Building an Intergenerational Movement

Interviews with activists Joanne Sheehan, Hannah El-Silimy, Ashanti Alston, Ije Ude, and Ralph DiGia

With the United States’ rich histories of struggle and the volumes of analysis written on them from multiple perspectives of politics and identity, there is an alarming lack of writing and dialogue around ageism in the movement, particularly as it relates to young activists. More basically, there is a little discussion of how activists from different generations communicate, relate, and organize together— a dearth that is perhaps more debilitating than recognized.

Therefore, what better topic for a forum in the magazine of an 82-year-old organization! Discussing the lessons of movements past, ageist stereotypes, political vision and strategy, the impact of the nonprofit structure, and effective models of multigenerational work, activists Joanne Sheehan, Hannah El-Silimy, Ashanti Alston, and Ije Ude explore the successes and stopping points in creating meaningful multigenerational movements. These activists challenge us not merely to make our work representational, but to create spaces of democratic empowerment. It becomes clear that whether you were involved in the civil rights movement, protested the Vietnam War, or organize against the war in Iraq at your high school, we can’t build a movement without one another.

Joanne Sheehan, 58

Joanne Sheehan is the coordinator of WRL New England and the chair of War Resisters’ International. Her WRL/New England work includes counter-recruitment, supporting the empowerment of high school students through YouthPeace, nonviolence training, and organizing against war and merchants of death. Connected to WRL since she was 22, she served on the Executive Committee, started a local Norwich chapter, and in 1984 co-founded WRL/New England, which started the Stop War Toys Campaign. She has been on the WRI Council since 1983.

When you first joined the WRL as a young activist, did you feel intentionally supported and included? Or was it the strength of the movement at the time and general excitement that captivated you and brought you in?

It was a mix. There were so many young people coming into the movement at that time—there was a horrendous war and a draft, and it was affecting our generation directly. Sometimes I felt very supported and sometimes I didn’t. I remember bitchin’ and moanin’ once in WRL around the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice  about how we needed more women and more young people represented. And David McReynolds turned around and said, “You can do it.” And he said it not in a flippant way. And I thought, “No I can’t!” So some of that is your own belief in yourself.

At other times there were real style issues. Some older folks had a real issue with activists being “too counter-culture.” There were also issues around lesbian-identified groups doing activism. But I never felt that all the older people felt that way, and there were some older folks who had real respect for what you were bringing and not just as some token person under 25 or under 30. I never felt in WRL, “Oh, god, these young hippies!” I felt it in other places, but never WRL. And I was surprised that I never felt that.

Sometimes I felt more tension in gender dynamics than age dynamics. There was so much focus on the guys, because it was the guys who were getting drafted. And it was still early in the Second Wave of feminism. So I always felt it was somewhat harder for me as a young woman.

Within the organizational structure it was primarily young women who were pushing for a change in our process. Young feminists from both the East and West Coast were trying to get more of a participatory process going. There were older people at WRL who were not as supportive of those processes, or took a longer time to come to an understanding of those processes. But there were also older allies who helped develop those processes, and who gave a lot of support to the young people. So over the years the age thing changed as a more collective process was developed.

Many organizations suffer “Founders’ Disease,” whereby the people who initiate projects or groups hold the most power, and the membership pool does not expand or diversify. What have your experiences been, if any, with this issue?

WRL is old enough to not have the same kind of Founders’ Disease that you get with a 15-year-old group that literally has the first founders still as executive director, but you still end up with this dynamic of interest and non-acceptance. There’s lip service but people get set in their ways, and they’re no longer open.

I think we sometimes struggle with a lack of clarity of what brings us together, which gets in the way of our understanding. That definition needs to be both constant and ever-changing. We’re not having enough discussion around revisiting WRL’s vision and purpose, and I feel like there have been times when that has been a stronger focus. So as new waves of people coming in, we need to find ways to do that. To not just say, “Here’s our analysis and our vision! Believe it!” And there has been some of that in the last ten years.

