities has remained high since 9/11. During that time, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has investigated over 800 hate-related incidents against these groups.

Sumeet Singh, a 20-year-old Stony Brook junior and practicing Sikh can relate.

In her community, many are reluctant to express their faith through wearing a turban (men) or long hair (women), both of which are symbolic of the Sikh faith.

“Because of this backlash against people of Indian descent,” Singh said, “people who cut their hair felt that they needed to in order to survive in this society.”

“I think a lot of Sikhs lost confidence in being able to show proudly that they are Sikhs with their turbans, because that’s a main way to identify Sikhs,” Sing continued.

Although there are no easy solutions to ameliorate this trend, groups such as the Arab American Association of New York, the Sikh Coalition and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) have been formed to protect the rights of these groups and to advocate in the face of rising discrimination.

More Women Journalists Win Pulitzer Prizes

Finally, a competition where women apparently out-perform men: Pulitzer Prizes.  Of course, there is a caveat–these award-winning women are more likely than not to have graduate degrees.  Or so says the data on FiveThirtyEight’s recent  story on female Pulitzer Prize winners.  The strength of this article, authored by Hayley Munguia. is in the data, both in terms of amount and substance.  They used data going back to 1917 to analyze the characteristics of women who win this prestigious award. The one common characteristic among winners?  A graduate degree!

The data presented throughout the article helped to substantiate the authors claims.

NY Times: Women in Combat

Despite a 1994 Department of Defense ban (recently lifted in 2013) on military women serving in combat roles, apparently women have been doing just that in the wars that dominated the past decade.

As this New York Times Op-Doc video illustrates, military women, assigned to non-combat roles, were forced to serve in combat, even though they lacked the appropriate training.

This five-minute op-ed video, was produced by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommmers, the directors of Lioness, a documentary film about the women veterans of the Iraq War.  The video is a compilation of stories of several women who served in the Iraq War. What is notable about this video is that we never hear from the producers.  The story is told almost entirely by the subjects of the video themselves.  Having these women tell their own story was effective and poignant.  It is one thing to read about the horrors of being in war without training and another to hear these women describe being placed in extremely dangerous situation.

The producers used a black screen with writing to move between segments and inform the audience.  All of this served to keep the viewer focused on the stories being told without any distracting narration.


Anatomy of a Tennis Power Shot

Power is a core value in tennis.  Players, whether professional or amateur, rely on raw power to manipulate a tiny ball, to not only make it sail almost 80 feet (the average length of a tennis court), but also to place the ball exactly where you want it.  When many people think of this raw power, they may think of the serve, which often clocks in at over 100 miles per hour in the professional game.  Few, if any, may think of the two-handed backhand, which many players use to place the ball exactly where they want it.

A Day In the Life of a Type-A Teenager

It isn’t surprising that most teens are notoriously busy: the pressure to get into a good college is enormous.  Harvard College received 37,305 applications for its Class of 2019 for example.  With competition so fierce, it is understandable that young adults in high school will pull out all of the proverbial stops to increase their chances of securing a wonderful future.

Omika Jikaria is no exception and this audio slide-show, part of the New York Times 1-In-8-Million series beautifully captures the intensity of being a Type-A teenager.

At the time this audio slide-show was created, Jikaria was a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.  The entire slide-show feels like a day in her life.  We see photos of Jikaria getting ready for school in the morning:

Omika Jikaria, Credit: New York Times
Omika Jikaria, getting ready for school. Credit: New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/nyregion/1-in-8-million/#/omika_jikaria

Or this photo, which was perfectly timed to appear just as Jikaria started talking about cheerleading practice:

Omika Jikaria, Credit: New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/nyregion/1-in-8-million/#/omika_jikaria

This picture really reflects the many contradictions in Jikaria’s life.  She is a teen, a beauty queen and a cheerleader who doesn’t watch television.  It was interesting to hear her talk about not watching television as I looked at a photo of her with her back to a tv.  It was an interesting juxtaposition:

Omika Jikaria, Credit: New York Times
Omika Jikaria, studying. Credit: New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/nyregion/1-in-8-million/#/omika_jikaria

In fact, many of the pictures seemed to underscore the busyness and relative productivity of her life!

