An Open Letter to Young Activists: A Gen Xer Weighs in on Baby Boomers v. Gen Y

I just read the discussion on Rosetta Thurman's excellent blog about “Does Generation Y Discriminate Against Baby Boomers? Or Is It the Other Way Around?” As a Gen-Xer, I'm supposedly in the middle, though I'm sometimes the young one or the old one, depending on the crowd.

A number of people commenting on Rosetta's blog felt that 20 somethings get the short end of the stick. I don't see it as that simple.

When I was in my 20's, most older colleagues were respectful and encouraging, seeking my input and ideas. Some, however, assumed that I was only there for the lowest skilled tasks. In practical terms I knew it didn't make sense for someone with much more skill and experience to do the mailings. I just needed a balance between the "tasks" and substantive projects, and some respect along the way.

Flash forward to me at 42. I can now see there were things I didn't understand in my twenties, such as how much experience matters. It's through trial and error that we learn our biggest lessons, at work or in life. That doesn't mean young leaders aren't important and shouldn't get support, but sometimes experience gets dismissed way too quickly. Just ask Craig Ferguson.

I value the input of younger colleagues because I value people of ALL ages. I love working with children, actually, because they have so much to say that adults need to hear. I also love talking with people much older than I am, especially activists. It's humbling to hear what they've done under circumstances I can barely imagine. And I think that's what matters -- that we don't dismiss each other no matter where we fall on the age spectrum.

Most of my younger colleagues have been talented, hardworking people who also respect experience. As a boss, I actively seek their input while trying to be the best mentor I can. I want them to have it a little easier than I did. I've been rewarded with long relationships with wonderful social change advocates years after we worked together. 

The other, much smaller group, has usually been recent graduates who mistake a degree with knowing a lot. Studying is valuable, but no degree prepares you for a cantankerous member of Congress or a hard to please donor. These young people sometimes have good ideas, or they have terrible ideas that they won't let go of, convinced that the rest of us are dismissing them out of ageism. I've had entitled young activists expect funding for projects just because they deemed them important. (If only it was that easy!) I've had interns tell me how to do my job. I've had entry level staff whine about being "unfulfilled" or bored. I've seen young board members insist that a physician's social change organization should broaden its mission to include anything that medical students would want to work on -- anything!

I find that younger people sometimes don't understand key things about the older people they critique. One is that we haven't forgotten what it's like to be your age. Another is that for every dull task you hate, we have financials to read at 10pm or board conference calls on weekends. The Executive Director wants you to copy those board packets because her time is better spent solving a fundraising crisis that's been keeping her up at night.

Also, most of us have worked our tails off and would like some respect for it. And women or people of color or anyone who experiences bias has worked especially hard. The older the person you're talking about, the harder they've had it, often in ways the youngest people can't fathom. (My stepmother got asked in a job interview what kind of birth control she used, which was perfectly legal at the time.) Women, in particular, have huge challenges in getting into leadership positions and in making work-family choices -- all for less money and respect than male colleagues get. Sure, we higher ups have some of the more interesting work. But we didn't start out there, and it's not all fun. Actually, the higher up you go, the more pressure you have.

Bottom line: If you really want to be a leader, then be one. Make yourself indispensable. Study your organization from every angle and develop the skills that will give you the biggest boost. Learn how to raise funds. When you want to suggest change, listen carefully and then craft the best approach. That's how you'll need to approach policymakers, the media and funders, anyhow. Develop relationships with people like me who are eager to work with you. And if your organization isn't going to make the changes you need anytime soon, find a new one or start your own. Keep looking for new opportunities everywhere, and remember that the best ones often take you in unexpected directions.

Basically, do the very thing your older colleagues did before you.

How Twitter Is Making Me a Better Advocate for Change: The Basics

I frequently get asked why I like Twitter. With so much information already available online, how is it any different from the plethora of websites, news feeds and email alerts already out there?

