Spirited Reflection: Intergenerational social change

Photo by Joshua Fernandes

August 12 is designated International Youth Day by the UN, an annual celebration of young women’s and men’s roles as essential partners in change, and an opportunity to raise awareness of challenges and problems facing the world’s youth.

If you’re reading this on the KAIROS website, you’ve likely, in some way or another, committed yourself to living into justice. I believe justice isn’t simply something to believe in, but an aspiration to be lived into with work and humility. It may seem like there are a lot of unnecessary shout outs and name dropping in this reflection, so I want to preface with my reason for doing so. Hip hop culture has shaped my life in a substantial way and I credit the rapper Kendrick Lamar for teaching me to speak to God in a way that is authentic to me. Hip hop originated when Disc Jockeys began to sample sections of records from previous generations, over which rappers would tell their stories of struggle and liberation out of structurally oppressive conditions of racism and poverty. If you aren’t familiar with what it means to ‘sample’ you can take a listen to the first few seconds of each of these tracks. The Fugees recorded Zealots in 1996 and sampled the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You which was recorded in 1959. I intend to ‘sample’ some of the leaders who have come before me and showcase how the way they engage in the work of love and justice, which I will henceforth refer to as the work, has taught me to do so with more humility and grace.

I’ve spent the last decade of my life working in the non-profit sector. Ideally, this space should be occupied by organizations whose work should be free of profit motive. Organizations that deal with equity, regulatory bodies and the justice system fall into this category. This non-profit sector is often filled with young idealists, perhaps because they are willing and able to forgo higher salaries for value-aligned work. This isn’t a knock on idealism, I consider myself one and probably most of my friends as well, but rather a note that we must temper our idealism with meeting the world where it is, or we risk getting caught up in unrealistic expectations and timelines. As I’ve experienced it, young idealists in the non-profit sector are hard working people who are deeply committed to the work but not always to the introspection in their own place within systems of oppression (patriarchy, white supremacy, class privilege, etc.). It is easier to battle the demons externally than to look within. Of course, we are all inculcated in a violent, heteronormative, patriarchal, ableist, white-skin-favouring world and are complicit and actively benefit from the oppression of our fellow siblings. That’s a big pill to swallow and it does not make us bad people, but rather, it ought to implicate us in each others’ liberation through our words and actions. Lauryn Hill’s Motives and Thoughts poem beautifully illustrates how we must check our own motives and thoughts when we engage in the work to ensure we are doing it from a place of love and humility.

Burning out and getting caught

In February of 2017 I burned out in the non-profit sector. This is almost an inevitability in the sector and nothing to brag about or seek pity over. For many, burn out is a long, slow, gradual process of wearing down and hanging on at the same time, much like a co-dependent relationship that can only be seen clearly in retrospect, or by those outside it. For me, my burnout came in the form of an acute mental health crisis. After a week off work staying with my folks, I returned to my workplace, only to be a toxic employee for the final six months before I quit. 

Two days after leaving the organization, I traveled to Calgary to attend the ECONOUS Community Economic Development conference. Over a casual chat at the buffet table one evening, I met my now-colleague, Carla, who told me about an upcoming role at EDGE Ministries that she thought I would be perfect for. The spirit moves in mysterious ways and from experience, I can tell you that this was nothing short of divine providence. I had quit my previous job without a new one or any safety net and I was caught in ‘God’s arms.’  I generally have a lot of trouble with anthropomorphizing God as an external being and in the likeness of humans. Then again, there’s no way we are able to understand transcendence other than by relating God to our own ways of experiencing the world. Looking back, I can truly feel ‘God’s love’ in the grace extended to me through Carla, and subsequently through the United Church of Canada team I’ve been working with.

Having now worked with the United Church of Canada for over 18 months, I am able to articulate what it is that I experience in this structure that I was craving in my previous non-profit life: Intergenerational justice-seeking work.

In the vast majority of my previous non-profit experience I was surrounded by staff and volunteers in their teens, twenties and thirties. I now find myself surrounded by people in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies and even eighties and nineties. The difference, in short, is grit. Or Resilience. Whatever you want to name it, these folks are in it for the long haul. They have committed to living into the work by allowing it to flow through them and not of them. There is a wonderful mystical Christian concept, Kenosis, I quite like. It is about emptying one’s self to be the vessel for divine to flow through. The young ego that needs to self-identify as a changemaker dissolves. Still, I am relatively young and full of drive to make change and often wonder where that drive coincides with God’s idea of the work and where it is just my own desire to make change. Though they aren’t mutually exclusive, I am learning to approach the work with humility and faithfulness through the example of my colleagues.

