Our call for eldership
Over the past year, an amazing community of support has grown around the RYSE here in Stroud. We have been super grateful for the generosity of local people who have offered access to free spaces, resources, veg boxes, advice and friendship making our work possible! But for our November dinner and discussion, we decided to ask for more, and invite our supportive olders to consider 'what would it mean to become the elders that our community needs?'
So what is eldership, and why the hell does a radical youth educational project care about what old people are doing?
In this blog I’m going to explain some of our thoughts around the importance of eldership, before describing what happened during the intergenerational witnessing space which we held at the Trinity Rooms last month…
The RYSE was founded to address fundamental issues we were experiencing in the UK youth climate movement. Groups we had been involved with previously (especially Extinction Rebellion and UK Student Climate Network) struggled with internal conflicts, lack of organisational clarity, high turnover, as well as unhealthy working cultures precipitating in burnout. In order for our work to be effective, we thought, it is essential that young people figure out ways of being in socially sustainable, long-term forms of resistance and change making…after all we have a whole lifetime of fighting for justice ahead of us!
Throughout history, people have existed in communities surrounded by and in relationship with people of different ages. Yet most young adults today are disconnected from place based long-lasting communities, as we move away to go to uni and work to become anonymous (often lonely) individuals in cities. One of the key dynamics we saw in youth activist spaces was the replication of individualist culture and a lack of commitment and accountability. We think that disconnection, and our fading ability to relate is at the root of the social, political and ecological crises we are facing today- and therefore solutions must start with remembering and practising interdependence.
As RYSE we decided that we needed to resist social and ecological injustice from a place-based community, remembering and existing with the loved ones and the loved places we fight for. We think there is much to learn from the resistance histories of the colonised peoples where communities have sustained resistance to ecocide and genocide for generations. For 500 years in Abya Yala (the so-called Americas), communities’ purpose has been to protect their lands and culture and ensure their peoples’ survival. Our communities in the Global North seem to lack this survival instinct - worse, we are building and exporting a suicidal culture which is undermining the very basis of all life on Earth… Social movements in the Global North which seek to fight capitalism and neo-colonialism must not replicate the dynamics which caused these crises in the first place- such as short-term and individualist thinking- rather, we must undo them.
So what does all this have to do with eldership? In earth-based cultures, the role of ‘elders’ is to pass on wisdom about how to live with the world: how to sustain a community, both socially and ecologically. Elders should know how to resist destructive potentials in human nature, how to organise society and connect a community to a broader sense of time and meaning. In England we have all but lost our connection to this form of ancestral wisdom, and the times when we lived in respectful relationships on these lands is far beyond living memory. The older people we have to look to for ‘eldership’ are the ‘baby boomers’, whose lives were defined by capitalism. Therefore, the ways they know and the advice they give to their children and grand-children about how to survive in the world- for example “get a stable career as a hedge fund manager”- will not give us security because the finance system is literally destroying the planet and their grandchildrens’ very basis for survival (not to mention family around the world who are dying now)… So just as we at RYSE are stepping into the role which we think young people ought to play in a healthy society (bringing imagination, passion and drive for radical change), we need older people to step into their rightful role. This will be a difficult task because many adults never had real eldership themselves, so they don’t have a frame of reference. Our only choice if we are to survive this polycrisis is to be imaginative! To make it up as we go along and learn by trying. As they say "we make the road by walking”...
This was the framing I gave to introduce the RYSE dinner and discussion evening in November. I co-hosted the session with Jo McAndrews, psychotherapist, environmental campaigner and mother whose work revolves around radical nurture and cultures of care. Jo and I got to know each other well in the weeks preceding the event by sharing long walks, conversations and voice notes about eldership, change making and our lives in general. These exchanges were both nourishing and sparky, and set a strong foundation of trust, allyship and motivation for the session. We agreed that a foundational part of supportive eldership is the ability to listen and witness. So Jo and I held a listening space for the group as an intergenerational pair. A dozen young people sat together in a circle, surrounded by an outer circle of about twenty older people. The olders (as yet uninitiated ‘elders’) were instructed to simply to witness the young people, while the young people were given space to answer two questions: “What have been your experiences interacting with older people around the state of the world?” and “What are you longing for in your relationships with older people?”. The young people had up to two minutes to speak to the space whatever came to mind for each of the questions…
"What have been your experiences interacting with older people about the state of the world?"
The first question brought up frustration and sadness. People spoke to a misalignment in assumptions about the trajectory of young peoples’ lives. There was grief about the promised life of having a stable career, owning a home, having a family... which for different young people was either unattainable, undesirable or immoral, given the state of multiple social and ecological crises we live in. People said that they felt older people tended to be either naively optimistic and living in denial, or completely cynical and nihilistic- neither of which are helpful for navigating the complexities and struggles of our lives. There was anger about the passivity of older people, who will often say to young people trying to do something about the existential polycrisis we are facing “well done, good for you”, “someone has to do it”, “wow you’re so inspiring, you give me hope”, “I can rest easy knowing your generation have got it covered”. This felt to the participants like an abandonment, and an abdication of responsibility. Young people want the older people in our lives in this struggle with us. We want older people who understand how much change needs to happen and collaborate with and support us to be the best, most authentic and defiant versions of ourselves. Yet many simply experience being tokenised, fetishised or held back- being told to “slow down” and be “less radical” for fear our mental health might be impacted by involvement in activism.
"What are you longing for in your relationships with older people?"
The second question gave the young people space to think about what real eldership might look like. The group said they longed for wisdom and for elder figures in their lives who displayed actual emotional maturity and self awareness. We wanted mentorship relationships with elders full of experience and expertise in skills and occupations which served resistance, life and thriving- not just money making. Young people also wanted spaces to be held in their pain, to be listened to, witnessed in their struggles, and supported through them by older people. People wished for their elders to be more open, curious and humble in their interactions with the younger generation. We also longed for elders who are brave, angry and defiant. We wished for a willingness to get uncomfortable; and a willingness to be changed.
Speaking to our peers and being witnessed by the older people gave the young people a unique opportunity to say things to representatives of the older generation which we’d never had the opportunity to express before. It was a moving experience for both groups and the energy in the room reflected it. The circle was closed by Jo, who recounted some of the key things she heard in our testimonies back to the youth circle, asking the rest of the olders to raise their hands if they had understood similar things. The olders were invited to finish by making a gesture or posture with their bodies, which reflected to the young people the emotions which they had witnessed. These ranged from heads in hands to hands thrown in the air in exasperation.
We debriefed in small circles about how we had found the experience, remaining in age-differentiated groups. To finish we came together as one big group and did some short drama games to dissipate the energy. The evening ended with an invitation to the olders to respond to the calls the young people had made, and start the journey to become true elders… We are excited to say that a small group of committed olders in the community are already discussing how to respond to the session. We hope that in the New Year the beginnings of an eldership circle will be forming in Stroud!
Thanks for reading! I hope this sparked something in you! No matter your age, if you have thoughts and feelings about eldership, or you long for better intergenerational relationships in your life, then this is an invitation to start a conversation!! Have a chat with family, friends, neighbours- listen to each others experiences, and be brave to ask for what you long for!
P.S if you want to support us to make more community magic like this happen in 2023, then please donate to our winter crowdfunder, we depend on people like you to make this work possible!