Faced with slow population growth, many membership organizations rooted in rural communities are seeking to diversify their reach, both in geography and demographics.
When Paul-John Chaisson-Cárden was hired in 2014 as the Iowa 4-H director, he understood that to be one of the most important parts of his job - help the organization to become more inclusive of people from all backgrounds.
Four years later, however, Chaisson-Cárden lost his job following a controversy over a proposed 4-H LGBTQ inclusion policy. Additionally, Des Moines Register reporting after Chaisson-Cárden’s dismissal has revealed several cases of offensive or inappropriate activities linked to 4-H in Iowa.
Chaisson-Cárdenas filed a lawsuit this month alleging Iowa State University administrators who oversee the 4-H program engaged in harassment and discrimination, and he was wrongly removed from the job in response to his advocacy in favor of anti-discrimination initiatives.
“I was terminated because I was a person of color who was a vocal advocate for civil rights compliance within the 4-H program,” he told Iowa State Daily last year.
During Chaisson-Cárdenas’ tenure, the national group drafted a policy meant to ensure LGBT members felt welcome. Days after it was publicly revealed, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials reportedly asked for it to be rescinded, and Chaisson-Cárdenas was removed from his post in the aftermath.
In another particularly troubling incident presented in the lawsuit, the Hereford Breeders Association erected a display at the Iowa State Fair showing a cow next to a girl wearing a 4-H shirt with her face cut out, inviting fairgoers to pose for photos. The display read, “Every Calf deserves a White Face.”
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The “white face” line refers to animals’ white faces, but any thoughtful marketing team should have easily seen how the wording would be offensive.
Chaisson-Cárdenas asked the display’s sponsor to remove it, but Chaisson-Cárdenas says in his lawsuit he was later “chastised for overreacting,” a claim his supervisor disputed in comments to the Register.
The claims in the lawsuit will be vetted by the courts, and the administrators it names will have the opportunity to defend themselves. Still, the facts we already know make clear that Chaisson-Cárdenas was right when he preached for stronger inclusion policies.
Such insensitivity perfectly illustrates the necessity of the attitude shift Chaisson-Cárdenas has advocated for. If rural Iowa’s social and community groups hope to survive, they must embrace diversity.
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