The S.C. 4-H Pinckney Leadership Conference hosted its first virtual Leadership Roundup in June, providing a platform for students nationwide to gather and learn how they can continue to lead amid the current challenges the country faces.
“The more we talked with students, the more we saw a need to help them navigate through this historic moment of time,” said Rushawnda Olden, 4-H Pinckney Leadership program director. “Being the five-year anniversary of the passing of Sen. (Clementa) Pinckney, I felt like this would be a great opportunity to honor his life and continue his legacy of building youth leaders.”
For one participant in the leadership conference, however, the tragedy of the Charleston AME church massacre on June 17, 2015, hit particularly close to home.
Eliana Pinckney is the daughter of the late Sen. Pinckney, the church’s senior pastor and one of nine African Americans killed during Bible study by white supremacist Dylan Roof on that date. Now 16 years old and a rising senior at Dreher High School, Eliana was 11 when her father was murdered.
For Eliana and those around her, the program holds special meaning, not only because of their relationships with the senator but also because of the values it espouses.
“Family was always his priority, but he was also very passionate about leadership,” she said, “and just to see so many people continuing to live out his legacy even though he’s no longer with us is super important, not only to me but the rest of my family as well. I think it’s so amazing there are people like Rushawnda and the rest of the 4-H staff who are helping carry on my father’s legacy and helping other people learn about leadership and community service and so many other things that my dad was passionate about.”
More than 100 youth came together in June to hear from speakers such as former Clemson football star Woody Dantzler, Elizabeth Jende Chevalier of EJC Move Leadership Consulting, business and branding expert Shontavia Johnson and others. The event ended with a panel discussion on race and injustice in our country, during which Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott encouraged students to use their voice to take action in their communities.
“The conference started off with amazing speakers who talked about things such as scholarship opportunities, life during college, preparing for life after college, the importance of finding your own path and not letting others dictate your decisions,” Eliana said. “We had a specific session that was about mindfulness and the importance of valuing your own mental health, especially during times like these when everything is so uncertain.”
But Eliana wasn’t the only one with a personal connection to the event. 17-year-old Brantley Evans said his father had a classmate who was killed in the Charleston church shooting, as well.
“(My father) really took that to heart, so I really wanted to be part of this program,” Brantley said. “I knew 4-H was about community service and youth development, and I felt like this was a good opportunity for me to join. And that’s where I met Eliana. We became really good friends, and that helped me stay involved in the program as well. Now, I participate in 4-H Legislative Day and 4-H State Congress. So, 4-H means a lot to me now, too, and being a part of the leadership team for the 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program, it really helps me grow as a leader too in my own little way.”
A rising senior at Spring Valley High School, Evans heard about the S.C. 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program as a freshman through a guidance counselor. After attending the weeklong Pinckney Leadership Program on Clemson’s campus in 2018, he returned as a junior counselor in 2019.
Eliana followed the same path through her father’s namesake program, and she and Brantley built friendships with each other and other 4-H’ers that have evolved and grown since.
“We’re like our own little subset and our own little family outside of Clemson, and we call each other and text each other all the time,” Eliana said. “We always look for each other’s events, and it’s really cool to have a family environment with people who care just as much about leadership and community service as we do.”
For Brantley, the virtual Leadership Roundup held significant meaning, not least because he knew the impact the weeklong Pinckney Leadership Conference, which had to be canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could have on young people.
“We had 4-H leaders and other great speakers and motivators to talk about what’s going on in the world right now,” Brantley said. “We felt the need to have an open discussion and hear everybody’s input on it. It was really impactful because we heard from an adult’s point of view and people who come from different backgrounds, and that was personally my favorite part of the conference.”
For Olden and other 4-H staff, offering these resources free to young people across the state is a fitting way to honor the late senator’s life and continue his legacy — by passing the values he held so dear along to the next generation of South Carolina leaders.
“I’ve attended several leadership webinars for adults on how to pivot during this time, but no one was really talking to the students,” Olden said. “So, we didn’t want them to be left out of the conversation. There were so many things going on in our country, and the gist of our leadership event was to help students figure out: Now what do I do? How do I continue to lead in my school and my community? How do I manage my emotional health? What can I do as a youth leader or preparing for college?”
“We wanted to help them stay motivated to continue to lead and continue to stay focused on their goals, despite what is going on. There’s still hope,” she concluded.