Serial: Reporting at its best.

Sarah Koenig
Sarah Koenig

Anyone who likes strong reporting, good storytelling and true crime will absolutely love Serial, a 12-part serialized podcast produced by This American Life, a popular radio program and hosted by reporter Sarah Koenig.  In its first season, Serial investigated and told the story of Adnan Syed, a young man who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.  In true serial fashion, this murder mystery unfolds over the course of 12 episodes, each covering a different aspect of the story.



Incorporation of Natural Sound: In the episodes I covered: Episode 1–The Alibi, Episode 2–The Breakup, Episode 4: Inconsistencies and  Episode 7: The Opposition of the Prosecution, I don’t recall any distinguishable instances where they used natural sound.  However, I am also not sure any was really needed.  This podcast felt more like Koenig reporting and sharing what she learned than a true “broadcast”.

Engaging voice of host: This is perhaps one way in which Koenig really excels and draws her audience in.  She has a great voice and her tone is conversational.  I enjoyed listening to the podcasts because it felt more like I was listening to her tell me a really good story than listening to a reporter covering the news.


Tightness and clarity of script: Again, this is another way in which Koenig (and her team) really excels.  Each episode seemed true to its title and told (in my opinion) a stand-alone story.  For example, Episode 2: The Breakup seemed fundamentally devoted to the story of Lee and Adnan’s break-up.  Similarly in Episode 7: The Opposition of the Prosecution, we hear this amazing story about Deidre Enright and her team.  It never seemed overdone, nor did I have any questions.


Incorporation of a number of different voices: Another aspect of this series I thoroughly enjoyed were the many different voices used in each episode.  Koenig used a combination of interviews and recordings to illustrate different aspects of Syed’s case.  For example, not only do we hear pieces of her conversations with Syed, but we also hear the recording which alerts both her and Syed to the fact that their time is up.  This helps to illustrate the barriers between Koenig and Syed.  It also serves to reinforce the fact that Syed is locked up.  Koenig also uses interviews with friends of Syed and Lee in addition to police interviews, which makes for really fascinating storytelling.


Personality that comes through: Koenig is, essentially, a character in this story and it is absolutely fascinating to be in her head and get a sense of what she is thinking at each stage of the overall story. She is funny and engaging and it was refreshing to hear her thoughts–a fact which is really unusual in the world of reporting.  It really felt as though Koenig was taking the audience on the journey with her.


Transparency: Koenig brings her audience on every aspect of this journey.  For me, this was exemplified in the Episode 7: The Opposite of the Prosecution when she shares her conversations with Enright and they talk through some concerns about the case.  Although I haven’t completed the entire serial, I appreciate how much Koenig in the episodes I consumed.


Overall: This was such a captivating, engaging and easy podcast to listen to.  I felt as though I were sitting at a table with Koenig (even with the music) listening to her tell me a story.  For me, it combined the best of old-fashioned reporting and great storytelling.  I kept wanting more, so she definitely held my attention throughout.


Cliffhanger at the Supreme Court

One story.  Three mediums.

This was an important week for Supreme Court watchers and really, the nation.  The Court heard oral arguments in the newest challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.  This law is more commonly known as the “Affordable Care Act” or “Obamacare”.

Although King v. Burwell has been on the docket since the Supreme Court granted certiorari on November 14, 2014, oral arguments are essentially a live event and as such, it is almost impossible to predict how the hearing would unfold.

The New York Times coverage of the argument was comprehensive, as is expected of the Times.  Adam Liptak, Supreme Court reporter for the Times, gave a logical breakdown of how the arguments played out.  The article also contained several pieces of multimedia designed to support the story and provide some background.

By comparison SCOTUSblog‘s live coverage was simply exciting and provided lots of details.  This was an important feature because Supreme Court hearings are not televised nor are they recorded.  Details, rich details in reporting are essential and Scotusblog did not disappoint.  Oral arguments were covered by several bloggers, including Amy Howe, Eric Citron, Tejinder Singh, Lyle Denniston and Mark Walsh.  With the exception of Walsh’s piece, “A view from the Courtroom: Today’s oral argument”, most of the coverage was substantive and geared towards Supreme Court watchers.  This team coverage had an intellectual edge-of-your-seat quality.

