Thursday, December 2, 2021

Michigan 4-H leaders receive 2021 MSU Extension Key Partner Award

October 19, 2021
<p>Illustration of a woman holding an LGBTQ+ flag.</p>

Illustration of a woman holding an LGBTQ+ flag.

Photo by Hope Ann Flores | The State News

Michigan State University Extension awarded Jael Tombaugh and Maezie Nettleton for the 2021 Key Partner Award, on Sept. 28.

The Key Partner Award is granted to individuals that have demonstrated dedicated efforts to strengthen and advantage MSU Extension programs.

Tombaugh and Nettleton created significant diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by developing the Michigan 4-H LGBTQIA+ Alliance, now known as Helping with Rainbow Hands — 4-H’s first group of this type nationally.

“(In Michigan) 4-H you can do a lot of different things,” Tombaugh said. “It’s known as a leadership organization but it also has a really strong agricultural presence. … You can also do crafts and that kind of thing with it so it’s open to a lot of different areas to do things.”

At 10 years old, Tombaugh started 4-H in agriculture by tending to various animals and shortly after began climbing her way through leadership positions from a county-level to now at a national level.

Nettleton started getting involved in 4-H when they first moved to a new school in fifth grade and joined through the arts and crafts club. Similar to Tombaugh, they also grew an interest in the leadership and community service aspect.

Roughly three years ago, Tombaugh discovered that a member had left Michigan 4-H because they didn’t feel comfortable with another state’s 4-H program that was putting out negative comments about the LGBTQIA+ community.

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“(That) didn’t really settle well with me because I’ve grown a lot to be the person I am today through 4-H, and I didn’t feel like it was fair that just because they weren’t feeling welcome that they couldn’t get the same experiences that I could,” Tombaugh said.

Nettleton grew up in the upper peninsula and thought that their community needed some type of LGBTQIA+ community to create a safe space for the community since there aren’t that many types of organizations in the area.

Tombaugh also brought up her thoughts to the county coordinator, Kristy Oosterhouse, and connected Tombaugh to the MSU Extension Director to discuss Tombaugh’s ideas and how Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension could help make each person in the program feel more included.

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One of the Extension coordinators in another county reached out to Tombaugh and Nettleton because of the work that they had done separately in their past through Michigan 4-H and asked them to attend the National 4-H True Leaders in Equity Insitute as representatives of Michigan 4-H.

Together they applied to the program with a rough outline of Helping with Rainbow Hands with a starting goal of creating a safe space for the youth in the LGBTQIA+ community.

National 4-H True Leaders in Equity Insitute offered resources to aid Tombaugh and Nettleton to get the program started. 

“They helped us kind of solidify our plan over months and months, and we ended up getting all that settled and presented it to a board that could kind of make sure that it was going on the trajectory that we wanted it to,” Tombaugh said.

Tombaugh and Nettleton then received advisors from across the state from 4-H coordinators that could help them on the alliance as well. Helping with Rainbow Hands released applications for team leaders and now hold meetings over Zoom.

Oosterhouse, the 4-H program coordinator for Eaton County, nominated Tombaugh and Nettleton for the Key Partner Award for being the two main members for creating this inclusive organization in Michigan 4-H. Although being supported by staff, she commends them for being the main drivers of the work behind the alliance. 

“Jael and Maezie have always been very passionate and driven about everything that they set their minds to, even before their involvement in this,” Oosterhouse said. “I’ve just really seen them really focus in on their passion through this project.”

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The goal of Helping with Rainbow Hands is for teen leaders around the state to come together and create opportunities for an open community for the LGBTQIA+ and Michigan youth — especially in areas where the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t supported. 

“I grew up as a queer person in a very rural town and for the Helping with Rainbow Hands alliance … I really would have loved this in my youth: a safe place to be visibly and openly queer would’ve been so nice,” Nettleton said. “So I’m hoping I can have this provide that space for others that might be in that situation.”

Tombaugh and Nettleton hope to educate and grow with the teen leaders so that they can encourage leadership toward acceptance of everyone into the hands of other 4-H members and future generations to come. The alliance also hopes to make Michigan 4-H a safer place for everyone to feel welcome and receive the deserved payoff that the program has, according to Tombaugh.

On Oct. 23, Helping with Rainbow Hands is planning to host their very first in-person meeting at Uncle John’s Cider Mill for team members to enjoy their time with one another. The alliance is also continuing to develop more programs and educational opportunities for 4-H around the LGBTQIA+ community as well as opening up the attendance to more of the youth on a non-leadership level. 

“I’m very excited to see where the teen leadership takes it,” Nettleton said. “I think there’s a lot of possibility, and I’m not quite sure how it’s going to look in the future, but I know it’s going to be wonderful no matter how it looks.”

Any youth that may be interested in joining Helping with Rainbow Hands can contact Nettleton or Tombaugh.

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