The Boundary of Age

February 20, 2013

This is a guest post by Kate Otto of  Everyday Ambassador.  My guest post on the same theme can be found on EA’s site here.

My name is Kate Otto, and I manage a website called “Everyday Ambassador”, where we discuss the dynamics of crossing boundaries of geography, culture, and socio-economic status in our efforts to make the world a better place.

When I recently met Bonnie, and we bonded over how many goals we have in common, I realized a boundary I so rarely cross on my site:

 What about the boundary of age?

So often, my generation sets out into the world believing our solutions are more innovative, tech-savvy, and creative than our predecessors past.  In our race to transform formerly intractable issues into new opportunities for impact, we so often overlook reaching out to our elders for advice, guidance, or support.

Perhaps equally as often, I assume but have also observed, older generations of change-makers lament that young people’s multitasking nature means we are somehow missing important points. That we are moving too fast, or not acknowledging the context in which we’re operating, and thus that our solutions may be as temporary as our attention spans.

When I met Bonnie, and was introduced to this incredible website, we discussed in depth this persistent age ‘boundary’, which can exist as tangibly as an international country border.  As an exercise in being ‘everyday ambassadors’ and bridging the ‘gap’, Bonnie and I decided to guest post on each other’s sites, women from two separate generations demonstrating their appreciation for the others’.

To celebrate all my generation has to learn from our ‘baby boomer’ mentors, I have selected a few heroes to highlight; people whose decades of contributions and efforts have paved the path we now walk on, the giants on whose shoulders today’s social change agents try to stand.

People like Bill Drayton, the father of the global social entrepreneurship movement Ashoka, whose work has laid the foundation for any youth in involved in social enterprise today.  Though many young people feel part of the ‘new’ movement of social entrepreneurship, Drayton founded Ashoka in 1981, and built the organization to operate in over 70 countries worldwide.  His motto is now established thinking among millennial change makers: “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

Another higher-generation hero of many Everyday Ambassadors is Dr. Paul Farmer, who began his organization Partners in Health in 1987 while a student in medical school.  The decades that Dr. Farmer has invested into creating a model of ‘preferential option’ in healthcare for the world’s poorest people should be a powerful reminder to young change makers: we live in a world where value is placed on scaling quickly, yet without a long time horizon in our plans, we can end up only superficially affecting change, instead of transforming entire sectors.  And in a world where we are expected to be innovative and cutting-edge at all times, it is important to keep Dr. Farmer’s reminder in mind, “For me, an area of moral clarity is: you’re in front of someone who’s suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act.”

Lastly, the late Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winning environmental and political activist, is another voice of inspiration that reminds us where our service instincts are rooted.  In the early 1980’s she founded the Green Belt Movement, which not only worked to end desertification, deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger, but in doing so tackled women’s’ rights and democracy-building in the process.  Her tactics and perspective are especially helpful for a generation with endless outlets to talk about social change without ever actually engaging.  “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive,” she once said, “you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.”

Taking industry reforming approaches, acting with the tools we have instead of trying to build snazzier ones, and walking our talk – these are just a few incredibly important lessons that emanate from the experience of our predecessors.

Crossing the age border can be an incredible experience.  Who are your heroes in public service from another generation?  To myself and to my peers, who live in a world where it is so easy to become self-absorbed instead of self-reflective, may honoring the legacies of our heroes help us to see ourselves as one part of a much bigger picture, and not the picture itself.