There are certain people who touch the lives of others, some lightly, some deeply, seemingly without effort or without concern for their own standing. To me, they more closely resemble the flight of bees fertilizing one flower after another than the deliberations of those in search of influence. Some are my friends. Others are strangers who have fascinated me throughout my life.
James Agee wrote a wonderful book called Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Instead of the famous men that the title suggests, the book is about Alabama share croppers during the Great Depression, whose humanity he captured in the most concrete yet profound way. He said of his book that it was an “inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.” I have something like that in mind. I want to write about the seemingly ordinary people who serve their communities in extraordinary ways and with humility, dignity, and passion.
In the near future, I’m going to begin a series of interviews with vibrant older people who have sustained their community engagement and influence well into their old age. I am using the word ‘community’ broadly to include actual neighborhoods but also other groupings, like the GLBTQ, religious groups, people with a hearing loss, artists, and even professional groups.
The purpose of the project is to understand and celebrate leaders, some hardly known, others with some renown, who are so vital to their communities. By leader, I mean a person, most of all, who gets things done, usually as a catalyst, sometimes as an inspiration, occasionally as a manager, but always to the benefit of the many, a person who others look up to or admire, a person who matters to the community.
People like the Kelly’s (a pseudonym, because I haven’t yet asked their permission to use their real names), of whom my friend, Bill Walczak, a great community organizer himself, writes: They are “an amazing couple in Codman Square, beacons of hope in hopeless times, who have been the bedrock of that community, and the couple who, through goodness and example, kept their neighborhood from blowing up in the 70s and 80s when racial change occurred in the neighborhood. They invited new black families and couples to pizza dinners at their house to introduce them to their new neighbors, integrating newcomers of all sorts into the fabric of that community when busing was tearing it apart. Kevin started the Codman Square Health Center with me. Kevin and May are people who continue to make a huge difference in their 80s, and maintain their optimism and hope, despite their own son getting murdered about 20 years ago. Lots of people tell me that they “want to be Kevin and May” when they grow up/get older.”
People like Lauren Hatch, who I first met about twenty years ago when she was leading an organization that housed, educated, and found jobs for homeless women in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Dorchester, Massachusetts. Today, Lauren is no longer heading up an organization but works tirelessly in the same arena, now happy to assist all the official leaders in the community by mentoring and connecting them.
I have put out the word to friends and colleagues to identify these industrious souls and to introduce them to me. Already my interview schedule is burgeoning. But I want to know about as many of these leaders as I can. So I’m asking you, my readers, to introduce me to them, to tell me their stories—or your stories. And, if there’s someone you particularly want me to meet, introduce us.
I will be describing what I learn in my blog and, if I can find the stamina, in a book that features the sustaining power of these aging ‘local’ leaders.
In the meantime, here are some of the qualities that I have discovered so far and that I find so intriguing. Maybe the most remarkable quality that these elders bring to their work is a rare combination of freshness and perspective. You’d expect the perspective. They’ve been fighting the good fight for ages, seen ups and downs, strategies that succeed and fail, people who join and those who reject their missions. But the sustained enthusiasm and the pleasure in the work for its own sake that they bring to their missions after all these years is so admirable to me.
Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they have learned to act well and act decisively in a world that seems absurd. They have lived through economic depressions and natural disasters. They face opposition that makes no sense to them. They might may say that we need more jobs, better health care, and better schools for people and think “No one could disagree.” How could they? But people do—under the banner of lower taxes or fear of strangers in their land—that’s code for people of color. The community leaders might answer that “It will help your children, too.” For whatever reason, the opposition can’t factor that in, and you could tear your hair out. Even so, the community leaders that I have met move on, with less confusion and less anger than when they were younger. They’ve seen this before. They know how to take the high road.
Of course, the elder leaders have their setbacks, feel discouraged and blue. But the ones who keep on going into old age seem to have a resilience and a capacity for affirmation that is rare. ”This, too, shall pass,” they say. They have learned to work through the darkness and into the light.
The role that they play most often and best is that of mentoring the young and idealistic leaders who cross their paths. I think of people like Hubie Jones, who, in his day, built and led innumerable nonprofits but, somewhere in his seventies, called an end to formal leadership. In its place, he set up shop in a little office in City Year, whose leaders he has supported for decades, and “receives” visitors in search of his wisdom and in the hope that he will “lay on the hands,” will give legitimacy to your efforts through association with him. I know because I was one of those visitors, even though I was already sixty when we began to talk.
I’ve noticed in myself and others a withdrawal from formal leadership roles, which seem to have lost their appeal. I am grateful, for example, to have Yolanda Coentro lead the organization I founded (Institute for Nonprofit Practice) and grateful, too, that Mark Rosen serves as Board Chair. In place of those formal leadership roles, many older leaders have discovered their places in a less defined but very fulfilling set of roles: mentoring and encouraging and connecting younger people. Isn’t that how it should be?
No doubt, there are other qualities of elder leadership that I will learn about during the upcoming interviews; but this should give you an idea about what makes them special and why we should celebrate their efforts.