Southern Echo's Intergenerational Model
A central premise of effective community organizing work is building community around an intergenerational model.
1. bringing younger and older people together in the work on the same basis.
2. enabling younger and older to develop the skills and tools of organizing work and leadership development, side by side, so that in the process they can learn to work together, learn to respect each other, and overcome the fear and suspicion of each that is deeply rooted in the culture.
3. it is often necessary to create a learning process and a work strategy that ensures that younger people develop the capacity to do the work without being intimidated, overrun or outright controlled by the older people in the group. "Control" and "exercise of authority" are great temptations for older people, even for those who have long been in the struggle and strongly believe in the intergenerational model.
Community people who want to include young people in the work on the same basis as adults often run into questions or issues that are used to try to keep young people out of the work, and especially out of leadership development. The issues are sometimes framed as follows:
A. “Young people don't have skills….”
B. “Young people work in the community for a while, then go off to work or to school.”
C. “Young people don't care enough about the issues….”
D. “Young people are "bad" -- this generation isn't like past generations.”
E. “We can't plan things and structure activities that keep young people interested!”
F. “Older and younger people don't trust each other.”
G. “Young people don't respect adults, or the experience of adult leaders.”
A. “Young people don't have skills….”
Young people do have skills. They just don't have as many skills as they will have later on. They are growing. They have the capacity to learn and grow a lot faster if they are given the chance. Often when adults complain that they can't reach the young people, or communicate with them, it is because they do not take the time to listen to them, and do not believe that they have anything to learn from them.
At times some adults appear to be saying, "What's the point of being an adult if you can't be the boss, the person in authority, and tell the younger people what to do."
The truth is -- many adults don't have skills, either. But if you eliminate both younger people and older people because they don't have all the skills and tools they need, who is left to do the work?
That's why we have training and why we look at the work in community as a form of on-the-job training through which older and younger can work side by side to learn, to develop tools and skills, and to share them with others coming along behind them.
No one is born with the inherent knowledge of organizing work. It is learned. It is a life long process. Everyone starts at the beginning, makes mistakes, and some learn faster than others. Some emerge as leaders and some don't ever really get the hang of it. But, we were all young once -- if we had been written off then, where would we be now?
B. “Young people work, then go off to work or school….”
Often that is true. But -- it is very important that we touch the lives of the young people, while they are still young and not set in their ways, with the grace of real work with the community to achieve goals that are beyond the wants and needs of the self. They will carry this understanding and experience with them to their work, to school, to their families, and into any community in which they settle down. This process is needed if we are to truly transform the culture.
At the same time -- older leave the work, too. They usually have different reasons, such family and job pressures, but the net effect is the same.
So -- we need to work with people, younger and older, while they are ready, willing and able to work, and know that many of the people will not stay the course. That is why it is so important to sustain the process of reaching out to new people all the time to broaden or extend the base of support. In this way, new people can carry the work forward without the process being dependent on a handful of super-committed people who eventually burn out or die, without other dedicated people to replace them.
C. “Young people don't care enough about the issues….”
If you do not understand an issue, it is very difficult to care about it. This is as true for adults as it is for younger people. People must see the relevance of an issue to their lives, families, or communities. But that is difficult to do if no one takes the time to explain it in a way that people can understand it. Younger people have demonstrated time and again that they have the capacity to be on the cutting edge of issues and be more willing than adults to confront authority to fight for change, when the circumstances warrant. Often adults find themselves in the position of trying to hold back and restrain the energy of younger people who want to deal with the "issues" and it is the younger people in these situations who are saying to the older people, "You don't understand the issues and are unwilling to get involved!"
D. “Young people are "bad"--This generation isn't like the past generations!”
Every generation says that! It simply isn't true. In every community young people, not all young people, but many, are doing good work. Many more would if they had a chance. Through our work we have to build ways to give them a chance.
We need to be alert that as a matter of propaganda and stereotyping, there is a concerted effort nationally to stamp young people with the stigma of "bad" to scapegoat them for the problems poverty, violence, under-employment and unemployment that continue to plague the nation. We should not be party to this.
It was the young people who led us into the sit-ins and freedom rides that propelled the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It is young people today who are very actively involved in middle and high schools across the nation fighting for a better educational opportunity, and students in colleges who have joined adult workers in fighting for fair, living wages, for a safe environment, and fair international banking and trade policies.