First of all, by using key words or by following organizations or people, I choose what shows up onscreen. If I want to know what my favorite advocacy organizations are saying about a vote in Congress, I go right to their feeds to see their reactions. Or I can check for postings from the writers and news outlets I respect the most, whether they are large media outlets or a one-person shop.

I can also use keywords to see what any Twitter users are saying about a topic. For example, say I want information about the upcoming Copenhagen summit on climate change. When I search for “Copenhagen,” here's what I learn from the first 10 results, without even clicking on their links:

1. Lots of people are supporting Al Gore's call for President Obama to go to Copenhagen.
2. An organization called ePals is hosting a contest for kids to submit ideas for Copenhagen.
3. A Manchester Guardian newspaper story is getting picked up by lots of Twitter users who follow climate change issues.

What does Google bring up in its first 10 results?
1. Maps of the city of Copenhagen
2. Travel sites
3. Copenhagen Tobacco sites
4. A grouping of three news articles about the summit.

So while Google brings up some useful information, I had to dig to find it, and it was all from major news outlets. If I want to find more about advocacy initiatives or see what is resonating with people concerned about the environment, Twitter is the better choice.

One of my favorite Twitter moments was the outpouring from British users defending their National Health Service from attacks in the US healthcare reform debate. The flood of messages with the tag #WeLoveNHS continued for hours, with one person after another giving describing how their or their loved ones' lives had been saved by NHS. Some people posted links to articles in the UK that I would have otherwise missed. The messages gave me some really useful talking points when speaking to Americans about their system and ours, and many of the stories were quite moving.

So while Twitter can feel like still more information when we're already overloaded, it's often better information than what I find elsewhere.

What has been useful for you on Twitter?

Next time: How Twitter can take you into the halls of Congress.

When "Nobody" Matters: Seeing the Unseen

The South Bronx, the Marshall Islands, Palestine. . .

These locations may seem unrelated, but they have something important in common. The people who live there have been referred to as "nobody." What do I mean?

Gentrifiers in places like the South Bronx and other urban locations often say things like "before I moved in, nobody would move there," as if they were building a cabin on uninhabited land. Some even call themselves "urban pioneers." And we often hear "Nobody would drive through that part of town!" when referring to a high crime area. In either case, the speakers mean to say nobody like them, but instead they don't acknowledge that the residents even exist.

And the Marshall Islands? The US carried out dozens of nuclear bomb tests in these Pacific islands despite the safety threat to communities downwind. The result was severe health problems, babies born so deformed that they didn't look human, and islands rendered uninhabitable. Children even played in the fallout as if it were snow. While those carrying out the tests knew what was happening, far away on the mainland the test area was seen as an exotic location where "nobody" lived. Indeed, the tests on Bikini Atoll inspired the name for the famous swimsuit. Quite a contrast to the devastation the islanders experienced.

How does Palestine fit in? Several years ago I saw a thought-provoking play by Jewish-American actors about the complexity of criticizing Israel's policy toward Palestine while still being deeply connected to one's Jewish heritage. As this is not my background, it was interesting to watch the play depict childhood Hebrew school lessons about how Israel was founded on empty land where "nobody" lived.

One of the most important roles nonprofits play is drawing attention to people who are unseen, whether they be the poor, an oppressed minority group, or the "enemy" during violent conflict. Injustice flourishes when no one no one is watching. Or, as with Israel and Palestine and many other conflicts, stories told on both sides perpetuate misinformation or even foster hate. Finding common ground during violent conflict is difficult, to say the least, but exaggerating differences or ignoring important information makes it even harder to bring an end to bloodshed.

Of course, we must think carefully about our own work and our own assumptions. Whom do we overlook? What information do we ignore? Years ago youth organizers from across town told me that nobody from my area cared about reproductive rights, so they turned down my offer to help them publicize an event. And while I like to think that I don't have these blind spots, I certainly do. Political affiliation can be one of them. I catch myself lumping people together because of their political affiliation, assuming that nobody from that group could be an ally in my work.

So as advocates for change, we need to consider -- who are our nobodies?