WRL used to have an organizer training program, which is a great way to do intergenerational movement building because it was a generational mix of folks who were participating and it was something that brought people into the league.

WRL’s National YouthPeace program organized a weeklong Organizers’ Training Program in 1997. Then we began to organize YouthPeace trainings in New England and just had our tenth one since 1998.  It makes sense and it’s a process of bringing people in. YouthPeace is not multigenerational; we’re doing it very specifically for high school students. I feel like there’s a point when you’re young where you need to be with people your own age. We’re really careful about who the adults are that we bring into that process. We’re not interested in know-it-alls. This is about doing participatory workshops for the youth, and as they build their skills the youth facilitate the workshops.

More generally, what are some negative tendencies or behaviors you feel blocks intergenerational movement-building?

I think that phrase “We’ve always done it this way” is a major negative, whether it is said or implied. There’s this article by Bernice Johnson Reagon that talks about if you’re working in coalition and you’re comfortable, then you’re not doing it the right way. I think that that can become another barrier to doing this intergenerational work. Can people move out of their comfort zone? Can people be comfortable enough in themselves to be able to move into a space where people may be different in different ways, in all sorts of cultural ways.

Do you feel lessons of previous movements have been passed on through the generations, informing today’s work?

I think we’re not paying enough good solid attention to those lessons. Some of the older generation has a lot of stories, but that’s different from case studies and lessons. The government has learned much more than the activists have about the lessons from the Vietnam War era. It gets back to analyzing. Analyze. Evaluate. How did it go? What did we do well? What could we have done better? I don’t think we make space for that process. Can we honestly look at these lessons in an intergenerational way?

What do you feel like your role is in building intergenerational movements?

I think one of my roles is to be a mentor. Real mentoring is not passing on your knowledge to someone; it’s not like being a guru. It’s not to say, “Take this clipboard, go out there, stand on that corner, tell people this, get their names.” It’s to encourage people through the learning process. It’s to say, “What do we need to think through here?” It’s really giving people the support they need to develop their own power.

WRL: The Long View

Ralph DiGia, the 91-year-old unpaid staff member of the WRL, has worked with the league for more than 50 years. He was a part of the secular movement of young WWII conscientious objectors in the fifties that radicalized the WRL and antiwar work. Ralph sat down with WIN editor Francesca Fiorentini in May to recount this political shift within the WRL.

What kind of programs did the WRL have at the time you got involved?

At that time, the WRL’s program was very mild—registering COs and mailing out literature. They were not organizing demonstrations. They had mostly educational stuff on nonviolence. No going into the streets. Then in the fifties, when the [WWII] COs were getting out of jail, there was a whole change in the WRL, and it became an activist group: marches, demonstrations, and going right into the community to change ideas. It was a really a change—they call it “the awakening.”

What brought about this awakening?

I think people thought they had to do more than just register. People had gone through the experience of jail, camps, and WWII .The first real demonstration that I can remember was around the civil defense drill in 1955. At that time New York had civil defense drills, where, when the sirens went off, everyone had to take shelter. The WRL with the Catholic Worker had a demonstration in City Hall Park. The WRL used to be located right near City Hall, so we just went downstairs, 28 of us, sat on the benches, and were arrested. That went on until the early sixties, every time there was a Civil Defense Drill. And by the late sixties there were over 1000 people in the streets refusing to sit down. Instead of taking cover, we just sat outside. It was an opportunity to show nonviolence as a means of protest.

Did you feel civil disobedience was a necessary tactic?

Well, we felt it was right. It was a way of reaching more people and we were willing to risk arrest if necessary to do it. The idea was to make changes instead of being quiet—we must stand up and speak out and get more people to know about us.

Was there tension around the tactic?