The CBS Evening News, though impressive, did the best they could considering the length of their piece (1:56) and the time of day it was broadcast (7:00PM EST).  It was definitely informative, but lacked color.

The only common thread through these sites were the basics.  Each, at a bare minimum, provided some idea of what the case was about and what was at stake (because something is always at stake in SCOTUS hearings).

Aside from a few nominal tweets from Adam Liptak and SCOTUSblog, there was limited social media use and interaction.

Hands down, the New York Times did the best job covering the story.  They used multimedia to put much of it into context.  I particularly liked the graphic that laid out would be most affected by a decision in favor of the plaintiffs.  They also included an interactive page outlining the seminal questions involved in King v. Burwell.

Bacchanal Time!

For many Caribbean islanders, carnival enthusiasts (they exist) and Trinidadians, February means one thing and one thing only: bacchanal!  That’s right, it’s time to wine (dance), time to fete (party), time to bid an enthusiastic farewell to the flesh.  And few places on the planet do it better than Trinidad.

Carnival or carne vale, is a well-known pre-Lenten festival.  It is the traditional start of the Lenten season (those six weeks leading up to Easter) when many Christians restrict their diets, often giving up meat.  Carnival is a last chance to bid farewell to the “flesh” before Lent begins.  In the United States, this celebration is known as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana.  By contrast, Trinidad Carnival (or Trini Carnival) is all out affair that consumes the entire nation.

Trinidad Carnival is four days of colorful, spectacular revelry capped off with a street parade, also known as “Pretty Mas”, to end all street parades.  When news outlets began chronicling carnival around the world last week, I was disappointed when I realized Trinidad was somehow left out.  Redemption came last Monday evening with a stunning photoessay, courtesy of CNN and Mara Sofferin, chronicling one notable aspect of Trini Carnival: J’Ouvert.

J'Ouvert crowd.
J’Ouvert crowd in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Credit: CNN/Sofferin.

This photoessay was almost everything I could’ve hoped for.  First of all, given the absolute visual beauty of Trini Carnival, most photojournalists may have opted to tell a story about ‘Pretty ‘Mas”–the Tuesday afternoon parade that caps off four days of non-stop partying.

Sofferin picked J’Ouvert. J’Ouvert is French for “to open” and J’ouvert’s daybreak celebrations traditionally “open” carnival.  The party starts around 2AM and doesn’t stop until well after the sun rises.

Daybreak…j’ouvert. Credit: CNN/Sofferin.

Each of Sofferin’s pictures captures some aspect of the sheer exhilaration of a J’Ouvert celebration.

J’Ouvert is a time to party (in the street) and to let loose (with paint, mud and chocolate).  It is a time when race, age, creed or any other artificial boundary disappears.   The following  pictures are a good representation of this aspect of Carnival.

J’Ouvert festivities traditionally start well before daybreak and revelers usually have no idea what they look like until the sunrises.  Some of Sofferin’s shots capture this beautifully.

Covered in liquid chocolate. Credit: CNN/Sofferin.
Steel bands leading the crowds. Credit: CNN/Sofferin.

To be fair, I don’t think Sofferin’s shots represent the BEST shots taken during Trini Carnival.  That honor goes to Janine Mendes-Franco of Global Voices.

Carnival is a brash, exciting time, full of color and any shots taken at daybreak are certain to miss this element.  However, the reason I chose this particular piece is because it told the best story through pictures.

As for social media, I am okay with the fact that there was little engagement on social media.CNN Travel posted to Facebook–ten people “liked” it.  Those are abysmal statistics.

Despite it’s relatively poor performance on social media, it is journalism because it told a story.  Isn’t that the heart of journalism–storytelling?  There was reporting, there were pictures, there was a story.

Each of the pictures had a caption that told a separate story, like this one of David & Melanie of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:

David and Melanie. Credit: CNN/Sofferin.

Or this one, of Trischa and Beth, of St. Lucia: