TBILISI, Georgia — Brian Brandt, a professor of youth development with Washington State University Extension, recently traveled to the country of Georgia with longtime WSU 4-H volunteer Melissa Beard to support an educational curriculum designed to strengthen democracies.
Benefiting U.S. middle and high school participants for decades, the 4-H Know Your Government (KYG) program teaches youth about civic engagement and governmental institutions.
Supported by a U.S. Department of State grant, Brandt and Beard visited Georgia this summer to help university students using KYG grow their knowledge of jury trials, a fundamental part of a democratic judicial system.
“KYG was a great fit for what these Georgian students were trying to learn and accomplish,” Brandt said. “Youth are more equipped to participate civically when they have this knowledge.”
An active 4-H volunteer with KYG for decades, Beard first authored the official KYG curriculum for Washington state 4-H in 1998. Then, nearly a decade ago, Brandt helped revise the curriculum by incorporating social and emotional learning through team-building activities and structured reflection.
The updated curriculum earned national acclaim, including the 4-H National Civics Program Award from the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents.
Now, the curriculum is finding value internationally as an education tool.
While posted as a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi from 2019 to 2021, WSU 4-H alumna Althea Cawley-Murphree met Georgian high school students who were excited to learn how a democracy functions and how civically active citizens can engage with their government.
Inspired by her experience with Brandt’s KYG course during high school, Cawley-Murphree realized KYG would be a great fit for Georgian students. She initiated conversations with WSU and the Department of State about sharing the curriculum.
This year, the Department of State reached out to Brandt and Beard, wondering if KYG could be adapted for Georgian university students excited to learn more about democratic processes. They were especially curious if KYG could be used to practice mock jury trials.
“The essence of democracy requires informed citizens who are motivated to engage in the process of building their governmental institutions,” Cawley-Murphree said. “KYG teaches this important component of the judicial system.”
A democracy charts its path forward
Georgia became a democracy in the early 1990s. Around 2010, the country began incorporating jury trials into its justice system.
Over three days, Brandt and Beard supported the Georgian students who practiced the jury trial process on the campus of Tbilisi State University.
“The challenge was holding a mock jury trial in a country where a majority of the population is unfamiliar with the process,” Brandt said. “The parents of the students I worked with likely never experienced this part of the judicial system.”
Brandt points to the social and emotional growth he saw in the participants as a success.
“It’s important for participants to experience and reflect on the intense emotions of a jury trial,” he said. “A mock trial can be a lot of fun, but without the structured reflection, valuable life skills might get missed.”
As these students work to contribute to the institutional knowledge critical for a well-functioning democracy, Brandt and Beard are optimistic about the students’ future, and consequently, the country of Georgia.
“By the time we left, more than 20 KYG Georgian university students were feeling energized and excited,” Beard said. “That’s a big component of KYG — generating excitement through discovery and experiential learning.”
The inaugural group of Georgian KYG students will become peer educators in the near future by contributing to American Spaces, a network of educational and cultural learning centers associated with the U.S. Embassy. They will bring their knowledge and expertise back home to their respective communities, where it will be shared and discussed.
“The people of Georgia have made it clear they aspire to a prosperous, stable, and secure Euro-Atlantic future,” said Christine Yarng, a foreign service officer currently assigned as a public diplomacy officer to the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi. “Georgia stands at a key moment in its history, and this education prepares its people to engage in democratic development.”