Building Intergenerational Movement Community

This is my third installment in a series on “freedom as a long distance struggle.” It was originally published on September 15, 2020.

In one of my recent posts, I alluded to freedom as a long distance struggle as a beautiful way of life. Part of that beauty arises from building movement community, and especially intergenerational movement community. Wherever you live, there are elders who have been in the struggle for racial justice, who you can learn from, and who you can support. Wherever you live, there are young people on fire to work for racial justice… young people who could go far if a few resources and skills were shared, or who could take it to the next level if a mentor came along. Movement history is full of mentorship; full of learning from elders; full of supporting youth: so it’s worth asking, are there elders you could learn from or support; or young people you could imagine supporting through resources, skill sharing, or mentorship? Perhaps set an intention to feel into that and imagine what that might look like for you.

Ella Baker’s deep connection to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee offers a powerful example of how central intergenerational relationship building has been in movement history. By the time of the sit-in movement in 1960, Baker had been organizing for decades and was one of the greatest grassroots organizers in the country. It was her idea to host a conference that brought the student leaders of the sit-ins taking place across the country together in one place. Baker’s plan had little to do with being a movement elder offering advice: she wanted to create a space where student leaders could build community and talk amongst themselves. In the words of historian Barbara Ransby, “The first goal was to provide those who had been directly involved in the protests the opportunity to confer, compare notes, and brainstorm about future possibilities in private,” giving them a chance to “be the principle framers of whatever organization might emerge.” Baker purposefully kept the media away from the meeting, so that these young leaders could speak authentically and wouldn’t feel the urge to grandstand for the cameras. In other words, it was an experienced movement elder who created the container from which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee emerged, and through which young people most powerfully manifested during the civil rights movement.

SNCC, however, was not so much a youth movement as an “opportunity for adults and youth to work together,” as Ella Baker put it. When the young people of SNCC devoted themselves to grassroots organizing in the most dangerous parts of the South, they did so by proactively reaching out to elders in the community. They learned from Ella Baker’s experience of organizing NAACP chapters in the South twenty years earlier: like Baker, the students spent significant time in communities in order to learn local concerns and in order to figure out not who the local Black elite were, but who the truly respected community leaders were. The youth then put themselves to the task of supporting those people… and learning from them. In other words: movement elders helped SNCC come into existence, then the young people of SNCC helped lift up local movement leaders and elders, who those youth then learned from and made movement history with.

Read any biography of any freedom fighter and you will probably find this: they had elders in their life who saw they had the right spirit and potential and who helped to lift them up. And once they gained some experience themselves, they lifted other folks up. We live in a world where so many of the opportunities for social justice seem to be not only online, but impersonal. And while it’s important to give donations and sign petitions, never forget that history is changed because people who care look around and lift up other people who care.

To close: building community, lifting up youth, and learning from and supporting elders is part of a long-term vision of justice… freedom as a long distance struggle. I’m writing about this vision right now because I think it’s important to stay grounded in the fact that high-pressure moments where people are marching in the streets are transitory. The bigger picture is much more invisible, and much more important. Movement relationships make movements and remake they world. And they’re a big part of what makes the process deeply human. Once again: freedom as a long distance struggle is a beautiful way of life. Or at least it can be.

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See my racial justice histories and resource pages at CrossCulturalSolidarity.com

Antiracist educator. Creator of racial justice resources at CrossCulturalSolidarity.com. Supported by the grassroots at https://www.patreon.com/Lynn_Burnett

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