What Happened When Four Older Social Justice Activists Were Paired with Four Younger Ones?

CoGenerate Senior Fellow Gara LaMarche cites 5 lessons learned — and asks for your thoughts

I can more or less trace the beginning of my career in human rights and social justice to one morning in the spring of 1972. I was a high school senior from Rhode Island, set to attend Columbia University that fall, and nominated to serve as a member of the Academic Freedom Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union, a post that required approval by the ACLU board. 

So I took my long-haired, bell-bottomed self on a bus to New York and journeyed down to lower Fifth Avenue to be vetted by the ACLU’s associate director. I was waiting in the lobby when he emerged from his office accompanied by a very old, but very together old man who I learned was Roger Baldwin, the ACLU’s principal founder, then almost 90. Roger lived another nine years, during which time I graduated from college and rose through the ACLU’s ranks. He died on my 27th birthday. Roger maintained a keen interest in young people, and in me, and in many ways was my first career mentor. 

Now I’m getting close to 70 myself, and I cherish the link I had with the ACLU’s founding generation. I had many more mentors – in civil liberties and human rights, in philanthropy, in organizing and in politics – and have done my best to be a mentor to younger people working in the fields I know best, and to the students I’ve taught over the past 40 years. Throughout that time, I’ve constantly learned from younger people, and formed a deep belief that intergenerational connection and learning runs in both directions. 

So when CoGenerate asked me to be a Senior Fellow two years ago, I decided to focus my work on exploring and fostering cogeneration in the worlds of social justice and social change where I have spent so much of my life. 

There has always been a great deal of intergenerational learning among social justice activists – think of how generous the late Harry Belafonte was with his time and what an impact he had on several generations of civil rights leaders. But there’s been very little intentionality about it. And given the nature of social change advocacy and activists, there has often been a frustration with the generation before. It’s no secret that many organizations these days, across a number of sectors, find younger leaders demanding a reckoning over race and gender and a stronger voice in decision making.

Against this backdrop, I brought together and facilitated a few focus groups of younger and older activists, reflected on what we heard, and created a small pilot program to focus on cogeneration in the social change world. 

The pilot
The idea was to pair a younger and older leader – none of them had met one another and, in some cases, had not heard of one another – for several informal conversations, and two one-on-one sessions bookended by meetings of the whole group. Before the one-on-ones, each participant was asked to develop several questions designed to draw out what they wished to learn from the other.

The pairs were:

  • Wade Henderson, former President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Aishatu Yusuf, Vice President for Innovation at Impact Justice 
  • Austin Thompson, Senior Director of Strategy and Communications at America Achieves, and Regan Ralph, former President of the Fund for Global Human Rights 
  • Nan Aron, former President of the Alliance for Justice, and Alison McCrary, Social Justice Movement Lawyer and Restorative Justice Practitioner 
  • Samuel Rubin, Co-Founder and Impact Officer at Hollywood Climate Summit, and me.

What we hoped to learn
This stellar group came up with rich questions and areas of inquiry. Here are a few:

  • I want to learn how to manage large sums of money/donors in order to ignite positive impact and advance human rights / progressive causes, as well as mobilizing funding for social impact entertainment projects.
  • Like many people of my generation, I have been adjusting to the changed nature of the workplace, shifting power dynamics, and changing expectations. I’d love to know how you see these trends and what you think I should know about where we are and where we’re going.
  • I hope to gain a greater perspective on the younger generation’s world view on the status of American democracy and their role in helping to shape it. What’s the knowledge level of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow? How has that knowledge or lack thereof, shaped their view of contemporary America? I’d also like a better understanding of the role of their generation’s voter engagement. Why isn’t it more significant? Do they see their lack of engagement as a problem?
  • I do a lot of pro bono work and am not good at making sure I am financially okay or asking for funds for myself and accepting them. I was raised poor in rural Georgia so have a lot of material to still work through around economic class issues.  
  • I would love to learn/explore with a younger generation leader alternative ways of configuring and distributing power in organizations. From shared leadership models to organizational designs that devolve decision-making and leadership throughout organizations.
  • What habits served you well dealing with internal politics and difficult board dynamics? What mistakes did you make that you wish you could change? 
  • How did you build leadership teams. What were the characteristics of leaders that helped to move the work forward, and how did you go about deciphering if folks had those characteristics? 

5 takeaways
What did we learn from these exchanges and the connections that were made? Apart from what the participants learned in response to their specific needs, here are five broad takeaways.

  1. Older leaders have to work at making the mentoring relationship run both ways, identify some things they want to learn from younger colleagues, and be good at listening. As Nan Aron said, “I’m used to dealing with students, and going straight to ‘How can I be helpful?’” Wade Henderson said he had to strive to approach the relationship from a position of equanimity. Truth be told, younger colleagues often have that mindset too, and feed into that dynamic, so everyone involved has to push back against the default template for younger-older working relationships.
  2. Younger leaders want to understand how to sustain a social justice career across decades, maintaining a balanced life and avoiding burnout – what Aishatu Yusuf called “how to do this work while honoring yourself.”
  3. As in so many things, building relationships is important. Trust does not happen overnight, and it takes a lot of “shooting the breeze” and getting to know one another to get to a stage where both participants can approach conversations with the openness and vulnerability required. In real life, learning develops from relationships, not the version of “speed dating” our experiment offered.
  4. Older leaders are keenly aware that succeeding generations of leaders approach things quite differently, insisting on more flexible, non-traditional work arrangements, prioritizing transparency and accountability, and centering equity much more strongly. Older leaders want to understand this better, but it’s often hard to do in the sometimes charged atmosphere of the contemporary workplace.
  5. Younger leaders want access to the often rich networks and experiences of those who have led movement organizations for years. As Allison McCrary said, “Our conversations felt like a safe space to be vulnerable about what I need support on.”

