What Is Tennessee 4-H Congress?
Thanks to Tennessee 4-H Congress, young people across the Volunteer State have opportunities to learn more about government, citizenship and leadership in unique, engaging ways – and often, those opportunities lead to newfound interests that help shape their futures.
“Tennessee 4-H Congress is a premier 4-H event that’s open to ninth- and 10th-grade students,” says Justin Crowe, an extension 4-H specialist with The University of Tennessee. “One of the main goals is to help our young people become more-informed citizens by learning about the legislative process, and they have opportunities to discuss and debate issues impacting teens every day – distracted driving, for example, and the availability of healthy food options in school cafeterias. As a result, they walk away better prepared to serve as agents of positive change in their respective communities.”
70 Years of Tradition
Tennessee 4-H Congress has taken place since 1948, and since then, it’s given more than 35,000 4-Hers and volunteer leaders the chance to experience state government firsthand.
Held in March, the three-day event begins on a Sunday with an opening assembly that is led by the three 4-H Congress officers elected the previous year – the Governor, Speaker of the House and Speaker of the Senate – and is followed by the Congress Pageant, which features the Tennessee 4-H Performing Arts Troupe and tells the story of the state’s past, present and future through song and dance. On Sunday night, a regional caucus is held to nominate next year’s officer candidates.
Monday morning, students take buses to Tennessee State University’s downtown Nashville campus for educational workshops, and they also have the opportunity to visit the state capitol and vote on bills written by their peers while sitting in the chambers where their county’s elected representatives convene.
“Prior to the event, our 4-H Congress officers help write four bills and one resolution, and everyone who comes as a delegate gets to vote on them,” Crowe says. “We allow two senators per county, and the number of representatives from each county are based on the number of 4-H members in the particular county. Students must also write an essay to be eligible to attend, with the theme of the essay changing annually. On average, we have 350 to 400 participants at Tennessee 4-H Congress each year.”
Monday’s activities also include legislative visits, giving students a chance to meet and speak with the state’s senators and representatives, and at night, 4-H Congress officer candidates present their campaign speeches.
On Tuesday, the 4-H History Bowl takes place, which is moderated by Lelan Statom – a former 4-H member and Emmy-winning senior meteorologist on NewsChannel 5 in Nashville – along with a patriotic program presented by the 118th Wing, a unit of the Tennessee Air National Guard stationed at Nashville’s Berry Field Air National Guard Base. Students also participate in a service project that differs each year, and after all delegates have cast their votes, the new 4-H Congress officers are announced.
The event ends Tuesday evening with a ride on the General Jackson Showboat and a formal banquet, where the next year’s officers are sworn in and Tennessee 4-H Public Speaking Contest winners share their speeches.
“Tennessee 4-H Congress is a powerful event, and for many of the young people who attend, it’s life-changing,” says Crowe, who attended 4-H Congress as a delegate in 1995 and still vividly remembers his experience at the event. “They leave with a greater understanding and appreciation of the part they can play in our government, whether it’s as an informed citizen or an elected official.”
4-H Congress Leaves a Lasting Impression
This 2018 Tennessee 4-H Congress Speaker of the House, 16-year-old Chloé Ragland, didn’t have an interest in government or politics prior to attending 4-H Congress – but like many of her peers, that all changed once she got involved and learned more about the legislative process.
“Going to Tennessee 4-H Congress was an amazing and fun experience that I’ll never forget,” says Ragland, who is a member of the Van Buren County 4-H Honor Club. “I really enjoyed campaigning and meeting new people from different regions of the state, and I felt completely awestruck when we went to the capitol and voted on bills in the same place where the Tennessee House of Representatives meets. I learned so much and had a blast; it’s my favorite 4-H event I’ve been to.”
Claire Brooks, the 2018 4-H Congress Speaker of the Senate, had a similar experience. Although the 15-year-old member of the Warren County 4-H Senior Honor Club says she’s always been interested in leadership, she didn’t know much about governmental processes and procedures, and it was through attending 4-H Congress that she realized the impact she could make as an elected official.
“Being voted the Speaker of the Senate was one of the best moments of my life, and the entire 4-H Congress experience opened my eyes to how important it is to be informed and aware of the issues facing our state and nation,” says Brooks, who is also a member of the Tennessee 4-H Performing Arts Troupe. “I would encourage anyone and everyone to attend 4-H Congress if they have the opportunity.”