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A Journey of Service

John-Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas’ lesson in human and civil rights came earlier than most people’s experience.

As a young Mayan-Indian living in Guatemala, John-Paul, who is the first Latino 4-H director in the United States, grew up in a time of civil war and poverty in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“When I was younger, my aunt was obtaining her master’s in psychology at the time,” John-Paul said. “She was looking at the effects of malnutrition on babies. I would go with her to visit hospitals where kids were literally dying of malnutrition. I saw children who had experienced malnutrition to the point at which their pigmentation was transparent.”

John-Paul attended a Catholic Jesuit school as a boy in Guatemala — a place in which he says he was taught the true meaning of service.

The man in charge of the school, Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera, was a human rights defender known for his role in accounting for abuses during the civil war. Two days after Monsignor Gerardi announced the release of a report on the victims of the Guatemalan Civil War, he was brutally beaten and assassinated with a slab of concrete in his home — the same place John-Paul attended school.

“That started the journey of service for me,” John-Paul said. “That’s really what created my idea of a serving community — as well as injustice.”

John-Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas is the first Latino 4-H director in the United States.

John-Paul’s trip to the United States was by no means planned.

He was a junior in high school and his parents had been estranged — his father lived in the United States. The war in Guatemala had escalated, and it was becoming clear that it was too unsafe for the family to remain there. His mother called his father and basically said, “We’re coming.”

“To my father’s credit, he said, ‘I’ll be there,’” John-Paul said. “We only had enough money to get to Houston, Texas, so he drove all the way from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to pick us up.”

It was December, and from the time it took John-Paul’s dad to drive his beat-up Ford Pinto from his home in Wyoming to pick up the family in Houston and back to Cheyenne again, the trailer he called home had burned down.

“My first experience of the United States is driving up to this burned-down husk of a trailer that had been flushed out with water,” John-Paul said. “It had a hole in the side that was all charred with frozen water coming out of it. I began to realize that we had just left our country and we were now homeless. That marks my initial impression of the United States.”

John-Paul enrolled at Central High School in Cheyenne, where he was demoted from being a junior to a sophomore. He encountered more troubles that would once again direct his vision toward what he calls his life mission.

At Central High, the two adults that impacted him the most were his soccer coach and a teacher who would spend time before school, after school and sometimes during lunch just making sure he was learning English to the best of his ability. It was also around this time John-Paul found out he was dyslexic.

“With dyslexia, one of the things that was really difficult was that because I was in Wyoming there were no diagnostic tools in Spanish for youth, so I was diagnosed very late,” John-Paul said. “Sometimes we don’t have the tools in certain areas, and I had already developed very good coping mechanisms to deal with dyslexia.”

Learning a new language while being seen as the “other one” at his school resulted in John-Paul being beaten up, sometimes severely. The culture shocks he had experienced in his first few years in the United States continued to shape his view of the world and his outlook on life.

John-Paul went on to attend Saint Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kan., on a soccer scholarship in May 1993. He earned a degree in international relations and multiculturalism.

After a brief stint trying to make it in soccer at the professional level, John-Paul enrolled in AmeriCorps VISTA, a program through which he began working with inner-city Chicago youth who had been involved in gang activity. He was a program coordinator there from January 1994 to January 1995.

“What I learned there was that it’s important to listen to youth, to spend time with youth and to appreciate what they bring to the table,” John-Paul said.

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“What I learned there was that it’s important to listen to youth, to spend time with youth and to appreciate what they bring to the table,” John-Paul said.

“I’ve worked with youth my entire life, and it’s something I really enjoy,” he said. “If you see two trajectories in my career, one is going to be youth, and the second is going to be underserved youth, so especially youth of color.”

The next step landed John-Paul in West Liberty, Iowa, a community that had begun to see a big influx in the Latino population. He was hired by the school district in 1995 as the equity and multicultural coordinator. His brain-child, a nationally recognized dual-language program, aimed at teaching English-speaking kids Spanish and Spanish-speaking kids English. By the time the students reached their senior year, they would be bilingual.

The University of Iowa was John-Paul’s next landing spot. He did his graduate work there and ran the training and technical assistance program. He started as an intern and worked his way up to national director for the program.

“I worked with all 50 states and territories and around the new child welfare laws,” John-Paul said, adding that it was a federally funded project.

John-Paul also helped direct what was called the Latino Institute, which looked at building capacity around Latino communities and involved immersion training with school superintendents, sheriffs, principals and social workers. The training included weeks-long trips to Mexico to help them understand the dynamics seen on each side of the border.

Among his many projects, John-Paul also became involved in the juvenile justice work while studying the disproportionality in youth confinement in Iowa.