Young people who are having difficulty coping and are getting in trouble need love, assistance and educational and vocational tools with which to make it, not denunciation. Many of our children are having difficulty because they have been kicked to the curb by the administrators and teachers in their public school systems.
E. “We can't plan or structure activities that keep young people interested!”
Who is we, quiemosabe (Sp. “one who knows”)? Instead of planning for the younger people, why not plan with the younger people? Find one or more younger people, who understand the mission and are committed, to help the older people understand what it will take. They are in the best position to help older people understand how to build a strong basis for involvement of younger people in the work on a consistent basis. Seek out a strong core of younger people to participate with the older people in every phase of the work of the organization. Don’t isolate and confine the younger people to the work with younger people. Don’t bring younger people into the work just to be go-fers for the older people (Could you get me this? …. Could you go get me that?, etc.).
Attitude is very important. If the older people do not respect or trust the younger people, then it will be difficult to create a process with the younger people that contains the requisite trust and respect. Why? It isn’t there. Younger people are just as keen as older people in smoking out insincere, patronizing “support”, as opposed to love, regard, and genuine respect. Also – younger people often have a keen insight into who is doing real work in the community, and who are using the community for their own ends, or to promote a selfish agenda. Most young people who are exposed to real work appreciate the people who are doing it and respect them for it.
If the older people in the work engage in conversation with the younger people in circumstances that create a safe place for the younger people to share what they really see, hear, feel and understand, and encourages them to express themselves, rather than defer to the elders, it can change the internal dynamic and culture of the group.
This requires aggressive patience. Older people have to be aggressive in asking younger people individually, as well as collectively, what each of them think, what each of the younger people think are the choices that make sense in the particular situation, what each of the younger people think the group should actually do to deal with the situation, what each of the younger people think are the strengths and weaknesses of the choices that the group is considering, and so on.
At the same time, older people have to be patient and considerate in enabling younger people a pace at which they can find their voice, explore opening up and participating, receive validation for their participation and views, whether or not older people agree with them, and have a chance to observe and participate in a process in which they can see older people openly and sincerely engaging with the ideas and approaches of the younger people.
Above all, it is crucial that the older people not run over the younger people through impatient and dismissive attitudes. This tends to show younger people a back of the hand that widens the gulf. Then older people get defensive and fall back upon old attitudes about how younger people don’t listen, aren’t respectful of their elders, etc. Then the older people go back to saying that young people this, and young people that….
Older people need to enlist younger people in the process from the beginning, at the planning stages, in order to enlist their insights to help shape how to make the intergenerational model work. This is especially important if a real goal of the work is to enable younger people to develop the tools and skills of leadership and organization. The skills and tools are only really learned through doing, and are only really sharpened by real work.
The fact that some of the younger people, and eventually most of them, as they grow up, reach puberty, graduate high school, and so on, leave the work for a time, is in the natural order of things. Some of them may come back, some may do really good work elsewhere, and others will never forget their exposure to the struggle to transform the culture. But, older people do this, too.
A healthy organizational process keeps doors open for new people to come in all the time. Some of the younger and older people who stop work, for whatever reason, will also be some of the same people who send new people through the door.
F. “Older and younger people don’t trust each other….”
Generational differences are normal. It is no surprise that older people sometimes, even often, feel threatened by the energy, ideas and boldness that many younger people bring to work. This is especially true when older people feel that they have worked hard for years, paid their dues, and have achieved a place, or status, that they want. It is very discomforting, fearful even, to compete with a degree of new energy coming from younger people that some older people can no longer generate.
Younger people sometimes, even often, feel that older people do not understand how younger people look at things, do not appreciate the creativity, sense of humor and vantage point from which younger people operate. At the same time, it is common for younger people to hear older people talk in stereotypical negative ways about younger people that are hurtful, and generate distrust.
In order to overcome this natural process, it is important to recognize that it exists. Enabling people to talk with each other in safe, appropriate settings can help. Getting to see each other as real people, rather than as stick figures, can help. But, the best way to build trust and respect, the essential building blocks of relationships, is through real work at ground level in the community. In this way, older and younger people can toil side by side, and see who is real and who is just talk, who supports the community and who turns tail and runs when the establishment gets angry at the community for challenging public officials, for example.
