Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

The Transformative Power of Intergenerational Activism

By Lyn Mikel Brown — January 03, 2017 5 min read
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CORRECTED

Lyn Mikel Brown, Professor of Education at Colby College and cofounder of the girl-fueled organization, SPARK Movement, has been greatly affected by her time working together with youth. Her newest book, Powered By Girl, is a field guide for supporting youth activists. Today she shares what she has learned as well as some tips and strategies. Join the author on Twitter on Thursday, January 5 at 8pmET to explore this topic in-depth. Just type in #GlobalEdChat to participate!

As adults, we don’t think much about the “inter” in intergenerational activism. We talk a lot about what we do for youth—the support we give, the sense of perspective we offer, the resources and contacts we provide, the conditions we create—but not so much about what we learn from youth, and how we are challenged, affirmed, and transformed by our interactions with them.

Below are eight things I have learned from working with youth as, together, we try to create a world that’s more sustainable, equitable, and just.


  1. Learning to improvise. It is the nature of youth to try new things. As an adult who has settled into life, I struggle to remain vulnerable and flexible in the face of change. It’s a challenge to stay open, to be inquisitive, to admit uncertainty. But work with youth is inherently unpredictable. Engaging in activist work with youth has made me more observant, more flexible, and more comfortable with not knowing. I have learned to value—and practice—youthful improvisation.
  2. The dangers of adultism. As adults, we’ve learned a lot over time about the culture of power. We have lots of advice to give about how to get around institutional barriers and, when things get hard, it’s easy to take over. I’ve learned the dangers of adultism—the belief that we know more, that we are better than young people and therefore entitled to act upon them or for them without their agreement. The more I do intergenerational activism, the more I know and trust youth, the easier it is for me to step back, let go, and allow for creative solutions.
  3. Finding a voice in new media. Those who are under 18 have been told in all kinds of ways that their voices don’t really matter, that they are not yet full citizens, that they have few skills and little expertise. Learning from youth about digital media and social networking has been a way to honor their knowledge and has opened me up to ways of seeing and being that has profoundly altered my own worldview. I’ve come to appreciate all the ways youth put media out in the world with the hope of changing the world, from videos and blogs to guerrilla commentary on offensive marketing campaigns. From this vantage point, I’ve come to respect their creativity and capacity to alter the social and political landscape. I’ve also learned the power of playfulness and satire.
  4. Asking genuine questions. I’ve learned it’s okay not to know the answers. It’s good to be curious—to ask youth questions I have yet to answer for myself; questions that encourage us to think together creatively and get beneath the surface of platitudes, stereotypes, and generalizations. Good questions structure reflection and invite analysis, Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen suggests. They invite us to dig deep, to get to the bottom of things. Cultivating such critical thinking skills has become especially important as we confront the dangers of fake news.
  5. Leaving the bubble. According to director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media Ethan Zuckerman, working with youth protects me from the increased tendency across our society to interact only with people we’ve chosen to interact with; to live in “filter bubbles,” so to speak. Intergenerational work moves adults out of our comfortable, predictable orbit and more frequently into spaces that invite serendipity and creativity. When I’m working with youth, I am far more likely to connect across time and space to learn from experiences unlike my own.
  6. Staying Woke. Working with youth demands attention to current social movements and crises, like Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, the Dakota Pipeline protests, threats to reproductive freedom. I’m more likely to live in the present, to feel anger, to grapple with loss, to note signs of hope. I find myself seeking information from those much younger than I am—voices, video, commentary. I jump at resources like When We Fight We Win that help us feel connected and offer the possibility of moving forward together. As a result, I’m more informed, more awake, and more prepared to act.
  7. The Power of Stories. We all live somewhat atomized lives, but youth are especially pressed to move from place to place—home to school, classroom to classroom, activity to activity. So there’s something powerfully deep and settling about a story. When 27-year-old Ugandan LGBTQ and human rights activist Clare Byarugaba arrived at my college for a semester’s reprieve from violence, our high school Gay-Straight Alliance invited her to a meeting. Time seemed to stand still as she described rejection, death threats, the fear of being arrested, and through it all, the footholds secured by love and loyalty. Feminist teacher Ileana Jiménez has her high school students write and share their personal stories through a feminist intersectional lens as a way to know each other, build community, and as a way to understand more deeply how they contribute to and benefit from systems of oppression.
  8. Staying emotionally present. Intergenerational activism is relationally hard. Because we are questioning things as they exist and imagining things as if they could be otherwise, this work not only expands our view of the world, it stretches us and demands that we stay emotionally present. There are highs and lows, tears of joy, and bitter disappointment. And there is so much love and gratitude for the allies who stand with us through it all.

We are facing wicked problems—widespread, complex, and interconnected, these are problems with no single solution. They tear at the fabric of everyday life and touch each one of us where we live. Tackling wicked problems requires openness, flexibility, creativity, and demands innovation and playfulness. We are at a crossroads, and we have the best chance of finding solutions if we work across generations, share what we know, creatively make it up together.

Stepping into the difficult work of intergenerational activism is a complex, radical, boundary-crossing interruption of the way things usually go. The walls we throw up and guard are destined to come down. “Let’s face it,” Judith Butler writes in her post 9-11 book, Precarious Life, “we’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” Working with youth has been an unraveling experience, and I mean this in the best possible way.

Connect with Lyn, Spark Movement, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo credit: SPARK Movement.


[CORRECTION: The original version listed the name of Judith Butler’s book incorrectly as Precarious Lives. It is Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.]

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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