Forward: Older, Wiser, Back for More

Since he left the magazine in 2000, founder Eric Utne has taught meditation to people diagnosed with terminal illness, been the seventh- and eighth-grade class teacher at a Minneapolis Waldorf school, published Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, and served on several boards, including the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Now, by his count, he has “about 27 plates spinning”–including one that revolves around bridging our generational divide, which he writes about here.

Have you ever noticed that the word elder evokes something close to revulsion among baby boomers, especially when it’s applied to them? Go ahead and try it on people between the ages of 44 and 62 (born between 1946 and 1964). Ask them something like “What’s the elder perspective on campaign finance reform?” Or “Have you and your elder friends discovered Grand Theft Auto, Stephen Colbert, or Facebook yet?” Or “What’s it like to be an elder today when your mantra used to be ‘Never trust anyone over 30’?”

Well . . . I’m 62, an elder if you will, and proud of it. My aim is to redeem the word elder–an archetypal social type, essential to any vibrant, sustainable community.

In most traditional and indigenous societies, elders played important roles, from initiating youth to advising or even guiding the community. The Iroquois Confederacy, organized around five prominent Native American tribes, relied on elder participation in community councils more than 300 years before the Declaration of Independence. Each council member, who was appointed for life and served at the pleasure of the clan’s mothers and grandmothers, was charged with considering all sides of a discussion or dispute, always seeking consensus.

Given the serious social, political, and economic challenges we face in the coming years, I’ve been heartened to see that the spirit of this Iroquois tradition is making a comeback.

On July 18, 2007, Nelson Mandela announced the formation of a group called The Elders. The idea for this group was brought to him by entrepreneur/adventurer Richard Branson and recording artist Peter Gabriel. According to Branson, since the world is now a global village, “it’s time we had our global village elders.” Among the group are Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Aung San Suu Kyi, Muhammad Yunus, and several others.

“This group derives its strength not from political, economic, or military power, but from [its members’] independence and integrity,” Mandela says. “They can help foster and introduce innovative ideas and little-known solutions to connect those who have real practical needs with those who have something to give.”

I believe that every city, town, and village in the world needs its own council of elders. Building on the success of Utne Reader‘s neighborhood salon movement, which began in the early 1990s, I’m joining my colleagues at the Utne Institute–a think tank unaffiliated with the magazine–to launch Community Earth Councils, which will connect elders (age 50+) with “youngers” (16-28) to address global social and environmental challenges at the local level.

We believe that solutions to the world’s most intractable problems will begin to emerge when young and old throughout North America are enabled to cultivate the arts of council, mentoring, and social entrepreneurship. What’s more, we’re confident that these intergenerational collaborations will transform participants’ lives and revitalize their communities by linking people to worthy projects, resources, and organizational partners from around the globe.

Several councils already have formed in and around my hometown. In late 2007 the Linden Hills Community Earth Council came together in an old Masonic lodge above the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis. Another Campus Earth Council was established at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. And several more councils formed in Minneapolis last summer. Our goal is to launch between 50 and 100 councils in the next few months–and 500 across North America by the end of 2009.

No matter how old (or young) you are, I hope you’ll join me by creating a Community Earth Council on your campus or in your neighborhood.

We’ll talk again soon. It’s good to be back.

The Community Earth Council’s board of advisers includes authors Paul Hawken and Frances Moore Lappé; vital-aging experts Rick Moody, Richard Leider, and Jan Hively; and explorer Will Steger. For ideas about organizing a Community Earth Council, visit www.EarthCouncils.org.
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