Community Organizing

Working Across the Generations

by Anne E. Lynch

I’ve frequently discussed the concept of intersectionality in my series of columns in The New People about organizing. It’s one of my favorite words and topics. Today, however, I’d like to take on another “inter” word – one that usually goes overlooked. Today, let’s talk about intergenerational work.

Those of us who have been activists for a long time have experience. We’ve seen campaigns for social justice that have worked, and have learned (hopefully) from the ones that have not. We’ve marched, written letters, boycotted, lobbied, protested, and even possibly done civil disobedience and street theatre. Some of us have grown weary of having to keep doing the same campaigns over and over, as, for example, new challenges to women’s rights pop up. As we age, other obligations sometimes stop us from dedicating as much time to causes.

This is where the next generation (or generations!) of activists come in. They’re younger, and have fresh, innovative ideas on how to run campaigns. Not having the years behind them of protesting, they’re motivated to keep trying. There’s just one big problem – adults usually won’t listen to them. I’ve even heard a story of one particular politician who wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone under voting age – clearly not thinking that they may reach voting age some day!

In my recent work with teens, I have found myself being infected by their enthusiasm and passion for justice. Having been involved in various forms of activism since I was 8 years old, I see both sides of intergenerational problems. While I still consider myself young (under 35), I’ve been around the block more than a few times in my activist life, seeing some issues seem to make no progress over the past two+ decades. It’s easy to get fed up, but the teens in our program have helped turn things around for me. I’m passionate again, and want to make a change.

So, how can we help bridge the gap between the younger activists and the older activists? The first big step is to acknowledge how valuable youth voices are in our various movements for justice. We will not be around forever. Neither will they. The more respect we give to youth, the more they will pass on to future generations. This street goes two ways, though. The youth, or those new to social justice work, also need to acknowledge the value in the voices of those of us who have more experience. This is not to say that we all need to agree! However, by respecting each other, and actively listening to each other, we create an environment of trust and openness.

Let’s discuss listening for a moment by using a hypothetical situation. A meeting is called to launch a campaign against a new injustice. The facilitator sees a number of familiar faces, but also a fair chunk of new ones, mostly teenagers. It’s been my experience that in this case, the facilitator tends to call on those people s/he knows, leaving out the voices of the teens. Due to this type of treatment, subsequent meetings have less and less participation by new people, until it is only the familiar ones in the room. One way to address this is to have everyone wear nametags and introduce themselves before the meeting officially begins. Being addressed by name, rather than “You there, in the back,” makes a world of difference. Another tactic would be for facilitators to make an effort to call on someone they do not know to speak first, and to ensure that they maintain a good balance between familiar and new voices.

You can also show respect by asking each other what the best way to communicate with them is. The younger the audience, the more likely it is that we prefer organizing via social media rather than in-person meetings, and that we tend to prefer texts to emails. So clarify – how does the person you’re talking to wish to stay involved? Be as flexible as possible in respecting each others’ wishes, whether it’s a text, email, or old-fashioned phone call.

Finally, learn from one another. For those of you new to the movement, those of us who have been active for years have great stories, and are a wealth of resources and experience. For us old-timers, we need to resist the urge to dismiss new tactics and strategies, and stop relying on “We’ve always done it this way.” The bottom line? Listen to each other.

Anne E. Lynch is the Manager of Operations at Three Rivers Community Foundation.

Categories: Community Organizing

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