Claudia Diaz Carrasco applies science and 4-H principles to create youth leaders in under-represented communities
"I guess the fact that my parents told me whatever I set on my mind I would be able to achieve set me up for success," Diaz Carrasco stated. "Once I enrolled in Food Science Engineering, I loved school so much that when I was done with that degree, I pursued two more."
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) is committed to developing an inclusive and equitable society by reaching all segments of the state's population. On the front lines building trust and credibility are professionals who bring their unique skills, passion and commitment to make California a better place.
"The most rewarding is the opportunity to build bridges between the university's research-based programs and our local communities. When they do not fit, I have fun creating new programs or adapting from what we do have. I do believe science mixed with traditional knowledge has an infinite power to change people's lives," said Diaz Carrasco.
A native of Atizapán de Zaragoza, México, Diaz Carrasco has been part of UC ANR since 2015 as Youth Development Advisor focusing on Latino and /or low-income youth and families. She faces many cultural and economic challenges to achieve her mission; thanks to her tenacity, dedication and hard work, she and her team have turned their goals into a reality.
"When I joined ANR, there were really few people in the state and around the country doing work intentionally with Latino youth development and 4-H," she said.
Since joining 4-H, she has been instrumental in increasing Latino participation in 4-H programs statewide. Her geographical area of work is the Inland Empire, which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties. These are two of California's largest counties, with almost 5 million residents, and 65% are Latino.
"About 60% of school-aged youth in Riverside and San Bernardino are Hispanic/Latino," said Diaz Carrasco. "Since the beginning, the primary focus of my position is to develop, implement, evaluate, strengthen and expand local 4-H programming to serve the current under-represented population better."
In an environment that is generally not friendly to changes and challenges, Diaz Carrasco faces a daily array of obstacles to achieving her goal. Among them are high levels of poverty in the families she serves, high crime rates in some communities, and a lack of interest from the parents, who in most cases work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
"The success of my work as the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) advisor relies on how effective my extension team and I can be in sharing knowledge. We have gained this knowledge through research, education, program evaluation, and transfer these into the communities we serve in ways that are relevant for their day-to-day lives while embracing their cultural context," said Diaz Carrasco.
The knowledge that Diaz Carrasco and her team bring directly to the youth, their families, and communities in the Inland Empire creates positive changes and healthier lives. "The way we educate the public matters, and who are our educators matters. Science and culture are at the core of every program we have implemented since I started," she said.
She gives two reasons why her work is penetrating the thick layers of the communities she serves. The first is that she is an immigrant, like many of the families she works with. "I approach my work knowing that a lot of people are going or have gone through the same process I went through in 2014."
Diaz Carrasco also cites thinking out of the box as a reason for success. "I believe creativity and flexibility are at the core of any programs I develop," she stated.
For example, Diaz Carrasco and her team partnered with the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, where they held a successful summer camp and strengthened the partnership with the Consulate. Youth could participate in this unique program that aims to help them embrace their Mexican identity, even when, in some cases, they or their parents cannot travel outside the U.S.
The summer camp program was designed to increase positive ethnic identity, and to provide youth development reflecting the Latino and immigrant youth experience and the physiological and social effects of discrimination. The program also responded to economic challenges by assisting families with transportation, providing snacks, and in some cases other items such as toothbrushes, water bottles, or connecting families to health and food agencies. "Above all, we hold the camp in a place that the families were already familiar with and felt safe. This place was the Consulate!" said Diaz Carrasco. "Yes, we turned their art gallery, where official agreements are signed, into a playground. That is what I mean by out of the box,” she added.
The program's interest was visible from day one; in a matter of hours, they reached 100% of the participant count. In the end, the parents expressed their gratitude for offering the programs in an accessible way.
Thinking out of the box has also allowed Diaz Carrasco to partner with major companies in Southern California to benefit the youth.
In five years, she has increased 4-H membership in her area from 667 to 6,021. The overall percentage of Latino youth in 4-H went from 28% to 85%, and the number of volunteers grew from 175 to 354.
Diaz Carrasco measures her success by the words of Sofia, a Moreno Valley student and one of the participants to the 4-H Juntos conference: "Juntos 4-H provides a home and a place where you can safely feel like it is your community. I hope expanding the program gives more students, not only myself but an identity also as to what the community is like and that there are people that care for them and have someone to relate and trust."
Diaz Carrasco has a straightforward message to all those girls who contemplate the idea of getting into the sciences: "My success in science has more to do with resilience than with knowledge. So, the ultimate thing is to pick something you like, have fun doing it and find people around you that also like it or are willing to support you when things get hard."