Yes there was a division between some of the older and the younger members. They thought that this was not the right way to do it; they didn’t like the idea of getting arrested. It’s alright to have marches but they were opposed to civil disobedience. There was some discussion about how we shouldn’t be doing this, we should be lawful and not upset people by doing civil disobedience and things like that. So some people did resign as a result of that. It wasn’t a bitter fight, but we were a majority at the time—the people who wanted to be active. It was sad to have those who had been there [in WRL] for a while leave, but they formed their own thing. They didn’t just drop out of the movement.

There was also a difference in draft counseling. We would have a more radical position, and besides conscientious objection counseling, we would tell people about going underground, the advantages and disadvantages, and we could help them get to Canada. Whereas they were very strict about things like that.

I think the COs of that era moved the WRL to radical ground. And civil disobedience has been accepted and is a part of the demonstrations today, and the spirit has continued.

Do you think the nonviolent movement today is in need of revitalization?

Well I would think so! You know the army grows all the time. They get better equipment, have better wars, and what the pacifist movement needs is some inspiration—what’s the next step? We can’t always just have demonstrations and petitions and people being arrested. That doesn’t seem to work. Civil disobedience and being arrested, that was new and it grew, but there’s something else. We need a spark. What does it take to move more people? That’s the $64 question.

Hannah El-Silimy, 22

Hannah El-Silimy is the Youth Empowerment Program coordinator for the New Hampshire office of the American Friends Service Committee. Her work with AFSC consists of educating and organizing youth around immigrant rights, social justice, and counter-recruiting, with a focus on immigrant youth. She is 22 years old and an Oberlin College graduate. Previously she has worked with a number of nonprofits focusing on youth empowerment and immigrants’ rights issues including the Rural and Migrant Ministry Youth Empowerment Program, the Inter-Religious Taskforce on Central America, and the New Hampshire Immigrants Rights Taskforce.

What have been your experiences working with both teenage and older activists? What approach do you take to intergenerational movement building, and what stopping points have you witnessed?

I work with quite a few older folks in my work and it can be a challenge in terms of what their ideas of working with youth are versus mine and versus the youth themselves. I try to facilitate things and help students come up with what they’re excited about and what they want to do, and not so much come in with my own agenda. I don’t see that older adults are always willing to believe or acknowledge that young people are capable of going through that process themselves. They often think they need to come in with things already set up. A lot of that has to do with patience—it’s easier to come in and say, “This is what we’re going to do.”

What about yourself? Have you faced ageism in the organizations and movements you’ve been apart of?

Definitely. There’s been a lot of tension in all the places I’ve worked, because it’s an issue that just keeps coming up over and over. It’s hard to be taken seriously by older activists, or you’re appreciated but in a tokenizing way, like, “It’s so wonderful that the young people are doing something,” kind of thing. You also have to work extra hard to prove that you’re capable of doing the work. For me, too, being fairly young and being female.

There are many times that I’m sitting at a meeting, and it’s myself and someone else that’s older, or a group of high school students and their teacher-supervisor, and it’s always the adult that gets the credit for things. I’ve seen that happen over and over again. And people make comments all time about how difficult it is to work with youth, and that young people aren’t reliable and that you can’t really count on them for things.

I’ve been at events where the whole intergenerational thing was just not working at all. I was at one particular conference that was supposed to be a youth conference but there were a few elders who spoke the whole time and took up a lot of space. People just ended up feeling shut down and disempowered. When you’re older, you just feel more comfortable and more entitled to speak. I’ve seen that in myself too, so I have to be wary of those dynamics between myself and high school students.

How would organizations have to change to be places of youth empowerment and multigenerational political work?

 There are a lot of nonprofits out there, particularly AFSC, that are enmeshed in this organizational culture that has been around for so long. A lot of it is that older generation white culture. And that is a place where young people and young people of color are definitely not going to feel comfortable because they don’t speak the same way, dress the same way, or think about organizing the same way. For AFSC and nonprofits that have been stuck in this one way of organizing, they have to make very drastic changes to become actual models of youth empowerment.

