This past year Edgewood United Church and Haslett Community Church in East Lansing, Michigan, received a grant from the National Setting of the United Church of Christ to jointly have an Environmental Justice Fellow. I was that fellow, and I want to share with you about my learning experience, especially as it relates to intergenerational learning.
At the beginning of my fellowship, I sat down with the Rev. Betsy Aho and the Rev. Liz Miller to draft what we called a “learning agreement” as a goal-setting exercise. I was asked to write down goals I had for my time in the fellowship within three categories: cognitive goals, skills goals, and personal growth goals. Within this framework, I detailed the things I wanted to learn during my time at their churches. Among my cognitive goals were increased knowledge about environmental justice and parish ministry. I also wanted to develop skills for preaching, identifying community needs, and verbalizing the intersection of faith and environmental justice. I additionally wanted to learn things that will serve me as I discern future career goals like working with people of all ages and developing networks.
Developing a learning agreement helped us to design my fellowship in a way that met my own goals and served the community that I’d be working with. Out of this goal-setting exercise came five activities that I carried out over the course of my fellowship: (1) a presentation and dialogue session about food, agriculture, and the environment, (2) an art activity about climate hope for members of the youth group, (3) a book club, (4) an Oxfam Hunger Banquet, and (5) a sermon at both churches.
In leading an art activity for a group of people younger than me, I was well within my comfort zone. I have had lots of opportunities for that kind of leadership and find genuine joy in this unique style of learning exchange. As part of the UCC’s Climate Hope art contest, the art activity enabled young people to share their art skills as well as the things that made them feel hopeful about the state of the climate. I saw it as an opportunity to also learn about climate science and why finding hope in the midst of overwhelmingly negative circumstances can be a powerful tool.
The thing I learned from this group of young people was how many leaps and bounds ahead of me they were in this conversation. Not only were their school curriculums equipping them with a much more robust base knowledge necessary to understand climate change, but they also had a much firmer grasp of the power of hope than I do myself. In noting the hope of this younger generation, I know I sound like I am making the same cliche observation that I hear from people older than me too often. (In fact, I’m about to complain about that below.)
Another powerful intergenerational learning experience for me came with the book club that I led. It made me much more nervous than I expected it would. I found myself sitting at a table full of people who had much more life experience than me and had already done incredibly cool things with their lives. Some of them were even professors of peers of mine and were measurably smarter than me. I was intimidated, but what I found as the group got to know each other was that we all had something to learn from each other.
One moment stands out in my mind as a shining example of intergenerational learning. The book we were reading sparked conversations about the climate crisis. People in this room fell pretty firmly into the generational categories of boomer, gen-X, and myself a gen-Z. Boomers in the room expressed the sentiment that young people give them hope for the future of the climate. This sentiment had been shared in this room many times before. This time I shared my own perspective. “Young people are angry,” I said, “being angry is exhausting.” To this an older woman in the room said to me something I had never heard before. “We were angry too.”
This comment made me hear her gratitude for the hope given to her by young people in a different way. For the first time, it didn’t seem hollow. For the first time, I felt like I had been passed the baton in a relay race worth running, rather than being expected to sprint a marathon that I didn’t even sign up for. For me, knowing that the generations before me were angry too helped me to feel the support of the people who were fighting the same good fights generations earlier.