For a brief period during my childhood, I lived in a multi-generational home that included my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother.
Despite the fact that we had all been scooped up together to love and to help care for my grandmother during her battle with cancer, there was something lovingly magical about that period. If the adults got in each other’s way, I never knew it. There was laughter, storytelling, generosity, kindness, and my great-grandmother’s daily tea and toast with orange marmalade. I experienced our ability to see and to value each other as seamless. I felt protected by their life experiences. I felt validated by their ability to see me as a full human being. In retrospect, it was intergenerational utopia.
My reflections on that period of life have informed how I think about a new idea for advancing organizations I’m calling “intergenerational generosity”.
As the leader of an historic organization dedicated to advancing opportunities for women, girls, and families here in New York, it makes sense that the YWCA of the City of New York, like many well established institutions would be vulnerable to “stagnation by honor” – meaning our process of honoring the past sometimes threatens to leave us stuck in another time period. The truth is that sometimes in our quest to honor the historical achievements and significance of an institution, we can lose sight of the importance of relevance and impact.
This is where I start humming Janet Jackson’s “What have you done for me lately?” We become so emotionally wedded to the programs, people, and stories of our past, that we cripple an organization’s ability to cultivate and nurture innovative approaches to today’s social problems. We develop a ghostly mindset – the specters of our past loom eerily over our every decision we make rather than exist as sources of inspiration and courage.
It all leads to a culture of fear and frustration. Seasoned professionals and supporters become afraid that their contributions and legacies will be lost to an enthusiastic new generation that is often so busy inventing that they appear not to be listening. Consequently, less experienced professionals begin to feel stymied and undervalued by efforts to correct and silence their viewpoints. In both cases, ego emerges more prominently than the promise of our collective efforts, and our institutions are less sustainable because of it.
Intergenerational generosity is defined as the process of courageously making room for multi-generational, multi-dimensional points of view as demonstrated by a commitment to a co-created and mutually beneficial agenda rooted in values of empathy and kindness, and the releasing of privilege.
Intergenerational generosity allows us to glance at the rearview mirror of our past, but requires us to face forward and keep moving in the direction of possibility and future impact. It means the conversation is most valuable when everyone has an authentic seat at the table; when folks are holding themselves accountable for making sure that everyone is heard; when young folks leave their tendency to be patronizing and resistant at the door; and, when sages let go of their tendency toward condescension and proselytizing.
Intergenerational generosity requires authentic collaboration, a commitment to lifelong learning, and a wholesale rejection of oppression and suppression as way to getting to yes. It recognizes that understanding the context we manage and work in can be just as important as creative problem solving. It means giving up the privilege of age – regardless of what age you are.
So what is an organization to do? At the YWCA of the City of New York, we are revamping our orientation process so that incoming team members know our “herstory,” and understand the importance of some of our signature programs. I think this is important for building a sense of shared identity and organizational pride. We are becoming more and more intentional around staffing diversity, and we making sure that it also includes generational diversity.
Our commitment to age diversity requires that we implement the value of “fit” during our searches as a way to intentionally position ourselves to welcome multiple perspectives, and not as an exclusionary exercise in youth privilege. This is an essential step. I believe that many of today’s reform efforts have had delayed social impact because “social enterprise” can be a euphemism for youth to the exclusion of experience. Less experienced teachers, social workers, and nonprofit executives lose the opportunity to gain access to wisdom and insights that only come with years of service. Seasoned professionals can find themselves pushed out of the conversations at the height of their professional acumen and maturation. Conversely, young people can be invited to give input – only to discover later that key decisions had already been decided upon. Experience in the workplace is a value-add; it shouldn’t be used as a weapon to disempower those who come later.
Additionally, as a women’s organization, the YWCA of the City of New York is also creating intentional, intergenerational spaces that allow us to think about our future impact on gender justice and equality. This requires us to acknowledge the progression of women’s equality in this country while honoring young women’s right to define the issues that have the greatest impact on their quality of life. It means no judgment – if reproductive health isn’t the most urgent gender issue of the next generation, we have to give way to new priorities while educating young women about the herstory of our struggles. We can share our past experiences, but we shouldn’t beat young professionals over the head with them.
Part of building sustainability for organizations, is allowing for new directions while making sure not to throw the baby out with the bath water. It also requires that there is relevance all along the continuum of life. I was a woman in my 20’s. I was a woman in my 30’s. I am a woman in 40’s. And, if I’m lucking enough to live a long life, I’ll still be a woman in my 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Same gender, evolving priorities. I will always need a seat at the table.