“I also served eight years as the chair of the Commission of Latino Affairs, and at that time [Governor Tom Vilsack] asked me to step in as director of that department, so I was on his cabinet in Iowa,” John-Paul said. He would be involved there from the fall of 2003 to 2005.

John-Paul eventually moved on to work for one of the largest foundations in the nation – the Northwest Area Foundation -- for several years, after which he moved to the state of Washington to serve as the state equity director for the director of public instruction. He worked with both sides of the state legislature to close the racial ethnic achievement gap in the state of Washington, and he founded the Latino Foundation there, as well.

As his daughter began to grow up, John-Paul decided to move his family back to Iowa, where he was hired in July 2014 as the 4-H Youth Development leader for ISU Extension and Outreach. He was the first Latino 4-H director in the nation.

“We could have moved anywhere in the country,” he said. “But really, we’re the new Iowans.”

It wasn’t just Iowa’s long history of supporting civil rights that drew the Chaisson-Cardenas family back to the state.

“Sometimes, Iowans don’t always see the beauty of Iowa; they’re too close,” he said. “But many Latino and other immigrant communities are coming here because we see it as a place of opportunity.”

“Sometimes, Iowans don’t always see the beauty of Iowa; they’re too close,” he said. “But many Latino and other immigrant communities are coming here because we see it as a place of opportunity.”

To John-Paul, the beauty of Iowa comes from its changing face. With about 20 percent of youth in Iowa being youth of color, Iowa’s long history of civil rights has painted a picture of diversity in the state.

“It’s a powerful place,” John-Paul said. “It really has a wonderful opportunity to be a leader in the nation.”

Some of the challenges he and the organization now face deal largely with returning to what he calls the roots of 4-H in Iowa.

“My life’s work at this point in time is taking this amazing thing that is 4-H – it’s flexible, it’s beautiful, it’s rich – and making sure every child in Iowa can access it,” John-Paul said. “We’re doing a really good job. After seeing 10 to 15 years of decline, we grew by 5 percent in my first year last year.

“Part of the mission of the land grant [university] itself is putting technology, science and research at the hands of the common folk,” John-Paul said. “When they first started doing that 100-plus years ago, they failed. Adults tend not to be early adopters.”

The basic foundations of 4-H had been developed in the early 20th century, and it was discovered  that youth were effective early adopters of science and technology.

“I truly believe that there is no better deployment mechanism,” John-Paul said. “I also truly believe that 4-H is part of the success story of Iowa. I don’t think Iowa would be the breadbasket of the world without 4-H, but of course I’m biased.”

4-H’s vision, which is “A world in which youth and adults learn, grow and work together as catalysts for positive change,” is what John-Paul said he is trying to recapture with the program, and it includes the question of diversity.

“Diversity is one of the great forces of nature,” John-Paul said. “We look at every tree and we see a different leaf. I would argue that even [homogeneous communities] have quite a bit of diversity -- for example, it might be different churches. Even in places that are homogeneous we tend to divide each other.”

John-Paul is trying to expand whom 4-H serves to reflect what youth live in the state, not just the rural kids in agricultural communities. In a state where one out of every five children is a child of color, participation in 4-H reflects a different picture.

One of the challenges 4-H faces is making sure all youth have a place to explore what it means to be a citizen in a community, John-Paul said. That might mean the traditional county fair or agriculture model might not be a good fit in urban communities where there are African-American or other minority youth. 4-H needs to return to the root of the child’s interests. 

But it’s not limited to diversity. Disability, or what John-Paul would call “difference in ability,” is a concern that is embroiled in his DNA.

“The disabilities that we’re working on now are much more of the invisible disabilities,” John-Paul said. “Kids like me who are dyslexic or kids who have autism. I want to make sure that we have the ability to help them be successful in our program.”

John-Paul knows where he wants to be. He wants to be where he can help the 100,000-plus kids in Iowa that 4-H serves.

“I have been able to create a space for youth who have been traditionally left out of the system to be successful,” John-Paul said. “I count every youth that I have been able to help move forward as the greatest gift to myself, but also for our state.”

John-Paul believes Iowa State University is leading the way in creating a stronger, more diversified Iowa.

To him, the racially charged events that occurred in the fall 2015 semester and the subsequent meetings that followed created a point of dialogue.

“There are times when we forget that this is an ongoing technological development -- how to get along with each other,” John-Paul said. “Those points of dissonance serve to help move us forward and to move the dialogue forward.”

Iowa State University is at the center of this discussion, and John-Paul hopes that it can serve as an example for the state and the nation.

January 2017

John-Paul wrote a blog about how “4-H is embracing the cultural diversity of its participating youth to make sure youth of color feel welcome as the U.S. student population grows more diverse” during Aug. 2016. The 2017 Maize will be held in mid-April and he also noted that Ujima and the new AAPI retreats will be next fall.

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