Elders, youth and the environment– we are in this together
by Diana Ellis
The Suzuki Elders are a voluntary group of self-identified elders working with, and through, the David Suzuki Foundation. At the core of the Suzuki Elders purpose statement is this: “We mentor, encourage and support other elders and the younger generations in dialogue and action on the environment.” For the past three years we’ve put considerable energy into making specific links with youth.
We’ve learned a few things along the way – about working with youth, and about our role as Suzuki Elders in engaging with them.
Our Elder experience in the HOW of working WITH youth
“With” is the key word here.
First – we go to where youth are – Facebook, social media, their marches, conferences, workshops. We show up. That’s where we start to make the connections and linkages. And we follow up – be a friend on Facebook, read what they are doing and reporting, keep in touch. We look for one or two youth who really want to work with us and connect firmly with them. They always know others, and that’s how the team grows.
Youth tell us that, for many, the reason for getting involved in environmental and other social justice issues is first about getting connected with others, being in community with friends, being social. So we make sure our time together offers those opportunities.
We know that, developmentally, age 16 (Grade 10 in Canada) is typically the time when many young people start thinking more about the outside world, about social justice, about personal action. We connect with that age group and stay linked with them as they move through Grades 11 and 12, while consistently cultivating new contacts at the Grade 10 level.
When setting up discussion groups with youth and elders, we find small groups work best, i.e. small groups of 3-5. As nervy and brave as some youth are, there are many others still working to find their own voice and that is usually best found in a small group setting. We elders remember how powerful those moments of personal voice-finding are, so we build small group opportunities into workshops, conference and seminars.
We remember that younger people have different learning preferences and take that into account in our planning.
“I don’t want to go to workshops where someone stands up and talks for an hour, and then I have to go home and remember what was said. I want to talk, to interact, to have some hands on experience – to be able to go home with some tangible learning” (Youth workshop attendee).
Timing is important. Youth are in school during the day and many of them work on the weekends. What works best for elder/youth meetings are those scheduled for late afternoon/after school or early evening meetings, or Sundays. We’ve done it all.
Food works! Snacks disappear! Share a light dinner for an after-school or early evening meeting. Plan a Saturday morning brainstorming session with juice, fruit, cheese.
Respect works! Youth emphatically ask us not to put down or make light of their use of social media. Social media is their way, they are very comfortable in that realm and it works. Further to that, Suzuki Elders ask for and accept youth’s help with social media, technology, websites etc. They know so much more than we do.
Support works! We support the environmental action that youth are already taking on. We tell them “we have your backs.” We elders do not, ever, wag our fingers and say youth should do their environmental activities differently, that what they are thinking is wrong-headed or not enough.
“I think that environmentalism needs to be seen as necessary and enriching, not just a duty. Unless we think of it that way there’ll be just a small group of people working on it” (Youth retreat participant).
“I think there’s a stigma around the term environmentalism – I prefer the term sustainability” (Youth retreat participant).
Listening works! We’ve learned to listen first, listen second, listen third. Probe with care. Listen again.
What we’ve learned about our own role as elders working with youth
Suzuki Elders ask ourselves: “What is our reason for working with youth on any given project or initiative?” Does it fit with our purpose to motivate, encourage and support?
When working with youth we quell our own personal desires to be heard out there in the public world because in this case we aren’t looking for the podium for ourselves, we are reaching out to bridge the generational divide. If we are audacious enough to think we should speak on behalf of children and youth, we question what our motivation is in doing so. Is it because we can sometimes reach an audience they cannot? Is this useful? And does what we say reflect how youth feel?
We’ve learned that our work with youth is not about us, it is about them. What elders bring to the table is our story, and our ability to reflect on and describe what we call “the long view.”
We’ve learned that youth do want to hear our stories – about our lives and what we’ve done – and those “long view” reflections. We’ve learned that these stories are best shared in some activity and context. For example, when organizing a workshop together, we don’t say how something should be done, instead, we might tell an “I remember when…” story. Teachable moments are not always obvious, in fact, perhaps the best teachable moments are the ones we never realized were teachable. However, we’ve also learned our longer experience in planning and evaluation can be brought forward in the detail work…the “don’t forget about” list. We usually offer some assistance in making that list!
