The 4-H program’s mission statement includes “a promise to America’s kids to reflect the population demographics, vulnerable populations, diverse needs, and social conditions of the country.” In 2017, however, USDA administration pressured the national 4-H organization to retract its LGBT+ inclusion policies. Shortly after, John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas, the progressive 4-H Youth Development Program director who had been working hard to boost equity and diversity, was fired. Lindsey speaks with Chaisson-Cardenas, Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, former director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and investigative reporter Jason Clayworth about the implications of these actions and what’s next for the youth leadership organization and its 6 million members.
Illustration was created for the Des Moines Register by Mark Marturello.
Lindsey: This is the Young Farmers Podcast. I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute. If you didn’t grow up with it, 4-H is quite a phenomenon and its work goes way beyond the fair. It’s about teaching kids of all ages, how to become leaders. The organization started in 1905 now has 6 million participants. It’s administered by the USDA and organized by university extensions. 4H has an expansive mandate. In 2017, it actually set a goal to, quote, reflect the population demographics, vulnerable populations, diverse needs, and social conditions of the country. It was part of an effort to make 4H accessible to kids of all cultural and economic backgrounds. John Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas was hired as part of this campaign in Iowa. With innovative, culturally based programs, he doubled the participation of youth of color in the Iowa 4H program. But when John Paul tried to include LGBTQ youth in the Iowa program by bringing new national USDA guidelines on how to make them feel comfortable in local clubs forward, he was fired. And following this controversy in Iowa, the USDA rescinded its own national guidelines on LGBTQ youth. Today, I’m speaking with Jason Clayworth, an investigative reporter from the Des Moines Register who has been covering this story. I’m also talking to John Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas and Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy.
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Lindsey: To get started, Jason, can you introduce yourself please?
Jason: Sure. My name is Jason Clayworth. I’m an investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Lindsey: I’m just wondering how you came to this story.
Jason: So myself and another reporter, Courtney Crowder, launched this review after our state fired its 4H director. There were a lot of unanswered questions about why he was fired. And so we began looking at it. Ultimately the, Iowa State University extension and outreach, their executives made the decision to fire John Paul. The decision to fire him was based on, I forgot exactly the words that they use, but basically his inability to work well with the organization as a whole. Their reasoning has not been exactly clear, but when we look at the documents and what was going on at that time, that their concerns were centered primarily on this issue of transgender youth participants.
Lindsey: So tell us it, can you tell us just from the beginning, what was this, this policy around transgender participants in, in 4H and, and where did that come from?
Jason: Back in 1991, the USDA and extension leaders and the various states wrote a document that pushed the university extensions to become more diverse and multicultural. In 2015, 4H headquarters were receiving a lot of questions about how to best include LGBT students in their local programming. And so with that-
Lindsey: And this is the national headquarters?
Jason: Yes, yes. And, and so with that there was a working group put together of various leaders who were asked to, to adapt some of the Obama administration’s suggestions on how to include gender identity rights into various policies and, and so that, that group put together recommendations that ultimately were approved by the national 4H association and were posted as guidance on a federal website. And it’s important to note that national website is part of the USDA. It was posted, you know, and some of the state organizations, including Iowa picks that language up and those, those suggestions and began to review or implement them relatively quickly,
Lindsey: How many state organizations took that guidance and incorporated it into their own policy and practices?
Jason: You know, it, it was difficult for us to, to pinpoint exactly how widespread the document was used. It was only on the website briefly, like less than two weeks, if that. And so it was a relatively short period of time. What we do know is that the USDA removed those recommendations and then very shortly after sent notices to some states asking them to remove it, remove that information from own state sites.
Lindsey: Do you have any sense of what, what led them to, you know, take, take down this guidance and in fact instruct states to remove it from their own sites?
Jason: Well, what we know is what was obviously what’s been going on in the federal government in regard to the issue of transgender rights. The Trump administration has, has since worked to reverse some of those protections that were put into place under President Obama.