A lot of it has to do with who’s in power—the culture of the organization is not going to change until who holds power in the organization changes. Because you can employ young people or you can employ people of color but when they’re not in positions of power they’re still held by older people. You’re replicating the same dynamics of ageism in the organization.

I definitely think that young activists these days really want guidance and support from activists of the older generation. I work closely with a number of older activists who are really respectful of youth activism, and we learn a lot from each other. That mentorship can be really successful when older activists are open to accepting that there are different ways of doing organizing these days. The culture of this country and the social climate of this country are not necessarily the same, and there are things that older activists can learn from younger activists, just as there are things that younger activists can learn from older activists. It has to be a two-way street. Otherwise people just feel tokenized or unappreciated. Or youth are just there ‘cause it looks good to do youth work, and the organization will get a grant because they’re doing it.

Have you seen steps in the right direction—successful multigenerational models that are empowering?

I’ve seen a few successful models, and most of them have worked on the principle of taking it easy and not trying to control too much, not getting stressed out about numbers or results, and creating empowerment through being there as a resource. I guess people feel they can’t do that because of the nonprofit model. We think we need to be able to say, “We’re doing good organizing because we got 2000 people at the rally and 50 people at the meeting.” When it’s so numbers driven it just creates this pressure to just work toward the end rather than the means.

Politically have you seen disconnects between youth and older activist?

One of the disconnects I’ve seen is the whole nonviolence versus violence issue. I think there are a lot of people in our generation who believe in nonviolence, but maybe it’s the way it’s presented or framed, or the way people perceive it, it is something that doesn’t resonate as much with them. I think there are also a lot of younger activists who just don’t believe of nonviolence. Like, there are armed struggles that are legitimate. And a lot of people coming from the peace movement from older generations are not open to dialogue about it. It’s just like, “No, nonviolence is the answer and that’s all there is to it.” I mean, I believe in nonviolence too, but it’s got to be presented in a way that’s engaging and compelling to people.

Part of it is the messenger. You need young people talking about nonviolence because you’re more likely to hear something from someone you can relate to. If you’re 18, and this person in their 60s is telling you that nonviolence is the right way to go, that’s totally different than someone who is a peer of yours. Part of it is legitimacy. It’s perfectly well to say nonviolence is the only answer if you’re from a background where you haven’t had to struggle with serious issues of oppression. I just feel it’s more legitimate to say, “I was in this situation, in an armed conflict or in a place where I was being oppressed and I chose the path of nonviolence.” Whereas if you live in the suburbs and your life is comfortable, it’s easy to say nonviolence.

There has to be an understanding of why people wouldn’t choose nonviolence, a context to different struggles.

We also need to talk about violence not just in the context of U.S. foreign policy, but to see violence and racism in our own country. And you can find a way to talk about it that’s relevant and makes the connections between our personal lives and violence on a global scale. But if you’re just coming at it from this perspective of all we’re going to talk about is ending the war in Iraq and bringing the troops home…. There are a lot of people who, in order to get engaged, need to talk about it in a way that is relevant to their own lives.

One of the things I do is Help Increase the Peace, an alternatives-to-violence training program. I like to start from the standpoint of what are the issues going on right now in your high school or with your friends. And a lot of times there is violence and there is racism. So you can start talking about these issues that youth are really affected by, and then you can ask, “Is this connected to racism in general?” Or the fact that there are people in the schools who are racist against Arabs and are making comments. Is that connected to the fact that we’ve got this foreign policy where invading countries in the Middle East is okay?

Have you tried to raise some of these issues of ageism and new organizing approaches in the organizations you’ve worked with?

I’ve definitely tried, and I’ve definitely seen other people try. Most of the time people are coming from this place of defensiveness and unwillingness to change. We still live in a culture where young people are supposed to be respectful to older people, and it’s not like I don’t believe in respect, but oftentimes what they are really looking for is obedience.