So – from the point of view of strengthening the base of the organization through the intergenerational model, it is important to create opportunities when younger and older can work together as a basis for helping to build solid bridges between the generations. This is not in conflict with, but supportive of the principal that the younger generation also needs an opportunity to work separately, at times, to enhance their skills and tools that will enable them to work effectively with the older generation.
G. “Young people don’t respect adults, or the experience of adult leaders.”
There is a difference between respect and fear. Sometimes what older people mean by respect is submission to authority, rather than agreement or support as a consequence of careful thought and reasoning.
One of the bigger obstacles to respect between people is demanding respect while not giving respect to the persons from whom respect is demanded. To put it another way, if you want respect, you have to show respect. People, younger or older, know when they are not being shown respect. Sometimes people make mistakes, but for the most part, it is often fairly clear and obvious.
Part of showing respect requires actually having real respect. Otherwise, it shows through eventually. You really can’t kid people for too long. Nevertheless, even where a person is unsure or ambivalent, it is important to make every effort to show respect. Otherwise, the open contempt that is reflected in doing disrespectful things toward others is very difficult for people to forget.
It is often difficult for younger people to respect the work or achievement of their elders when they do not really know, or understand, what it is that their elders have done, or are still doing. There is often a real gap, sometimes a chasm, between the generations when it comes to information sharing about the struggles and the work. Little is discussed, and even less is written. Younger people do not know their history. But, the truth is that many of the older people do not really know the history, either.
Respect will flow from understanding, which can only come after sharing. Sharing will not be done until there is real respect for the younger people, and a solid commitment to creating effective opportunities through which they can learn about the work of the elders for whom they should have respect.
The intergenerational model is not an abstract concept, or something hoped for, but unrealized. In Mississippi there have been many examples of grassroots community organizations building effective intergenerational models, with some meaningful successes in the work.
· Tunica County, MS
In the northwest corner of the Mississippi Delta, Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County, whose governing board include younger people, created a youth leadership development program inside its organization to provide direct training to its younger volunteers in the elementary, middle and high school grades. With assistance from the staff of Southern Echo, the leadership of Concerned Citizens provided workshops and meetings for the younger people at which they worked to develop specific skills: critical thinking, self-confidence, public speaking, group cooperation, and the negotiation of issues. At the same time, the young people decided that they wanted to prepare and conduct a variety of cultural programs to reach out to the community as a whole. As a result, they have written, practiced and performed several cultural programs that have focused on American history, cultural performances by individuals and groups from the community, and have taken younger and older people on trips to the civil rights museums in Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. In addition, they have enabled many younger people to participate in training programs on the fundamentals of community organizing and organizing to create a quality public education system conducted by Southern Echo for younger and older people who are working together.
Last, but not least, Concerned Citizens enabled younger people to participate with older people at every stage of the successful 4-year fight to prevent the building of a virtually all-white public school near the casinos in the northwest corner of the county. This fight was part of a struggle to prevent the creation of an all-white South African-style enclave in this more than 70 percent black county. This process, rooted in real work of great importance to the community, was invaluable in building significant mutual trust and respect among younger and older people.
· Holmes County, MS
On the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta in the central sector of Mississippi, Citizens for Quality Education (CQE), whose governing board includes younger people, worked with middle and high school students to build two environmental programs that enabled younger people to understand how to create and undertake effective strategies to impact the formation of public policy at the county level.
In Holmes County, as elsewhere in the Delta, many of the public schools sit in the middle of huge plantations on which aerial and ground spraying dump huge amounts of dangerous agricultural chemicals that endanger those exposed. The students, working with support from CQE, conducted a campaign of community education as to the dangers of aerial spraying because the chemical plumes inevitably blow through the open school windows in the spring and fall. Then, with community support, they successfully negotiated with the county agents, and other county officials, to order a moratorium against aerial spraying of agricultural chemicals near the public schools.
Building on this success, students from the public schools investigated the practice of illegal dumping by citizens and businesses of both hazardous and household waste in the county. These dump sites were creating land and water environmental hazards. As part of this process, the students learned mapping skills. They found 35 illegal dump sites and located them on a huge color-coded map of the county to illustrate their location. In addition, they learned documentation skills. They took photographs of each site and wrote about them. In addition, they took video film of the locations to show the extent of the dumping from a number of angles.
