Ethel Branch was just a teenager the first time she boarded an airplane to visit Washington, D.C., as part of a 4-H program. In March, she flew to the U.S. capital again, this time to accept the Luminary Award from the National 4-H Council.
The Luminary Award, which was developed in 2017, honors some of the most influential 4-H alumni from across the nation. Branch, an Arizona 4-H alumni, is attorney general of the Navajo Nation. Consisting of 27,000 square miles in the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S.
"When I was in high school, 4-H gave me my first flying experience when I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the first time," Branch said. "My family could never have afforded to send me on a flight, and I would have never known how to navigate an airport.
"The summer after that program, I ended up flying to Hawaii for a math and science program," Branch continued. "I don’t know if I could have accepted that opportunity if I didn't have that first flying experience under my belt through 4-H. 4-H opened the door to many first-time experiences for me and helped me transform my dreams into reality by showing me the importance of careful planning, hard work and consistent follow-through. I am honored to receive the Luminary Award."
Branch grew up with a view of the San Francisco Peaks on her family's ranch on the Navajo Nation 10 miles south of Leupp, Arizona. They raised horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, and owned rabbits, cats and dogs. Branch fondly remembers driving cattle with her sister and other family members.
"I'd always been interested in 4-H as a kid. I thought, 'Hey, we raise animals, too. I’d like to get involved.' Growing up on a ranch so far from town, I didn't have an opportunity to be involved in a lot of extracurricular activities or clubs until high school."
That's when she joined the Winslow Wranglers and quickly became president of the 4-H club.
"I like to plan and be organized. It was a natural match for me," Branch said. "The club gave me a professional view of livestock raising, and also gave me a great opportunity to refine my public speaking skills."
She said much of what she learned in 4-H prepared her for her eventual career path.
"In my high school, we didn’t do a lot of writing. But to do the demonstration projects for 4-H, you'd have to do research, and prepare and organize your presentation in writing. It’s very similar to being a lawyer in terms of organizing your arguments, having your exhibits and being able to respond to questions from the people you're presenting to."
The 4-H program is implemented by the nation’s land-grant colleges and universities through the Cooperative Extension system. In Arizona, the University of Arizona's Cooperative Extension, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has more than 100,000 young people enrolled in county-based programs and nearly 20,000 volunteers, with agents and clubs in counties and reservations across the state.
Over the past few years, 4-H has evolved from focusing on traditional animal raising curriculum to also include more science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs and clubs.
"4-H programs develop strong skills in communication, civic service and leadership that serve the participants well in the development of their professional and personal lives," said UA Cooperative Extension Director Jeff Silvertooth. "We see evidence of positive effects from the 4-H programs, with many community leaders, including Ethel Branch, having 4-H experiences. We are extremely proud of Ethel and all of the outstanding UA 4-H alumni who serve to enrich communities throughout the state of Arizona."
Nationally and within Arizona, the 4-H program is increasing its efforts to reach more Hispanic and Native American youth. Branch believes the enhanced efforts are worthwhile and vitally important.
"I think 4-H could open the Navajo Nation up to tremendous opportunities for our children. It's very important for 4-H to make inroads on the Nation and in Indian Country, in general," she said. "4-H is a vehicle of access for kids, and it's a fun way of developing life and leadership skills.