Chutzpah and humility

Upon the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil I turned to my favourite author, Parker J. Palmer for solace. In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit he outlines habits of the heart, the most important of which are chutzpah and humility.   Chutzpah is the knowledge that you have a voice worth speaking and things worth saying. Humility is the knowledge that it is vital to listen, because you may not have it right at all, or only a very partial grasp on the truth. 

As a young man socialized in North America, I have absolutely no shortage of chutzpah. I have to heed Kendrick Lamar’s wise words to ‘sit down, be humble’. In a practical manner, that means learning not from what my colleagues do, but rather from how they engage in the work

Prior to working at the Church the only good friends I had over 45 years old were my friends Sharon and Mary. They worked at Children’s Aid Society for over three decades, the first two decades of which they hid their relationship as they were working with children and would have been fired for their sexual orientation. I share this for a context in how they are part of a generation whose fight, along with those who came before them, yielded the queer liberation we see today, which is of course, ongoing. We met through my sister’s friend who recommended me as a house sitter several years ago. The three of us regularly get together to see live music, speak about politics and share meals. Since I’ve entered the church, intergenerational friendship has become a far more common source of joy and beauty in my life and I’d like to showcase, or ‘sample’ a few and what I’ve learned from each.

In my early twenties I taught English in South Korea for a few years. One of my starkest memories on the peninsula was heading with a solidarity group up to the border to send a helium balloon delivery of winter socks into North Korea. That was an interesting thing for me to participate in, but the work is much bigger and less glamorous. Last week my colleague Patti, who has spent years working on supporting the peace process co-signed a letter to President Trump alongside over 80 other organizations calling for an end to the Korean war! The sheer organizational coordination of over 80 organizations is worth raising up.

In preparation for a solidarity trip I’ve had the privilege of being able to share lunch with my colleague Wendy and to pick her brain around the years of work she has done with people in Palestine. She has taught me about costly solidarity and being aware of my own power and privilege in not asking others to be hopeful in the context of structural oppression, but rather to offer active hope, which means honouring grief, anger and fear and translating it into action.

More . . . chutzpah and humility

My church is in the process of sponsoring a refugee so my desire to understand the global refugee crisis has become more personal. We screened Ai Wei Wei’s documentary, Human Flow in our office and my colleague Khwaka, who is a refugee program advisor recognized the Dadaab Refugee Camps in Kenya in the film. It is the largest refugee camp in Africa and at one point was the largest camp in the world. Although I see her behind the scenes processing paperwork for refugee claims, I was previously unaware of the frontlines time she has spent working in camps on the ground. After the film we had a Q & A with her and our colleague Ammar. They shared their personal journey to humanize each case while knowing they are between a rock and a hard place in terms of how many people can be processed with such limited staff and resources.

Last July our office hosted a young trans-woman from South Korea to speak with us of her work. At the end of the lunch and learn in our group conversation, my colleague Jim, who works with Caribbean and Latin American partnerships made a passing comment that stuck with me to this date; that men who have sex with men in Jamaica don’t view the rainbow flag as a sign of liberation. Unknowingly he totally checked my presumption of what liberation ought to look like in other cultural contexts and did so with such humility.

Most recently, I’ve been called to put my energy into climate justice, not because I’ve always had a passion for the natural world but because I am awake to the time and it is surely Kairos time to realign  our economic system to be in sync with the laws of the natural world. My friend, Mardi, a former moderator of the United Church who focuses her energy heavily on climate justice regularly shares her time and opportunities with me to help me hone my message and approach.

Partnerships like Jesus would do it

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my own professional role involves building partnerships with universities and municipalities to host social purpose business challenges. Kind of like Dragon’s Den if Jesus was running it. At a recent challenge in St. John’s, Newfoundland, we partnered with the First Light Friendship Centre who offered child minding for the event, as they do for all their events, as an intergenerational society is an important part of Indigenous cultures. This also removed the structural barrier for more mothers to participate. Entrepreneurship, as many other fields, is often dominated by men and those with other privileged identities. Having children present also reminded us in a tangible way of those who will inherit the legacy of the work.

To close, I am truly blessed to be working with such competent and compassionate people who model how to do the work. In our youth obsessed culture, we often overlook the richness in intergenerational relationships.  In a justice- seeking context, intergenerational organizing is an absolute must for the work to be truly effective. I invite you to reflect on the dynamics and offerings of intergenerational relationships in your life and to cultivate them with purpose and respect.

Joshua Fernandes jokes that he is a burnt-out activist, recovering from a young male ego. He hopes to approach outer social change through the frame of inner spiritual transformation. He loves cycling, cooking, civic engagement and building and being in community. Professionally, he works with EDGE: A Network for Ministry Development, the innovation team for the United Church running Social Business Pitch Competitions across the country to help build a more compassionate and equitable economy for all. 

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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