Towards Intergenerational Activism

By Robert Schwartz

I devoted over 40 years to working on children’s rights, helping to shape the field. I have been contemplating, in retirement, the role that elders play in a world that is rightly propelled by youthful energy.

Joni Mitchell appeared this summer at the Newport Folk Festival. Mitchell was on stage with younger artists who were singing her songs. The New York Times reported:

“In a culture that excessively scrutinises women as they age, or simply renders them invisible and erases their influence, it felt like a quietly radical act to honour Mitchell in this way. Younger artists got the chance to pay earnest homage to their elder; a mature woman who was not yet finished reinterpreting her life’s work reclaimed the stage.”

Does the world of art and culture have more room for intergenerational collaborations than the world of social justice?

Elders, including many of my peers, are sceptical of young activists whose agenda appears to be ahistorical. Youthful champions of justice, regardless of the field, are leery of elders whose language and experience appear like horse-drawn buggies on modern highways. Today’s social justice emphasis on youth voice and “lived experience” too often exiles elders in a way that makes intergenerational exchanges difficult, if not impossible.

On my morning walks I encounter a slogan painted on an asphalt path: “The battle for justice has just begun.” That is no doubt true for the painter, and I applaud the sentiment. At the same time, in a world in which justice has been in play for millenia, the slogan has shortcomings.

Youth are indeed experts at describing today’s injustices. Youth in many ways are better than their elders in capturing what is happening on the street. At the same time, elders who have battled for justice in earlier times have strategic experience. They have had failures and successes that are worthy of attention.

It is one thing, for example, to know what should be in a modern Bill of Rights for youth who are in care. Youth know. It is quite another to know how to get a Bill of Rights adopted. Conversely, elders’ knowledge of how to promote change in general doesn’t mean that they know what is important to change.

While young activists are fueled by the fierce urgency of now, many spend time expounding upon the right words at the expense of promising, well-developed strategies. Many elders are not quite sure whether the words they use will either signal their cluelessness or offend their young colleagues. The same word may carry different meanings for different generations.

Social activism requires humility. Every generation should respect others’ sincerely offered bad ideas and critique and build upon them. I have found too often in recent years that young colleagues shoot down ideas that I have floated in the spirit of brainstorming. Few ask, “What do you mean by the words you are using?” I often commit a similar sin when I fail to probe what my younger friends mean.

Socrates was better at probing. He was executed because, Plato tells us in “The Apology,” the Senate considered Socrates to be a corrupt influence on the young. Athenian youth welcomed Socrates’s methods, even though he asked questions that punctured their youthful certainties. I’ve often wondered whether today’s youth would be so welcoming of a Socrates in their presence.

We learned from Harry, Hermione and Ron that every generation must take its turn in the fight against evil. Young people like them are appropriately on today’s front lines. Their cutting-edge activism opens countless possibilities for a better world. 

The Battle of Hogwarts, however, was not the first engagement in the wizardry war, and it was not won by students alone. Teachers and parents had taught them skills and values. Elders generated the protective enchantments that gave students a bit more time to organise. Yes, it was the young who triumphed, but Hogwarts’s elders were hardly marginal.

Mutual respect allows for different generations to humbly listen to and challenge each other. There are useful questions that can lubricate dialogue. On what issue(s) have you chosen to work, and why? What strategies have you chosen, and which have you rejected? Why? What short and long-term outcomes are you seeking?

Joni Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now” when she was 23. She is older now, and the lyrics have different meanings for her than they do for the young singers who cover her song. Yet at Newport Mitchell and younger musicians performed together. Although Mitchell sang lead on only a few songs, it was her voice and presence that mattered. The Times reporter observed, “[t]here was an intergenerational tenderness to the performance . . .”

The battle for justice is ongoing. There is no reason that young and old activists cannot sing the songs of justice together.

Robert Schwartz co-founded the Juvenile Law Center in the United States in 1975. It was the first multi-issue public interest law firm for children in the country. During his time, he represented children in courts; brought class-action litigation over institutional conditions and probation functions; testified in Congress before House and Senate committees; and spoke in over 30 states on matters related to children and the law. He travelled internationally to advise on juvenile justice laws, chaired numerous committees on juvenile justice and published extensively. He was executive director from 1982-2015, when he retired. He is now a Visiting Scholar at Temple University Beasley School of Law and the chair of the Advisory Committee to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. More about his work here.