Lindsey: Is it unusual for an administration to remove policies, or is, is this sort of a unusual thing to happen or, is, uh, this, uh, not out of the ordinary?
Jason: In our review, and we asked dozens of our sources as we worked, we worked several months on this investigation. We could not find an example in the past decade where an advisory policy had been completely rescinded. And the USDA took the unusual step to send notices to the states that were using this policy, sending urgent messages, that’s their word, urgent, to remove the policies from their state websites as well.
Lindsey: And what was USDA’s reason for doing this?
Jason: So, we spent several months contacting the USDA. We got one response and they said that the guidance policy wasn’t properly vetted. The, the policy that deals with transgender rights, however, said specifically that it had been approved by national 4H headquarters as well as this working group that had, had been put together at least partly to look at this issue in 2016. Our follow-up questions weren’t answered about, you know, what specifically, what was, what was done incorrectly in this approval. And we’ve never gotten an answer to that. What we know from talking with our sources is that some of the highest management of USDA was involved in this issue and did guide the decision to rescind this policy.
Lindsey: I, you know, I’m just trying to think about other, you know, other instances where transgender rights might be written into USDA policy or related. Do you have a sense of just generally USDA’s position on transgender rights are places that the agency has weighed in on this issue?
Jason: Well, if you listened to the opponents of transgender rights in at least this policy, they will tell you that, that the federal government regulations, they believe, are illegal, and there are advocates who are quite adamant in their arguments that, that these provisions are unconstitutional.
Lindsey: Can you walk me through that? I’m having a hard time figuring out like the, the logic there.
Jason: They believe that it violates for one, freedom of speech in some, in some manner because it prohibits people from saying that they object or that they have some type of moral objection to the overall issue.
Lindsey: And I just wonder about the consequences for 4H as an organization, and for young transgender, LGBTQ kids interested in pursuing 4H and joining a club. Have you heard about any stories or anecdotes about like how, how the 4H program is, is faring, you know, post this decision?
Jason: So, absolutely. That’s a great question because that’s really, we could back up just a little bit, a year plus ago, the Iowa 4H was looking at its inclusive policies and that’s really what John Paul was looking at. And so that was the context of what was going on in Iowa is, you know, that we have had issues in the state where transgender participants in 4H have met some difficulties in participating.
Lindsey: Where is that showing up?
Jason: So in our investigation, we obtained more than 500 pages of state and federal communications on this issue. And part of those, there are documents, for example, this is one example, where there were pictures of a cow and it said something about white face. And it was an issue where it might have been innocent, but it came off as cruel and insensitive. Or another example would be where a 4H member had a confederate flying from a pickup truck at a county fair. And so these were issues that, you know, they’re deeply divisive type social issues and issues that are going on in our national conversation about diversity. And I think what’s interesting is that the response that this federal document generated from the states, that we we saw multiple examples from multiple states of parents that I would imagine have good intentions. They expressed what I believe in their correspondence with legitimate, or at least sincere concerns, about the problems that they see in this policy. I’m not professing that they’re right, but I can understand in some ways how they come about their point of view, and so they have sincere concerns. On the other hand, you have folks whose children are, at least feel that they are unable to participate, because of these recommendations. And so you have two factions that believe in their heart that they are doing or are advocating for what’s best for the participants and children in this important system, 4H is important. So, you know, that’s reflected in these records. And as I was reading them, I could see how the pressure from both sides had really been put on both national and state organizers who were, you could argue that they’re trying to do what’s right.
Lindsey: This is really interesting. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure that we covered in this story?
New Speaker: I will say that this was an extensive review and, you know, this is a little bit of a plug for, for local newspapers, but it is local news organizations like the Des Moines register that review these matters, and, you know, without being able to spend time on these type of projects, that the general public would largely be uninformed. And so, you know, I give a shout out to news organizations that, take a little extra effort behind the scenes and try to hold our government accountable, and this really is a question of accountability, not only 4H accountability, but our accountability as a society, and whether or not we extend our civil rights protections to various groups or all groups. And that’s the debate that is generated nationally and in states and local 4H groups.
