An Older Generation Needs to Move Over

youthYoung people have always been the key to any movement for social change. Yet like the Greek Titan Chronus who swallows his newborn children whole in order to retain his throne, an older generation may be the biggest obstacle to progress.

Scholar Oiyan Poon astutely observed how a number of current progressive leadership fail to effectively pass the torch on to the next generation: “Sure we talk a good talk, even giving conferences titles like ‘Passing the Torch,’ but in practice… (I love my elders but, I gotta say it) our older generation SUCKS at walking the talk of empowering a next generation…And by the way… I had a lengthy discussion a few months back with an ‘elder’ who mentioned that by ‘next generation’ he thinks of people in their 40s. YIKES!”

Except for a few notable exceptions, the crescendo of “we need to reach out to the youth” has dramatically risen but unfortunately words largely remain words.  This moment closely echoes the early ‘90s when a lot of local unions espoused “Organize the Unorganized” but few actually committed resources to this prerogative.

When words do translate to action, some leaders treat “youth” as mere cannon fodder for intensive short-term campaigns. A respected organizing director had even frankly confided with me that young people are good for 2 to 3 years; they leave, and then you bring in a new batch. I have witnessed a revolving door at many social justice organizations where young minds and bodies go in and out until a good number of them leave altogether disillusioned to become school teachers or retreat to grad school. We are not nurturing the next generation of leaders but producing a phalanx of burnt-out wounded warriors.

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Veteran organizer Marshall Ganz, after working through the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers Movement with Cesar Chavez, and the recent election of Obama to president, noted that “young people come of age with a critical eye and a hopeful heart. It’s that combination of critical eye and hopeful heart that brings change. That’s one reason why so many young people were and are involved in movements for social change.” Is an older generation only feeding the eyes and leaving the fire burning in the hearts of young people out in the cold?

This past July 2009, I was elected National President of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA, AFL-CIO), the largest and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) union members. At age 37, I came to the position with a mandate to unite a younger generation with the labor movement.  Additionally the number of elected executive board members under the age 40 went from two to 10, including the election of our youngest leader Van Nguyen at age 22, a recent graduate from UC Berkeley and the first Vietnamese student body president.  The electoral convention trumpeted the theme, “Generations United, Organizing for Change” and it was the first national gathering of Asian American and Pacific Islander students and workers in US history. Looking across the crowd, the involvement of the ages 18-35 crowd clearly electrified the union convention.

The founders of APALA, at its very beginnings when they started the organization in 1992, had the foresight to recruit, train, and mentor me and a group of young AAPI students to enter the US Labor Movement. The founding national president Kent Wong convinced me as a young 20-year-old to attend their three-day organizing training. A

s the years progressed, Kent, former APALA national president Luisa Blue, and leaders Josie Camacho, Amado David, Pat Lee, and several others mentored and guided me through the byzantine labyrinth and sometimes harsh world of the trade union movement. But more importantly, they stepped to the side and risked letting me exercise leadership. In other words, they understood that the best mentorship program is getting out of the way and helping me into a leadership position. This doesn’t mean that their wisdom should be ignored but that they do not always have to be the ones holding the reins.

At the APALA convention, a founder of APALA went up to the public microphone and spoke about how as a young student she joined a campus-wide strike at her college for ethnic studies, and then tearfully expressed her joy in seeing a new generation here who want to continue making change.  A flame still kindles in this next generation and it burns across all lines.

john-delloro.gifWe mustn’t forget it was a 26-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 20-year old Clara Lemlich who ignited some of the first marches for women’s rights in the US, an 18-year old Sieh King King who led a rally in San Francisco for equal rights for women in the US and China in the early 1900s, and it was a new generation who made history and propelled a black man to the highest position of the land.

John Delloro

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Comments

  1. helloitsme says

    and the idiots saying we are whining lol…don’t be a loser because life isn’t as sweet when you fools were my age, you guys been abusing things so much now things are crapped up. Just face it the youth are faster, smarter and more efficient…period. At this pace you oldr guys better start worrying because we will be th one taking care of you when you are in your nursing home…jerks

  2. helloitsme says

    In my experience many older people, especially those protected by unions, are slow, know how to “wok the system” to look busy, and highly inefficient. I’m in my 20′s and grew up with computers, so naturally I’m faster and better with them then older generations. I swear these old fools need to move on and retire, and they need a way to do it with grace. Don’t get me wrong tho, I thin weshould honor the older generations with something to make them live the rest of their lives with no worry for money. Let them do volunteer work or something proactive to stay active, or just be a beach bum, and I think they shouldn’t have to pay taxes if they are under a certain income range. But us younger guys can’t find good work, and I got to eat one way or another…and I will eat.

