Co-Mentorship: Working for Equality Across Age

Suzanne Pharr February 25th, 2008

A few years ago, people in nonprofit organizations and foundations suddenly faced the idea that older activists were “aging out” and younger people would be needed at the heart of movement work. What followed were countless gatherings to discuss “intergenerational work,” “transitioning leadership,” “youth organizing and leadership development,” etc., etc. The funding followed the trend.

My take on this situation in general has been that too much talking is taking place between people who have not worked across generations, side by side. For two generations, young people have told me that there were few opportunities for them to grow and have leadership in social change organizations. They complained that older activists began most conversations with references to “back in the day.” Older activists told me that this new generation is not engaged, is unwilling to work hard, looks for entertainment instead of the development of ideas and strategy. As one solution, people began putting an emphasis on youth organizing as well as adjunct youth groups in organizations led by older people.

Neither approach has worked well as a means of multi-generational work.

What has worked best for me, as a 68 year old organizer, is the practice of co-mentorship. Because those of younger generations grew up in very different conditions from those I experienced in rural Georgia in the 40s and 50s, I am educated daily by hearing about their life experiences and the skills they acquired. In return, I share what I know to be true as viewed through a different generational (and perhaps race/class/gender) lens. We mentor each other through this moment, this present day that requires complex understanding and skills. Here’s what I know; tell me what you know—how can we figure this out together?

This co-mentorship works for me both in my large, multi-generational family as well as in my social change work. A large number of the people I strategize and organize with are under 30. Were it not for this co-mentorship, I would not be writing on a blog at this moment. It was smart young activists who, over a period of several resistant years, pushed me to do it. And how else would I have learned what I know about trans lives, issues and concerns? About the shifting forms of race and gender? And what would ever have motivated me to do text messaging on a regular basis?

Co-mentorship is a gift that is offered all of us every day. It requires only the fundamental belief that we are all people of worth, possessing a wide variety of experiences and skills. Its methods are asking questions and listening intently and respectfully for the answers. Where it leads us is toward the sometimes illusive dream of equality and justice—which can contain all our best ideas without requiring an age i.d.

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