Lindsey: Here’s Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy. He was the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, appointed under President Obama and he was at USDA when the LGBTQ guidelines were rescinded.
Dr. Ramaswamy: Hi Lindsey. Hey, thanks so much for having me on your podcast here. This is Sonny, Sonny Ramaswamy. I was in Washington, DC for six years and in 2018, early 2018, the guidelines are shared with the folks at the national 4H headquarters and asked if this is something that is against what NIFA is all about, the US government is all about. And the feedback provided at that time was, well, no, this is perfectly aligned with all the rules and regulations and laws, laws, right? The constitutional guarantee! That is afforded everybody, every man, woman, and child in America is afforded a constitutional guarantee. It was not a, there’s not a formal process. You send it to us, we look at it, we bless you to go for it. No, it was just an informal conversation and things like that. And that happens. And then, and it’s shared widely, through all the states. So the, the 4H leadership community from across America asks the… 4H headquarters, if it might be that particular guidelines document might be put on the NIFA website. And it was put up. I didn’t know about it. I was the director of the agency at that time. I had no clue about it until, what happens is that, there was, these were guidelines were all shared widely through all the states. And as I understand it, I know it, a parent in Virginia complained that they didn’t want to be part of this organization anymore because they didn’t want their children to be, you know, exposed to, subjected to, this new idea about gays and lesbians…And I heard about the fact that an Iowa there was a parent, and in North Dakota, you know, there was an individual, literally a handful, literally, and, and so I didn’t, you know, actually I did not know though that we had it on our website. And until the secretary, i.e. Sonny Perdue’s office called me and said, said, hey, we want to talk to you. And I’m going to share names with you, Heidi Green was the chief of staff for the secretary. She called me and Meryl Boussard it was my deputy at that time, and he’s still there into the, their office. And I mean, literally, the old, riot act, right? On me. You know, I’m a head of an agency, you know, and I don’t need to, you know, be subject to that sort of verbal abuse. In any case, I asked her to calm down, let’s talk about it. And she wanted to know who did it, who gave the, made the decision to put this on the website. This is not policy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I said, you know, okay, let’s kinda calm down. Let me go back and we’ll, Meryl and I will find out a little bit more and get back to you. And so we discovered that an individual made the unilateral decision against my, you know, our policy in NIFA is that, is that there’s a vetting process for any information that goes on the website. Internal vetting process that everybody knew, and it was just a, you know, this is like a, somehow something got through. Right?
Lindsey: Would it have been approved?
Dr. Ramaswamy: By me?
Lindsey: By whomever. Like do, I mean, obviously the process wasn’t followed, so that’s one thing. But do you think if it had gone through the proper channels, would there have been any reason to reject it?
Dr. Ramaswamy: No, I would not have rejected it.
Lindsey: I was hoping that you could just introduce yourself.
John Paul: Sure. My name is John Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas.
Lindsey: Well John Paul, your current, your current, you have a new role working with organizations on inclusion?
John Paul: Yeah, I’ve actually been working on the issue of inclusion for over 25 years. In addition, I’m finishing my doctorate at the University of Iowa. So I’m spending a lot of time trying to get comps and dissertation and all that stuff done.
Lindsey: John Paul. What led you to become the youth development leader at 4H in Iowa?
John Paul: I actually was head hunted. I was asked to come in to a program that had been review federally for having some deficiencies around the issue of cultural competence and inclusion. And so I was brought into to start working on those issues.
Lindsey: Can you tell me a little bit about that? What were some of the issues identified at that time and where they just Iowa specific or national or, or both?
John Paul: National, actually. There was a lot of work since 2002. 4H had identified that it was losing folks head over heels, just kind of losing its population. And part of it was that it is, it had become a very white middle class rural organization, even though really it’s designed to be for all communities and all people in the United States being a federally, a congressionally authorize a program. And so, uh, in 2002 began a process of trying to move 4H to be, towards being more inclusive. And then in 2016, that kind of reach resonance when the leadership of 4H at the national level voted, a document called 4H girl is a promise to American kids declaring that in 10 years 4H would reflect the population demographics, diverse needs, and social conditions of the country.