Finally, they learned skills of analysis, presentation strategy, public speaking, and how the decision-making process works with the county board of supervisors. The students organized their presentation, with an emphasis on student presentation and the use of a variety of visual aids. As important, they learned the legal duties and responsibilities of the supervisors. At the board hearing, when the supervisors hemmed and hawed and sought to duck responsibility for the issue, the students, supported by older and younger people present at the hearing, argued successfully that the supervisors had a responsibility to alleviate the hazardous conditions and enforce the environmental prohibitions against the illegal dumping, or the state would have to step in. The supervisors yielded to the student demands and agreed to a strategy for the elimination of the illegal dumps.
· Indianola Parent Student Group
In Indianola, MS, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the Indianola Parent Student Group (IPSG), whose governing board includes younger people, has conducted several campaigns as part of its organizing work in which the young students have taken the lead.
As a result of their participation in a Southern Echo environmental training school, students from the Indianola Middle School expressed serious concern about the impact of aerial and ground spraying of dangerous agricultural chemicals on the plantation across the road from the school. First, they undertook a door to door health survey within the nearby community. They found that the incidents of rashes, respiratory problems, and liver disease appeared to be much higher than the statistics for this population on a statewide basis. Second, they participated in a series of workshops and strategy meetings with some of the older people in the community concerning how the Indianola Zoning Ordinance impacted the rights of the community versus the rights of the plantation owner. Third, they researched the ownership of the land to determine who the culprit was and found that the owner was out of state and that the plantation owner was actually leasing the land. Fourth, they found out from the county extension agent how to determine which chemicals were being used by the plantation owner and how dangerous they were considered to be. Fifth, they determined that the Federal Aviation Administration and the county agents had jurisdiction in regard to suppressing the risk to the community. Sixth, they obtained a favorable letter from the FAA in opposition to the spraying and obtained from the state association of county agents a moratorium against the spraying of agricultural chemicals across the street from the school and negotiated an agreement with the plantation owner not to resume spraying without first going through IPSG.
Another success of the intergenerational process was the campaign to force the school district to provide new science laboratories, new science books, and an updated science curriculum for the all-black Middle School. The Middle School was the newest school in the district, but had no science labs. The majority white elementary school had science labs, new science books and an updated science curriculum mandated by the state. The focus of the new curriculum strategy was hands on experimentation in the laboratory. The all-black Middle School could not teach the new curriculum because it did not have labs or new books, when it had books at all. IPSG determined that the school district received substantial unused funds from the lease of school lands to plantation owners. The younger and older IPSG volunteers made an effective presentation to the school board and the board agreed to use the funds to build the new labs and provide the new texts so that the students would have the same opportunity to gain science education as the students in the majority white school. The labs were built and the new texts provided as demanded by IPSG.
· Drew, MS
Drew, MS is up the road a piece from Indianola to the north about 30 miles, still in the heart of the Delta. The Drew Community Voters League includes high school and college age students on the Board of Directors, and enables younger people to be active in each phase of the organization’s program of work.
The Voters League brought students together with parents to institute and complete a two-year investigation into abuses of students and parents by the public school administration and some of its teachers. The investigation resulted in a 137-page Complaint (which they entitled an “Indictment”) that was presented to the State Dept. of Education at a public hearing held in Drew by the Voters League. The students helped to prepare the public hearing and, then, presented testimony at the public hearing.
As a direct result of the consciousness-raising of the public school students that resulted from participation in the “Indictment” process, the high school students organized their parents and reached out to the Voters League and Southern Echo for assistance in their fight with the high school guidance counselor to obtain student transcripts and class rankings needed for ACT and SAT applications, for college applications and for employment applications, which the guidance counselor has failed and refused to provide to the students and their parents. At present, the students and parents have agreed to bring a lawsuit against the guidance counselor and the school district to compel the school administration to provide the transcripts and rankings.
In addition, the students in the Voters League are in the process of organizing a culture and history program to enable the community to learn, on an on-going basis, what the school district systematically refuses to provide within the curriculum.
· Montgomery County
Action Communication and Education Reform, Inc. and Concerned Citizens of Montgomery County, MS are two organizations through which younger and older persons work together to empower the African American community in the county.
Younger people have received extensive training and hands-on experience learning the tools and skills of video and audio documentation of the activist work of their organizations, and have participated in the historical documentation through interviews with persons who have done extensive work in the past.
In addition, the younger people participate in an extensive cultural program that includes the presentation of plays and other performance-based occasions.
The younger people also participate in numerous leadership development training programs in Mississippi and out of state.
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Southern Echo, Inc.