I would like to see organizations like AFSC, WRL, or FOR stick around because they’re doing good work. But if they can’t change, how are they going to survive?

There are some great people in AFSC who’ve been trying to say this for a long time, because over and over again, they see young people leaving the organization and not wanting to work for it. But because there are so many people in the organization who aren’t going to leave I don’t know how that culture shift is going to take place. How often are you going to find a nonprofit job where you’re getting paid a pretty decent amount? So part of it is the problem of scarcity. But when people are doing the same program work for 20, 30, 40 years, on the one hand there’s strength to that because they understand the place and the work so well, but at the same time, things change. Our society is changing and the people working there should reflect those changes.

For a lot of people, they want to see change and they’ll say they want youth empowerment. But when it’s actually something that’s going to mean changing their lifestyle or not being as comfortable, all of a sudden it’s not as appealing and they’re not as willing to see it happen.

Ashanti Alston, 52

Ashanti Alston is an anarchist activist, speaker, and writer and a former member of the Black Panther Party. He was also member of the Black Liberation Army and spent more than a decade in prison after government forces captured him and the official court system convicted him of armed robbery. Referring to himself as an “@narchist Panther,” Alston publishes a ‘zine series with the same title. Alston is the former northeast coordinator for Critical Resistance and a current member of Estación Libre and is on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

How did you become involved in the Black Power movement as a youth?

When I was 12 or 13, it was the sixties and there was all kinds of stuff going on—the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, protests, and all. But the thing that roped me was in 1967, when there was rebellions all over the country, and in my little town in Plainfield, NJ, there was a rebellion. Black folks took over the Black community—with guns—and held it for about six days, and the National Guard came in to take it back over with tanks and troops. For me, that was like, I’m in. Not that I understood it all theoretically and stuff, but I knew that it was time for us to fight back and it was wrong for our community to be occupied.

In junior high school we started organizing along with the high school students to fight for Black history. That was when I started learning somewhat about how to organize—not that any of us really knew. Then later on we found out about SNCC, H. Rap Brown, and then, the Panthers.

We learned from the Panthers how to organize a chapter: what kind of programs you can do, how you run political education classes, how you do outreach in the streets. It was great to be in political education class, which we called P.E. class. It was like, each one teach one. And the experience of people educating themselves together was very empowering. We started a free lunch program, and had people in the community coming by and willing to cook. We would have kids come in for food and they’d see the posters, and we would interact with them, and it was just like, community.

At the time a lot of us were young teens. Our average age in Plainfield Black Panthers was 16-18. One of my friend’s fathers was involved, and then there was another older brother who was a Vietnam veteran who was also involved. Other than them though, we was all high school students.

Did you feel supported by activists from previous generations in your early work?

I think a lot of us felt like the older people wasn’t aggressive enough. I mean everybody respects the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King and stuff, but a lot of us would not stand for doing a sit-down strike and folks calling us racist names. We were from the urban streets, we gonna fight. We wanted something more aggressive, even in terms of the language. That’s why an H. Rap brown and a Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, that language was like, “Yo, that’s us.”

I almost want to say we dismissed the elders, anything that sounded reformist. (Well maybe reformist to us then because in retrospect a lot of the Black Power stuff was reformist.) Still, it was aggressive. Maybe the aggressive part was what was so radical about it because we began to talk about being Black. It was great to show our Blackness in the face of society. At the same time we was also putting it in the face of our parents and people in the community. Because even to wear the afro, it was like, “What is that? Why do you wear your hair like that?” Or the dashiki. It created conversation, and we was ready to get into it with anybody.

Fast-forward to today. You currently put yourself in a lot of young activist spaces. Why do you do that, and what is your approach in terms of intergenerational movement- building?

Directly, it’s a critique of the past and of us not having good intergenerational relationships. I think we were right in rejecting a lot of the leadership that the older generation wanted to impose on us, because they didn’t really respect us but just wanted us to follow. But they were so reformist and willing to accept compromises, to wait on the courts to decide on some law that would eventually free us or make us equal.