Importantly, as elders, we remember to be patient. Youth are busy and often preoccupied with other interests, not the least of which is their own schooling. They may not respond to our e-mails as quickly as needed. Sometimes consistent patient elder prompting is required.
Our Suzuki Elder work with youth is to mentor, support and encourage. We remind ourselves that as elders we are not their (school) teachers, we are not their parents, in most cases, we are not even their grandparents. We don’t teach, we don’t direct, we don’t chastise, we don’t even hold out expectations.
“I want a way to think about things, rather than what to think…” (Youth planning session participant).
We remind ourselves of the truism that no one can empower anyone else. People can only empower themselves. What we can do as elders is help create opportunities for youth to empower themselves.
What we’ve learned about youth from working with them
Youth are fearless in the way we were fearless when we were younger. It is powerful stuff.
“In terms of doing something (about the environment) I thought, “If not me, who else will do it?” (Youth roundtable discussant)
“By Grade 10 I was going to rallies, doing flash mobs. Then I began to realize how important politics is to change. I got involved in a youth action group and made a film on climate action.” (Youth retreat participant).
The youth we work with on environment and sustainability matters are bright and quick. They know a lot about this topic, and from angles that often differ from ours. Outside the box thinking! It is exciting to go there with them.
“I have always found the root of the problems of the world as the environment – I want people to see the inter-relationship of social justice and the environment” (Youth retreat participant.)
And, we are mindful of our different realities because of age.
“The future is mine … not yours…” (Youth retreat participant).
Dealing with hope, fear and despair
The youth we engage with on environment and sustainability always want to talk about hope – usually first. We find that closing any discussions, conferences, workshops and talks on a theme of practical hopefulness is more likely to lead to action, to personal commitment, as well as to gaining a sense of comfort and inclusion.
Fears emerge further on, sometimes with gentle prompting. The times when youth confide their fears about the future to us are important – and moving – moments of discussion.
“I feel hopeful when I see lots of people marching in the street – makes me know there are others working on this and makes me feel less alone.” (Youth in small group discussion).
“I am actually scared about the future – scared we won’t have enough time to fix this…but when I attend events like this I get hopeful.” (Youth conference attendee)
“My fears are that the issues will disempower us” (Youth discussion group participant).
“I feel like we, the youth of today, have lots of worries already. Adding one other worry regarding the environment is an EXTRA – and youth don’t have the (personal) resources to deal with that extra worry” (Youth retreat participant).
Indeed, just like adults, some youth do not have the resources to deal with extra worries, or their resources are fragile. We know of young people depressed about the future – some even in despair. This concerns us deeply, and makes us review the way we, as Suzuki Elders, talk with youth about the environment, sustainability, the way ahead and adaptation.
We know reality must be acknowledged, that we cannot easily paint a rosy picture of the future. While we believe it is an elder’s responsibility to speak truth, we frame these discussions in a way that does not leave people, especially the young, without hope. One of our Suzuki Elders said recently, “It is not so much about what we say, but how well we listen (to youth).” Another noted that “by our own example, we show there is hopefulness in action.”
We elders know from our life experience in other movements – peace, anti-poverty, civil rights, women’s, anti-nuclear – that every effort counts, be it small or large, individual or collective. What we say to youth, and all, is simply this – that every day, we can each do everything we can, to move the environmental and sustainability agenda forward.
What youth and elders get from intergenerational environmental work together
For Youth: because Suzuki Elders ask youth for their perspective, working with us has provided them with an opportunity to practice, to test themselves, to show leadership, to get on the podium, to shine. Because we have worked with them, we are able, when asked, to provide letters of reference. Perhaps most importantly, youth know that we will listen and hear them….and that we have their backs.
For Suzuki Elders: we are reminded of the richness and privilege of working with the younger generation. Our knowledge and skills are valued by them and this valuation is as important for we elders as it is for youth. The technical support youth share with us is needed and useful. Finally, and this is no small thing – from the commitment and curiousity of youth we elders receive infusions of hope and inspiration.