We followed up on these private conversations in a webinar that I facilitated with three of the participants – Wade Henderson, Alison McCrary and Samuel Rubin – where we were also joined by CoGenerate’s Marci Alboher. You can watch it here.

What next? We’re keenly aware that this project just dipped a toe into very big waters. CoGenerate will use some of the lessons in its future programming, and some of the pairings forged here are continuing in the “real world.”  

3 more perspectives
Here are additional comments from three of the other participants in the pilot.

Austin Thompson
Senior Director of Strategy and Communications at America Achieves

It’s hard to disentangle what is the precise cause of intergenerational tensions in social change movements when they arise. Is it simply that as young activists age, grow older and gain wisdom from experience they end up becoming more like the older activist parents they once criticized? Or do major events, social contexts or technologies create characteristics that distinguish different generations through many decades? 

I think it’s more likely that generational cohorts are more heterogeneous than we often give them credit for. For example, there were many contentious debates and worldviews within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that continue in social movements today: direct action vs voting, the centrality of race or gender vs economic class, etc. Many strategic, tactical or even ideological differences are unfairly attributed to generational splits. I’ve often found that I have more in common with veteran activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) than I do with today’s young Black Lives Matter activists. 

This is not to suggest that intergenerational relationship building is unimportant. On the contrary, these relationships are invaluable to theoretical, strategic and tactical breakthroughs. Many of the major innovations in social change activism and organizing were a direct result of intergenerational dialogue and mentorship.  

I think that CoGenerate can provide a container for more structured theoretical, strategic and tactical discussions between generations that help draw out and document key themes. These discussions are mutually beneficial and enriching, as my experience in the pilot demonstrated thoroughly. 

I learned from my relationship with veterans of SNCC and conversations with Regan Ralph through CoGenerate that intergenerational dialogue can be a reservoir of powerful insight that can alter the course of history for the better. 

Regan Ralph
Former President of the Fund for Global Human Rights 

In my experience working in human rights organizations, intergenerational dynamics are often framed and experienced as issues of power. I am one of the “older social justice activists” and have seen this from both sides at different stages during my career. 

Senior leaders may feel comfortable with having organizational power based on experience and “having paid their dues,” whereas younger activists can chafe at the established ways of doing things and view those with control over decision-making with some suspicion about whose interests they prioritize. 

Given this framing, it can be difficult to create open, safe dialogues within organizations, although it is possible to build one-on-one connections across generations that allow for learning and growth. I have benefited enormously from such exchanges over the years. For  example, as a result of listening to younger colleagues, I have grown more comfortable with leaving behind some of the lessons of my early activist years in favor of doing things differently and in line with my values.

The beauty of the CoGenerate experiment with intergenerational dialogue is that it ushered us right into the kinds of conversations that often flow only from relationships built over time. It’s both the way the conversations were set up (including how each of us relates to and trusts the organizer, Gara) as well as the opportunity to talk, in my case, with someone in an adjacent but different field. Austin and I have followed different paths and landed in different kinds of organizations, and that really enriched our exploration of shared questions about living and working and making a difference.

Aishatu Yusuf
Vice President for Innovation at Impact Justice  

I attribute much of who I am and my learnings over the years to the wisdom of many who have come before me. This might, in part, be due to my rearing as a church kid, where the wisdom of our past generations was and is held in high esteem. 

Now just because the voices of older generations have often been valued over the voices of younger people doesn’t mean I have always agreed with their opinions. But it does mean that I can find some value in them. The simple truth is, age is not correlated to wisdom, and experiences are not correlated to learning. But those who have aged and decided to learn from their experiences are the elders I want to learn with and from. 

Wade Henderson is a legend. Although I had not met Wade, I very much knew of him. When paired with Wade through CoGenerate, I had to fight the urge to ask him to tell me stories of his life, his experiences and his triumphs. I wanted to know the secrets of our Black leaders, the conversation and work that never made it to the press, and the fears and feelings he had running through his body when fighting for human rights. 

But I didn’t. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, storytime will come later. With a soft voice, good vibes and a gentle spirit, Wade asked who I am, where I come from, and why I do the work I do. This allowed our entry point to be less about taking from each other. Instead, if only for a moment in time, we engaged to learn more about where and how our worlds intersect and how the intersection could offer deeper learning and connection for both of us. 

In the end, I did ask Wade how he persevered through it all, and how he and others who worked alongside him found balance. Wade was honest. He said balance was not something he felt he successfully achieved. But he did ask me to do better. He asked me to find the balance between the work I believe in and maintaining my wellbeing. Because I think Wade is both wise and experienced, I intend to do as he requested.