A lot of us came to understand our right to just be totally free. Why we gotta wait on the courts? We’ve been in this country for 400 years; if they haven’t done that yet then why are we trusting them to do it now? The churches or the Black politicians (not that there was ever a lot) or small Black businessleaders or folks with celebrity status never said anything that would really inspire us to feel like our new identity and our new demand for freedom was right. So we didn’t necessarily develop a lot of good intergenerational relationships even though we should have. I think that eventually it proved to be one of the mistakes that we made.

We needed to know what worked and what didn’t work for the older folks who had been struggling for years themselves. There was Black folks who were part of the Communist Party, the Garvey movement, folks who had been a part of organizations in the South whether it was SNCC or other organizations. And we should have developed the kind of relationships where we could draw from their experiences.

So for me now, I put myself there [among young organizers] because I want to be a model for the kind of relationship that I think is a good intergenerational relationship. Not leadership as an older person, but resource as an older person. Because I say to youth: “You make the revolution.” And it’s not to say that older folks don’t have a part to play, but as times change, understandings of the times have to change. And as we get older we do tend to get conservative or stuck in certain ways.

We forget that we were young too. We learned from our mistakes like youth today also learn from their mistakes. Those mistakes don’t necessarily have to be repeated, and there are so many lessons that we could be of help in—understanding the emotional struggles that you’re going to go through, relationship struggles, and different things to help young folks learn how to take leadership.

Do you feel that the lessons of previous movements have translated into today’s organizing work?

One thing I don’t see that was so meaningful to me was community interaction. I don’t see people going into communities to interact the way that we did back then, the way that we were willing to—with our new knowledge, our new information. I think there’s too much reliance on rallies, demos, marches, and the Internet. Face to face is still, for me, the only way that people can actually make revolution happen.

What do you feel your role is as an elder in an intergenerational movement?


I am not trying to be the shit. I’m not trying to be the leader. But I do want to participate, because I think that I’m on to some things that can be helpful. And at the same time, be humble enough to be able to listen to others and engage in things that might show me shortcomings in myself or open me up to new learning. We gotta interact. We can’t do this work without taking risks—comfort zones have got to be shaken up a bit.

Ije Ude, 31

Ije Ude is member of Sista II Sista (SIIS), a Brooklyn-wide community-based organization in Bushwick. SIIS is a collective of working-class young and adult Black and Latina women organizing young women to develop personal and collective power. Started in 1996, Sista II Sista’s projects have included political education through “Freedom Schools,” dance, DJ, poetry, and self-defense workshops; and a video project focusing on state and interpersonal violence against women of color.

What had been your experiences in youth organizing before joining Sista II Sista?

A lot of my experience up until that point was very “social service-y.” Even when it was coming from a place of social justice, there was a place where the politics was stuck.In one organization, we had a youth advisory board. If their ideas were aligned with the direction we wanted to go anyway, then that was great. If they weren’t, then at least we let them speak, but we’re still going to do what we wanted to do. The adults would throw out theory and big words in a way that would be intimidating to young people. So it didn’t feel equitable or like a safe space for young people to share.

When I worked with a youth clinic, there was a peer leadership program where we had peer educators. But it was still very “We’re going to tell you what to do and how you’re going to go about it.” There wasn’t room for really supporting their development and growth, and did not allow them to explore the directions they’d want to go in. Time was a factor because it takes a lot more patience to be a good ally to young people. A lot of these organizations were in a non-profit structure and it was very much about outcomes and deadlines. So moving at that speed wasn’t right for fostering leadership from young people.

At SIIS we were more willing to sit and do things differently based on our politics and our vision. If we were an organization for young women, we wanted them to be central to the organization. Really to practice being an ally, which means shutting up sometimes, and doing the self-reflection it would take to really create a space for young women to step up and contribute.

