On November 12, 200 Elders (50+) and Youngers (16-28) from around the metro area gathered in the Great Hall of Coffman Union to launch an intergenerational community-building movement, an event held in conjunction with the Positive Aging Conference at the University of Minnesota. Participants gathered to set up Community Earth Councils grouped by location in the metro area, and began to assess local needs, envisioning how to heal, steward, and sustain the earth.
“As a country, we can change the course of events,” said co-presenter Dr. Mary Jo Kreitzer of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. “We need both Youngers and Elders to make change happen in service to the environment.”
CECs train participants, both young and old, in the arts of council, mentoring, and social entrepreneurship; discussing common interests and concerns; inspiring participants to create solutions to social and environmental problems; and linking to worthy organizational partners, according to the Utne Institute. Each Community Earth Council is a blend of Youngers and Elders committed for nine months to a year to work together in community.
“I hope and dream that this is the start of something that will spread all over the world,” said presenter Eric Utne of the Utne Institute. “This is the epicenter – a concentration of Earth Councils.”
Community Earth Councils provide a new way of working across generations toward the common good. The concept was inspired by “The Elders” project announced by Nelson Mandela on July 18, 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa. A collection of elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights activists including Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Peter Gabriel, formed a “Global Elder” council intended to connect those who have practical needs to those who have solutions.
Jan Hively, founder of the Vital Aging Network, believes we need to name and claim our elderhood. “We need to change the narrative we’ve been telling of deficit, getting more frail and elderly,” Hively said. “Here we can focus on the plusses, strengths and assets of our wisdom and experience.”
One of the primary roles of elder councils in traditional cultures was helping young people identify and affirm their unique gifts and find their place in the community. Hively believes in the power of the group, that reciprocity between Elders and Youngers is a natural. Timothy den Herder-Thomas, student activist, says “Whenever I’ve created a new program, it is the fusion of youthful vision with the skill and understanding of older people that makes it work.”
Den Herder-Thomas has found that every relationship he has had with an older mentor has helped and changed his approach to activism. “Coalitions of youth don’t know how to sustain themselves, run a business or a non-profit,” he said. “They ask, ‘Where are all the old people! We need their help!’” He also hears from Elders in other venues “Where are all the young people! We can’t do this alone!”
“As the world comes crashing down through war and global warming, we don’t have the luxury not to act,” said Carmen Price, leader of the SE Como Community Earth Council (Age 20). “I am amazed at the passion and idealism of my generation, even though we’ve been raised in an era of cynicism. Community Earth Councils are a great way to learn more about each other as people, a way that we can take up projects for the betterment of our communities.”
“Are you saved – in a computer sense?” asked presenter Dr. Rick Moody of AARP. “Have you started doing your legacy work, downloading what you know to others?”
Karen Engelsen is a writer living in Minneapolis.