Lindsey: So I’ve, I’ve heard you talk about really wanting 4H in Iowa to serve all kids, and I wondered if you could, you could talk about that and also some of your, your success in broadening the scope of 4H and Iowa and who it was serving directly?
John Paul: Well it was not only in Iowa. The national state, so the state leaders, people who had my previous position across the United States, who really took and voted to make that 4H promise, that reflection of that the youth and the volunteers and the staff would reflect the communities as a whole. So it was a national movement to get that done.
Lindsey: And what were some of the actions that you took to make to make that possible?
John Paul: Well, we were recognized nationally for several of the things we did. We created programs to be able to bring youth of color, and in my tenure we actually doubled the number of youth of color in our programs. We did a lot around trying to make it more accessible for low income youth to come in. We started to deliberate targets, some of the youth, they sometimes get left out even though they’re in the ag sector, and think about the kids of people who work in the poultry plants or work in a beef production and migrant workers. And we did that with a great deal of success. We also attempted to make it so after we had some reports of some incidents with some of our youth to welcome and make sure that youth who were LGBTQ were part …of our program.
Lindsey: The efforts to diversify 4H both in programming and as well as you know, really achieving racial equity within the program, I wonder what led the organization to do that? Were there complaints of bias where, I mean, obviously the it seems like the statistics back that up in terms of who is predominantly using the program. What sorts of stories had you heard about the program and barriers that it was presenting structurally or culturally?
John Paul: Well, I think anybody who’s been in 4H at the national level and even in local communities has seen the how 4H look and how is, in the compensation of , who is in 4H. And so a lot of the work was trying to get those youth who may not have had a history of 4H. I was there when the national leaders looked at this and said, you know, this needs to change. And so I think that’s part of the, where some of the resistance came to having any. The other thing is that 4H does reflect a gammet of the political landscape in the United States and some of these social perception battles around who belongs and does not belong in United States are being fought. You know, some of the populations that I found in my experience and I saw with my own eyes and I heard the stories of being excluded from 4H, at least in the state that I’m in, our populations, like immigrants, are LGBTQ youth are Latinos or African Americans who just weren’t seen as part of 4H. And we work very hard to try to create programs where they would feel an interest to try to move them from, not even inclusion, because that’s not what 4H really demands. That’s not in the model. Really what 4H demands at its core is belonging, that those youth feel a sense of belonging in the program.
Lindsey: You mentioned in another quote I’m trying to find this here. You said that we can have difficult conversations, but we can do it in the context of, of joy and fun. I just wondered, you know, how 4H handled that? And how like the context of joy and fun was able to, to help kids you know, come to come together?
John Paul: You know, one of the things that I found when I was in 4H it was usually not the youth who had the issues. And that’s part of the reason I fell in love with 4H is has because it had that philosophy of bringing kids together. And again, this was not, you know, the situation with exclusion. A lot of times some of it came from kids, but usually it came from the adults. It came from the, you know, the 30 year volunteer, fifth generation that decided that 4H didn’t look the same because they’re doing folkloric dance or you know, that decided that they don’t want particular kids to use a bathroom or not because you know, they’re, they don’t, you know, identify as what the gender they would want them to identify. Those are the things that really got into way a 4H. It was, it’s not so much the youth, it was the adults.
Lindsey: So I do want to talk about of course the LGBTQ policy and what happened with that. I wonder if you could tell us, so you were hired to sort of, with this mandate to help 4H adapt, become more inclusive and aspart of that there was, I guess also a mandate and a need to serve LGBTQ youth more effectively. Could you tell me about what you were hearing in terms of families feeling like the organization wasn’t serving them?