How have you created that safe space for young women within Sista II Sista?

It’s something that we’ve struggled with through the years. We would meet together—the young women and the adult women, but then the adult women would meet in their own separate space. Part of what would happen in that separate space would be also conversations around, “I know the young women were quiet in our last meeting, what is this about?” “What are we doing that isn’t encouraging their leadership or their voice?” ‘ Cause there would be times at meetings when we could see them tune out.

We also noticed that there would be a huge disconnect between the young women’s vision of SIIS and the adult women’s vision of SIIS. We were always in this question of how to stay true our organizing principles and values without pushing that on the young women and speaking over their heads. How do we not just be a space where young women can come and learn to dance, do self-defense, write poetry and do hip-hop stuff, but tie that to our larger vision for social change?

Part of what was hard also was that some people recognized that members had been at SIIS for a long time, which created a certain dynamic within the organization. Because naturally there are certain people that you’ll turn to because they’ve been here longest. So the process of us informally having people step off and on the collective and off and on leadership roles, helped to switch that up and bring in new perspectives and allow people to step up in ways they wouldn’t have if certain people had stayed on.

It’s letting go of who we think SIIS is and being able to reinvent ourselves and allow that to happen, people realizing their own fears and control issues. Part of what makes that possible is that we integrate our personal reflection into our political work and don’t see the two as separate. So there’s more awareness around that stuff and there’s more space for the young women to check us.

How is the leadership of young women of color built into SIIS programs?

When we came together, we didn’t come with a campaign already in mind. We weren’t going to approach young people and say, we’re going to work on the issue of violence against women or transportation or violence in schools. We wanted it to come from them. But a lot of that was going to involve politicizing and having conversations and really engaging them in the process.

An example that showed the power of the young women’s leadership was at our retreat last year. We ended up meeting separately—adult women and the young women—because the young women weren’t really engaged. So we let them go talk among themselves. The question we all went in with was, “Should SIIS keep going?” When the adult women met, the answer was “No.” It was all the negatives, all the things not working, all the reasons to close down. But the young women met and they thought we should keep going; they came with the positives and said, “We need this and that and we really like this.”

Part of what can happen with age and time is cynicism, and sometimes you get so locked in your ways of seeing things and operating. The young women really helped to knock us out of that. But it’s hard for young people to come with that opinion when older people speak. I think we don’t realize sometimes the impact or the power of our words or our facial expressions. So when we let the young women go into their own space and they’re blocked from our energy and opinions, they were able to be creative and come up with something new that ended up reinvigorating us. And what we [adult women] could bring was our experience—not being jaded but being like, “Well okay, in the past we tried it like this and this is what happened.” And instead of that being a reason not to do it again, it was like, “What can we do to avoid that and stop those things from happening?”

How have you seen individual young women develop themselves beginning with the first time they come SIIS. What has that process been like?

An important part of our development is being able to communicate and express ourselves. Especially for young women, who are taught to be quiet and not express ourselves and or have an opinion. We create opportunities for young women to experience their own voice and the impact that that can have.

We also try to create a space where the playing field is level. So we have activities where the adult women and young women are learning something together; not just the adult women teaching the young women something. We’re letting them know that we may be older, but it doesn’t mean that we have it all figured out or that we can’t learn from you.

A lot of the young women that we have now are actually seniors [in high school] and they’ve been with us for the past four or five years, and have seen the organization grow and change. Since some of the adult women who had been part of the organization for years stepped off the collective, a lot of them [young women] were like, “I’m going to step up.” And a lot of the stuff they considered boring or not really wanting to do around the office—making calls, admin, financial stuff—they were like, “You know what? I’m ready to learn that because I see how doing that office work is part of what allows us to have dance, DJ classes, or to go out and organize these actions.” So they made that connection. In a lot of ways, the young women that have been with us the longest are the ones that are helping us revitalize and replenish ourselves to keep going.