  3. says

    Poor baby. In my (long) experience, those who do the most work and the hardest work rise to the top in any organization. It isn’t a matter of generation at all, unless you’re someone young who simply wants anyone older to “step aside” to make way for your youthful brilliance, most of which is expressed in whines like the one above.

  4. John says

    Carl, the older generation does bear a responsibility. This does not preclude the next generation from their responsibilities. The reality is that there are a number of organizations whose leadership are resistant to handing over the reins.

    For myself, I have always fought for what I believed in and did not just sit and “whine” as you put it. The proof is in the tangible work I have done over the years and the current leadership positions I hold. But it is in that struggle, I saw a number of good young people get burnt out but not by the opposition or the work but by some older recalcitrant leadership who were supposed to be on their side. The story of an organization run by the same leadership over decades and then that leadership turns around and wonders how come there is no one to take their place is a familiar one. Carl, in your 71 years, I know you must have witnessed this story over and over again.

    If we really believe in social change, then we must recognize that it is a protacted fight and that leadership recruitment, development, and training is an integral part of the work.

  5. John says

    Jim, you are right that the next generation needs to assert themselves and take more control. The next generation also has responsibility in making it happen. Jim, you hit it on the head. The next generation should not wait.

    The problem I notice is some of the older generation who admonish the next generation and tell them to wait their turn and pay more “dues.” The problem I see is when some folks of the older generation deliberately block the next generation efforts through firings, cutting budgets, trashing reputations, or blocking promotions. Internal fights or having to start new organizations saps alot of valuable energy. Social change takes longer as a result. I have directly seen that happen over and over.

    I don’t believe it has to be that way. The older leadership of Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO did not do that route but actively recruited and trained. When I wanted to run for the national presidency, my mentors did not try to stop me but stepped to the side. Unfortunately, I saw the opposite happen to some of my peers in other organizations. The ones who won are having to waste so much time healing the rifts created in the fight as opposed to moving a program for social change.

  6. John says

    Jim and Carl, you are both right that the next generation needs to assert themselves and take more control. The next generation also has responsibility in making it happen. Jim, you hit it on the head. The next generation should not wait.

    The problem I notice is some of the older generation who admonish the next generation and tell them to wait their turn and pay more “dues.” The problem I see is when some folks of the older generation deliberately block the next generation efforts through firings, cutting budgets, trashing reputations, or blocking promotions. Internal fights or having to start new organizations saps alot of valuable energy. Social change takes longer as a result. I have directly seen that happen over and over.

    Carl, the older generation does bear a responsibility. This does not preclude the next generation from their responsibilities. The reality is that there are a number of organizations whose leadership are resistant to handing over the reins.

    For myself, I have always fought for what I believed in and did not just sit and “whine” as you put it. The proof is in the tangible work I have done over the years and the current leadership positions I hold. But it is in that struggle, I saw a number of good young people get burnt out but not by the opposition or the work but by some older recalcitrant leadership who were supposed to be on their side. The story of an organization run by the same leadership over decades and then that leadership turns around and wonders how come there is no one to take their place is a familiar one.

    If we really believe in social change, then we must recognize that it is a protacted fight and that leadership recruitment, development, and training is an integral part of the work.

  7. Carl Matthes says

    Well, Mr. Delloro…would you like some cheese with that whine? It is not up to an older generation to hand over or give something to younger people, rather, it is up to the younger generation to give and actually do something that will attract attention and accomplish something…I’m sure you know somethin about giving, you know, such as sweat, money, time, effort…and that doesn’t include sitting back and indicting everyone past your age group telling them it’s time for them to past the torch (perhaps like the torch Senator Kennedy has left)…since I am 71 years old, perhaps you need to talk with Sarah Palin and maybe she’ll recommend you to sit on the “death panels” and then you can decide who is still viable and who isn’t.

    Wake-up, young man, anything worth having is worth fighting for.

  8. Jim Gagnon says

    While I’m part of that older generation (51 yrs old), I agree that the guard must change, as it always must. However, the tone of your article is passive on the younger generation’s part: “An older generation must move on.” It never works that way; the youth must take control actively by showing they have more energy and better ideas than previous generations. Otherwise, the youth are condemned to wait until all the old people die before they can take control, having spent their youth and energy waiting.

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