John Paul: Well we started looking at it and then like every program, anybody who has and works with youth, you find youth that they don’t fit in. Those youth a lot of times where LGBTQ youth, including a couple of different cases where youth were going through transition. And I had a staff and county communities and other places asking questions about how, you know, what do we do when youth are transitioning and you know, how do we serve them? How can we do it? You know, especially when if I youth goes in to a fair, to a bathroom, you know, they may be treated and you know, way x or y z. And so we looked at what was happening at the national level and under President Obama, there had been a mandate in the federal government to set policy and rules around how to make 4H and all programs, quite frankly, more inclusive for LGBTQ youth. And we began to work with those. There was also an effort at the national level started by some of our Western states like California and Idaho that studied the issue and proposed rules that mimiced the, at the time, the Department of Education’s welcoming policy. And so we looked at those, those went through approval through the regular channels at USDA and with the state leaders, and we actually took the text and adapted it for Iowa. The first part was the actual policy of inclusion. And in that section, all we did is really take the state and federal laws as they existed and the university policy and we repeated them. We didn’t change anything. We just repeated what they were doing. Then there was a definition section to help people understand the terminology around LGBTQ students. And then there was guidance, and the guidance itself looked at things like if a youth asks to change their name in 4H, you know, we really do need to change their name. It’s their choice. And if a youth requests to use a particular bathroom that conforms with their gender identity, we really need to allow the kid to use the bathroom. And so those are the kinds of things that we did for guidance for our counties to be able to look at and to follow a set of rules that makes sense. By the way, what we did was a proposal. We only proposed it, we never actually passed it. And we were going through the listening section of that when we had a nationally recognized a hate group start creating a campaign to target specifically me, but also the 4H program in Iowa, Idaho and several other states to repeal these things. And it got picked up by some local groups. And we received several thousand letters, emails, calls, that went not only to me but to the office of the governor. We had congressional people call in, et cetera, et cetera, which got exacerbated to the point of making it where some folks in, at the university that we’re in and USDA moved and pulled the policies back. And so the Trump administration, as reported by the Des Moines Register pulled back the guidance on this while we had it still open for public discussion and left Iowa in a very awkward situation.
Lindsey: So just in terms of timeline, so the Trump, the western states, the national committee of 4H leaders came together to publish guidance for all 4H programs across the country. Those were posted at the USDA website and then you picked it up in Iowa and then the controversy started.
John Paul: Correct. And then it was rescinded federally and then Iowa State University decided to resend it after that.
Lindsey: What were the comments that you received from, were they are residents of Iowa? Were they folks from across the country?
John Paul: Both. We had a lot of folks who are external, I think something like 60% of folks, if I remember correctly who were national people from other places rather than Iowa speaking, but about 40% actually came from Iowa. And we had, you know, a whole mix of different comments. And I actually have a couple here that I can read to you that might be helpful. Here’s, you know, both, I’ll read of some pro and against. “I just want to say thank you. Last, last year I was humiliated, humiliated, and kicked out 4H by one of the volunteers for being gay. My parents went to the director and the county extension office who shouted at them for not raising a normal kid and that I should suck it up and get over it. I had promised never to come back to 4H, but if this policy passes, I will join my senior year”. Here’s another one by a young woman and it says, “I am a lesbian 4H-er. I have not told my club because it does not feel safe. This policy made me feel welcome”. And then we had the converse things like so, so the people who are opposing it would have said, “this policy only addresses those with deviant sexual expressions, what about the protection of normal children from sexual predators, adults?” We had another one that said, “If I have a male pig, can I enter it in a breeding, gelding competition?” We had another one that said, you know, “This policy opens the door for rapists and pedophiles”. So, so a lot of the comments that came in opposing the policy really talked about this mythology of “if you are an LGBT person, you are a pedophile”. You know, this actually when, when we got this type of feedback, I actually hardened on my opinion that we really need to set some protections for youth because if this is the type of environment that our youth are living in, then we have to be very clear that we will support youth, no matter where they come from in our program. And that’s what we were trying to do.
Lindsey: And were these comments from mainly parents and adults, or were they from kids as well?
John Paul: We had parents, adults, we had club leaders, we had some staff comment, we had youth. And then we add a lot of people who are completely unaffiliated with 4H also comment, make some, you know.
