When Alex Blocker arrived at Camp Bob Cooper in 2018 and was told to hand over his phone for the week — “you won’t need it,” the staff said — he wondered what he’d gotten himself into.
“When someone takes a teenager’s phone, it is akin to the world ending,” Blocker said. “My heart sank, knowing that I would lose all of my Snapchat streaks and wouldn’t have contact with my friends.”
Instead, Blocker found exactly why he came to the camp on Lake Marion to begin with.
“This was the first experience where I was around other people my age that wanted to better themselves as leaders,” he said. “Simply being around other aspiring leaders strengthened my leadership skills.”
Now, 4 years later, Blocker is a freshman at Howard University after becoming the first student to graduate from the South Carolina 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program having attended all the programs since he began his journey back at Camp Bob Cooper.
“Seeing Alex’s success and knowing we can continue on that trajectory of helping students not only become better leaders in their communities, but better servants to their communities, better friends to their peers and role models,” 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program Director Rushawnda Olden said. “Going back to the legacy of Senator (Clementa) Pinckney, this is who he was — this is what he embodied.”
Since 2016, the 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program has been dedicated to equipping middle and high school students to influence the state of South Carolina as better leaders, positive role models and engaged citizens.
The late Sen. Pinckney, of course, was among nine African Americans killed by white supremacist Dylan Roof during Bible study at the Charleston AME church where he was the senior pastor. While his life came to an end on June 17, 2015, Pinckney’s passion for leadership lives on though the namesake program.
And while it was not able to formally celebrate its fifth anniversary last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pinckney Program did hold three events this summer — two at Clemson University’s Hendrix Center and another in Aiken — to recognize its success.
And the program’s success is not just a buzzword. It has served more than 2,000 youth in South Carolina and, this year, had four valedictorians at high schools across the state.
One of those valedictorians, Na’Kia Hannah, of Marion High School, described her 4-H Pinckney Leadership experience as “amusing, positive and very encouraging” and said it influenced her high school career in numerous ways.
“It enlightened me to get more involved in the different clubs and to strive for greatness at all times,” Hannah said. “This program has also helped influence my future plans by preparing me for certain circumstances. I feel I am more capable to cooperate in groups and able to step out of my comfort zone a lot more.”
These days, Hannah is a freshman at Clemson University and points to the Pinckney Program as a major factor in her trajectory.
“The 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program was very eye-opening,” she added, “and I am glad I got a chance to be a part of it. I give it a 10/10 and would recommend.”
In her early days at Whale Branch Early College High School, Kairington Franklin admits she did not have much direction or ambition.
“Before becoming a 4-H Pinckney Leader, I was lost — so malleable and mendable to others’ perceptions of me that I began thinking that it was the culmination of Kairington Franklin,” she said.
But that wasn’t the case. Franklin said she began her leadership journey in February 2022 with the help of a mentor who offered a selected group of her peers to attend a 4-H Pinckney Leadership Roundup in Florence. The only thing standing in Franklin’s way was the $20 fee.
“You may question, ‘How is this essential to leadership?’ Well, that $20 revolutionized my life, and I’ll tell you how,” Franklin said. “When I arrived at the Leadership Roundup, I made it my goal to stand out from the crowd: asking questions, listening and networking. The whole experience was exhilarating, taking in so many educated speakers with an assortment of backgrounds.”
That experience led Franklin to apply for the 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program and ultimately attend the 4-H Pinckney Leadership Conference at Clemson University.
But she’s quick to note the conference definitely “wasn’t a summer camp.”
“Instead of making s’mores and telling campfire stories, we learned what it meant to be a leader; to be something tangible with the use of our voice, to utilize our voice for others who’ve lost theirs,” Franklin said. “In just one week at the conference I felt as if I lived a millennium. Years of corrosive and toxic patterns washed away clean with the voices of powerful and wise motivational speakers.”
De’Quae Craft, a student at Dreher High School, joined the Pinckney Program in 2019 and says he expected it to “be like any other program that I’ve joined.”
He now admits that was a poor prediction.
“The program has taught me that leadership simply starts with you and, in order to achieve it, you must have a want to lead and a purpose behind it,” Craft said. “Coming into 4-H, I had the want to lead, but my purpose to me remained a mystery. South Carolina 4-H helped me to find my purpose, which was wanting better for my community of people. The 4-H Pinckney program impact on me goes way beyond just teaching me how to be a better leader.”
But Craft said the program has impacted him on a personal level as well. He was shy and soft-spoken and engaging with others did not come naturally.
“After joining the program, I immediately saw a difference,” he said. “I became very outspoken. I begin to interact with others on a more social level and started publicly speaking on issues that were directly affecting my community. After realizing this change in my social life, it motivated me to do even more.”
Since joining the Pinckney Program, Craft has gone on to join the Student Council at his school and was elected junior class president, as well as Superintendent’s council, where he is serving his fourth term this year.
“This program isn’t just a program to me. Ms. Rushawnda, the counselors and the participants all make up a culture where you are seen as family,” he said. “That’s what I see this program as — my family.”
“Just like Senator Pinckney, this program has motivated me to do exactly what he did and was known for doing such as fighting and being a profound advocate for the unheard, being a true passionate leader and making the world a better place,” he added.
The Pinckney Leadership Program started in 2016 when it only had one leadership opportunity and has already expanded to offer three weeklong leadership programs on campus, as well as leadership roundup events and the camp that got started in 2018.
“Middle school is a time of rapid brain development, and we have seen tremendous success in being able to work with youth at a younger age, helping them to define what their personal leadership journey will look like and tracking their achievements,” Olden said.
Future plans for the Pinckney Leadership Program include extra programming working closely with the Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute and building upon connections across campus that have been created in the program’s early years, including what Olden calls “leadership outdoors.”
“Our leadership outdoors initiative will allow us to expose more youth to outdoor activities while also building their leadership capacity,” she said.
The Pinckney Leadership Program also hosted two leadership workshops for the first time this year in partnership with Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences and Director of Diversity and Inclusion Julian Nixon.
“I believe that education, exposure and experience are central to the core of an effective leadership program and the 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program provides these for their participants each year,” Nixon said. “CAFLS is exceptionally stronger when it receives leaders who are both aware of themselves and aware of the cultural needs around them. Participants within the 4-H Pinckney Leadership Program have intentional experiences that grooms them into these leaders.”
To learn more about the South Carolina 4-H Pinckney Leadership program and get involved, visit www.clemson.edu/pinckney.
“I’m excited about the future of this program and where we’re headed,” Olden said.
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