Intergenerational lessons for the Occupy movement

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On June 3, 2011, a young activist walked into the House of Commons during the first throne speech of Stephen Harper's majority government and showed a sign with a simple message. All it read was, "Stop Harper!" but her action articulated what a growing number of Canadians are feeling with increasing certainty -- that our country is heading in the wrong direction. For Canadians concerned about growing inequality, the erosion of democracy and social services, the rising corporate profits during a time of increased poverty, and catastrophic climate change, her action gave voice to those concerns.

Brigette DePape's action was a little bubble signalling the coming eruption of the Occupy movement spreading to cities across Canada and around the world. It is similarly an affirmation that our future doesn't have to be economically insecure, politically dysfunctional, or environmentally chaotic.

Just a few days after DePape's action, a group of change-makers gathered on the other side of the country, on Cortes Island off B.C.'s coast, to learn, share and talk about social change. Conversations about activism percolated throughout each session and every meal. DePape's bravery a few days earlier allowed us to imagine what peaceful direct action would look like in Canada. Her action helped start an intergenerational conversation about activism. While boomers talked about the important battles they had fought and victories they'd earned, younger people talked about the causes they were passionate about and their new strategies for organizing.

The group gathered on that small island was a multi-generational crew of Boomers, Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers. And it was in large part our diversity of age and experience that made our discussions at the Social Change Institute at Hollyhock so fruitful. We shared ideas, aspirations and experiences, and found synergies between our work. It became clear to us that each generation has something special to offer to the others. And, with the emergence of the Occupy movement, we have an opportunity to combine these gifts to make the most of this moment.

For Gen Y, our elders can be an invaluable resource to our activism. Boomers went through a cultural and political revolution when they were our age and there's a tremendous amount we can learn about what worked, what didn't, and how we can build on the successes and gains they established. We tend to treat earlier social movements as sources of inspiration, not sources for deep learning. But through conversation we can learn how they organized themselves, how they were attacked and defended, how they scaled up their work and embedded change in dominant institutions. Through conversation we can learn to benefit from this hard earned wisdom to build on their success and avoid their mistakes.

These exchanges are mutually beneficial. Our elders are learning from us. Boomers hold the lion's share of power and wisdom, but Gen Y dominates in energy, idealism, and expertise about technology and new patterns of organization. And as is clearer every day, young people are not encumbered by the tools of the status quo that have often co-opted our elders. Boomers are inspired by the energy of young people and look to young people to lead public action as they themselves once did. With each passing year, Gen Y is getting better and better at using new technology and communications strategies to convert public energy into action and build ongoing processes for decentralized organizing.

Gen X is working as a mediary between the two huge generations. They play an essential role of offering Gen Y mentorship, while offering a critical view of the way the boomers have structured our society.

As DePape wrote in reaction to the response of her own actions and of earlier social movements before the Occupy movement took root in Canada:

"We would not only come together virtually, showing solidarity on Facebook and on the internet, but with our bodies. We would move from our homes and tight-knit circles of friends and into the streets. By coming together physically, we embody our unity and common vision. By converging as a public, we show our breadth and power. Our vision for a more democratic and just society is no longer something we read about and talk about. We see it. We feel it in the bodies beside us. We hear it in our chants."

DePape had it right then. The Occupy Movement is creating a new way for us to work together, and connecting that new pattern to a powerful call to change each of our relationships with each other and the world. And it is bringing generations of Canadians together to discuss the future of the world we want to create together.

We can place intentional intergenerational dialogue at the heart of these conversations. In this exchange, everyone needs to do a better job of listening. Our elders need to listen to the young, and be thoughtful about giving advice that fosters growth without limiting creativity or imposing dependence, and the young must listen to older generations and recognize their successes and how much there is to learn.

We have much to learn from each other. We don't have to choose old or new ways of thinking and doing: we can choose to create a fusion of both. What comes from this forging is an alloy that is much stronger than its parts. And therein lies the magic of intergenerational dialogue: With patience and experimentation, we can synthesize both old and new to turn moments of brave action into sustained movements that will achieve lasting change.

Emma Pullman is a Vancouver-based writer, researcher and campaigner focused on climate and sustainability issues, and the research director for Judy Rebick is the founder of, and also a Toronto-based writer, broadcaster and activist.

Judy Rebick is one of six participants in Gen Why' s Bring Your Boomers #2: Activism for Everyone -- Intergenerational Dialogue Party, which takes place at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on Nov. 1, and is sponsored by For more information click here.

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