Lindsey: Why do you think, John Paul, you were such a lightning rod for this? Why do you think that the Iowa program in particular was, was the target of so much of, really, you know, this feedback and this controversy?
John Paul: Well, I think Iowa has always had a very special place in the political landscape of the United States, you know, we’re first in the nation to vote. And you know, so it, this is a place where a lot of the stakes get tested. I am not sure beyond that, why they picked me personally. And why did they pick the 4H program? Except for, it might’ve been fertile ground.
Lindsey: I just wonder what, what do you think 4H should do about this situation? Like how, I mean, clearly the policy could be reinstated as one thing. But beyond that, what, how does the organization really reconcile, you know, this, this difference? Do you see opportunity to promote healing and understanding?
John Paul: Because I was exited from the 4H organization for making this proposal, I really don’t, you know, I don’t have a voice in what will happen in the future. All I can do is tell the story as I perceived it, as I felt that my own skin, right? What I do lament is that 4H lost an opportunity to really tell you that they belong in their program. And I wished it would have done it. I never understood why hate had to carry this day. And I probably never will. And I’m very sorry because to me, 4H is about love. It’s about belonging. It’s about working together. It’s about positive role models. You know when we have youth, you know, across the United States who, sometimes they feel so depressed, LGBTQ youth, they feel so depressed and so alone that they kill themselves. I do think 4H had a wonderful opportunity to make things be better for them. And I think we, I think, I think they lost that opportunity, they lost that moral ground and whatever they do from here on out is going to be recovery.
Lindsey: Yeah. It’s, yeah, it sends a, it certainly sent a message that is going to be hard to take back and recover from in the future for that community, absolutely. And I just wonder, like, what do you, what do you think it says, I mean, do you think this is a statement about the institution of 4H that it can’t change or is this really a political message from the Trump administration? I just, I mean, under the Obama Administration the organization was clearly moving in this direction in a significant way.
John Paul: So, you know, again, I don’t speak for the Trump administration, but yes, they made a statement about who belongs and not by removing those policies. Here in Iowa, where we have strong civil rights protections for LGBTQ youth, I don’t understand why the Iowa program decided not to support its youth.
Lindsey: This 4H controversy to me is the specific controversy, but it’s also sort of a national dialogue. I guess I just wonder what you’ve learned or what path you might see, you know, going forward to solving some of the issues that were so present in the 4H controversy in Iowa.
John Paul: I think something that’s important to say is that this did not come from 4H, remember the 4H leaders at the national level had voted that inclusion was the most important aspect of their work until 2025. This came from outside. It came from the administration and it came from the extension system in Iowa. It did not come from the 4H program. So that’s something that I hope people understand. Part of the commitment that I had to 4H is because I wanted every youth to be part of 4H. That was my goal. But you are correct. We are in a time where making statements like we want every youth, that we want immigrant youth, we want youth who are youth of color in our program, we want youth who are LGBTQ in our program, we want youth who were migrant workers or the children of migrant workers in our program kids with the disabilities. For some reason its become so politicized as to fall into the divisions that we already have in our country in spite of those kids’ rights, civil rights,] to be able to be in that program.
Lindsey: Well, John Paul, thank you so much for your time today and thank you for providing such an inspiring model of youth development and inclusion with your work at the Iowa 4H. I hope that that work is able to continue in one form or another within that program and I know you, you’re certain to carry it on in your next role. Thanks to Jason, John, Paul, and Sonny Ramaswamy for participating in today’s show. In today’s show notes, we’re going to link to Jason’s reporting, the original LGBTQ guidance from Iowa and the USDA, as well as media covering some of the programming that John Paul offered in Iowa. If you have any feedback for us or thoughts on the story, please share them on our Instagram @youngfarmerspodcast. Also, have you rated and reviewed this show yet? We would love to hear what you have to say. Just put it on iTunes. It takes a minute, and it really does help people find us. This show was recorded at Radio Kingston. It was edited by Hannah Beal. We will see you next week.