Current Conversations is Listening

Current Conversations began as a creative solution to the cancellation of 4-H International programming.  It initially took on a workshop format in which staff participants piloted the opportunity to explore terms like stigma, xenophobia, and racist nativism. Participants had a range of familiarity with these terms, and an emphasis was placed on exploring together.  From the beginning the Current Conversations team was a partnership with full time state and county staff, and UW student staff.  This initial group laid a foundation about how to approach difficult topics with our audience, specifically how to welcome participants into the space, sharing our experiences, but dispelling assumptions of expertise, and focusing on the shared purpose of the conversation. This initial work went through many revisions.  We spent time practicing facilitating on Zoom, and discussed how to respond to criticism, pushback, or potentially insensitive comments. We also met with Dominic Ledesma on Zoom to get his insight on doing social justice/inclusion work within the Extension community. He had some very helpful tips and ways to phrase and message the conversations for us.

One of our initial student staff facilitators said, “I did feel hesitant about facilitating these social justice-oriented workshops with an audience that potentially had different experience levels and views in talking about these issues. It’s so easy to discuss issues with people who share the exact same values and life experiences as you, and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a lot of experience having discussions with people who might share somewhat different values and backgrounds.”

Since the initial framework was created last spring, “Conversations in a Safe Space on Current Events with Youth” has taken on topics of racial equity and social justice.  The well-researched framework of a “Safe and Brave Space” created for the COVID-19 and Xenophobia workshop was positioned well to invite in concerned youth and families from around the state to discuss the murder of George Floyd.  After these four sessions, the group also facilitated a space for youth interested in leading similar conversations to discuss what their goals were and what resources or skills they needed to continue to be leaders in their communities.

Current Conversations was a weekly program opportunity during the summer of 2020 as part of the Summer of Virtual Learning.  Youth were invited to discuss the current events, question where they were in their own understanding, and to brainstorm ways to influence positive change.   Conversations continued to be facilitated by UW-Madison Extension Positive Youth Development student and professional staff.  Participants had a chance to listen and learn with youth from around the state on the following topics: COVID-19 and Xenophobia, Structural Racism-The history of racial disparity, Implicit Bias, LGTBQIA+, and there were also focus group reconnects where youth shared leadership roles and goals for their communities.

With the current pandemic illustrating the racial disparities for so many, the team is moving into fall with the goal of utilizing the Youth Advocates for Community Health Curriculum in order to organize and address the needs youth shared over the summer.  We are excited that this curriculum not only has been piloted with health content but also that its framework can be used to frame racism as its own pandemic.   The curriculum provides opportunities to learn necessary content, build identified skills, and most importantly for our team, focus on youth leadership through the work.

We continue to encourage all to reflect on our initial questions:

  • What are my roles and responsibilities when it comes to/ disrupting racism, and in fostering inclusivity?

  • How do I want to “show up” for others?

  • What can I do to continue learning about racial equity and social justice?

  • How are my own identities connected to racism and inequities?

  • What is privilege, and in what ways do I hold, or do not hold privilege?

We know the work towards equity and equality is not done. This is evident through tragic events that happened this past summer, in our own state. 29 year-old Jacob Blake was shot by police on August 23 in Kenosha in front of his three sons. During protests the next evening, a 17 year-old youth shot and killed two protesters, and injured one other. These issues are ongoing and affect youth of all ages and in different ways. We encourage youth to continue to come to the Current Conversations space to help us all better understand and grow in our skills to be true leaders.

To continue this effort, we are excited to officially kick off the youth leadership phase of this work! Some possibilities include:

  • Leadership positions based on a variety of skills and interests (i.e. crafting media messages, seeking out content or educational opportunities, facilitating conversations, researching current events and/or reactions to those invents, conducting surveys to determine needs or priorities, communicating/working with local governments or boards)  to invite youth into the space.

  • Lead or participate in Current Conversations at Fall Forum on November 7.

  • Help steer the Current Conversations through the Fall. Look for a future email with more details to participate.

When this team was formed, it was out of an immediate need.  Currently we have the opportunity to share more about our work and invite in more voices from our Extension colleagues and the audiences they serve.  I think it is fitting to end this post by quoting from the closing of an email sent by a member of our team as we finalized the youth evaluation for the initial conversations.

“Looking forward to next steps! Loving the momentum and energy behind this project.”

For more information, please contact Erin Conway at