How a Guatemalan war survivor is bringing Iowa kids together
John Paul Chaisson-Cardenas is the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program Leader.
John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas witnessed the civil war in Guatemala as a boy. The memory of it is at the root of everything he does today in America.
“I’ve seen what happens when the civility in a society disintegrates. I’ve seen what happens when people start disappearing because they have different opinions,” he said. “And I have seen and know what it feels like to be scared expressing your voice.”
Chaisson-Cardenas, 45, the first Latino state youth leader in the 115-year history of 4-H, wants to bring youth of all backgrounds together to share their voice, to learn more about each other and learn to be civil.
When 4-H was founded in the early 1900s and a pair of Iowans, O.H. Benson and Jesse Fields Shambaugh developed the iconic four-leaf clover logo, it was thought of as a youth organization mainly for farm kids. Chaisson-Cardenas is part of a long effort to expand its reach and now children of color make up 13 percent of the 100,000 Iowa youth who participate in 4-H.
As he walked through the State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa recently, where nearly a quarter of the participants come from 4-H programs, he stopped at the presentation of a young man wearing a turban.
J.J. Kapur, of Valley High School in West Des Moines, showed him his project, an experiment on bias. The student, who is Sikh, said he did the project after someone yelled to his father, “Osama, go back where you came from.” His experiment's results showed that when people know more about each other, they have less bias toward them.
Chaisson-Cardenas nodded in approval before telling the young man about 4-H.
“4-H started with agriculture. But my goal is, I want to reach every child in Iowa, especially those children that get left out,” he said.
He knows the feeling of being on the outside. His family left Guatemala 25 years ago with three suitcases and eventually drove to Cheyenne, Wyo., in a Ford Pinto. He was a lonely high school kid, who didn’t speak English and was dyslexic but went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Iowa and help inner-city kids in Chicago and rural Latinos in West Liberty before landing his job at 4-H in 2014.
He organized a 4-H group that combined immigrants from Africa with African-Americans. Native Americans joined Latinos in another group and learned their shared history, such as the importance of corn in their cultures.
“Because of the political climate in the last years, we’ve been working a lot on bringing people together, from their culture, their sexual orientation, and having meaningful conversations,” he said. “It’s how we change perceptions of people.”
At the core of the programs inspired by the man who is Mayan by descent, Hispanic by ethnicity and American by citizenship is “belonging.”
“The research is clear. One of the ways to bring people together is to actually bring them together. People are hard to dismiss when you know them,” he said. “The reality is we need our leaders from government to build bridges. That’s a skill that 4-Hers, whether they are from Maynard, Iowa, or inner-city Waterloo, have to have.”
What does it mean to you to be an American?
I really love being an American. I love being a part of this country because of what it stands for. What people don’t realize is that around the world, this place is a beacon. Not because of what it is, but because of what it could be and the aspirations of equality, of having people be and belong in our country. To me that is what America is.
What moment touched and motivated you to launch this effort?
For me, youth are not only our future but they are much more diverse than the general population. When you start where youth are today I truly believe they are ahead of us when it comes to inclusion and diversity and, more importantly, belonging. I truly believe that 4-H is an organization that can make a difference for every group in the United States — over 7 million youth in this country.
What gives you hope or what concerns you?
What gives me hope is youth. I work with over 100,000 youth in Iowa alone, so when I hear their voices and see them come together, that gives me hope. What worries me are actually the adults, the rhetoric out there that is destructive, that is divisive, that has taken us apart from the fundamental values that I believe this country is about — inclusion, diversity, bringing people together and being a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
What do you hope to accomplish through your efforts?
What I want to do is allow youth to be themselves and understand how powerful they are. And at the same time understand how the other youth around them are powerful within themselves, no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, whether you are white or black, whether you are LBGT or you are not, it doesn’t matter to me. What I want them to do is feel good about themselves and find their own strengths.