Intergenerational dialogue at national conference aims to strengthen interfaith work

(L to R) Miranda Hovemeyer, Johnny Martin, Yusef Miller, Ardey Turner and Tahil Sharma participated in a model intergenerational dialogue at the 2017 NAIN Connect in San Diego.

During the conference in San Diego on Aug. 7, the session started with a model dialogue about generational diversity and moved into tabletop discussions among participants. Regional Coordinator for the United Religions Initiative in North America, Sari Heidenreich, spent nearly a year formulating questions and planning the discussion with an intergenerational planning team. They were acutely aware that, often times, interfaith work in North America is by people who are retired or in the “second half of life.”

“If the [interfaith] movement is going to grow, we need all of the ideas we can get,” Heidenreich said. “Sometimes as people who have been doing this work a little longer, we can get stuck in our ways, jaded. We have to listen to what everyone has to share and bring to the table.”

Heidenreich said that this theme resonates with the URI value of youth leadership in the interfaith movement. In a rapidly-changing world, what worked five years ago isn’t necessarily going to work today, and young leaders are part of integrating more people into the interfaith movement.

Some of the questions included inquiries into experiences people had relating across generations, things that have been challenging in relating across generations and, and ways people can honor each other better inter-generationally in the future.

Each table for participants had a talking piece, sand timer and a printout with the discussion questions.

“We spent a long time crafting the questions that were asked at the tables,” Heidenreich said. “I think it’s a powerful thing for people to share experiences and our stories because that’s what really helps us understand each other. Sometimes our inkling is that we don’t want to ruffle feathers. I want to be bold in sharing my experiences, positive and negative, so they can be learned from.”

Chair of the URI Leadership Council Ardey Turner has worked with URI as a volunteer since its early days and was one of the model dialogue participants. She said that people who are new to interfaith work may feel reluctant to speak their truth. She wants everyone to know that what they have to say is important. When working with URI members, whatever part of life’s journey they are on, Turner said that their perception can bring new highlights to the discussion.

“That’s why we work in consensus,” Turner said. “To really hear everyone.”

Director of URI’s Young Leaders Program, Matthew Youde, although not present at the event in August, worked with the team that planned the intergenerational dialogue session. He said that the interfaith field, in general, is more “elder centric” because it often brings faith leaders, who are rarely young, together. However, Youde said that Millennials, as the largest generation, can’t afford to not be leading in the interfaith movement.

“The generational aspect of (leadership) is being talked about a lot more, so I think it’s also appropriate to talk about what that means in the world of peacebuilding,” Youde said. “These sort of spaces can be labs for (inter-generational) practices, but it needs to be mainstream: translate this into a change in how we do the work we do so it’s more accessible to other people.”

Youth Coordinator at Arizona Interfaith Movement, Johnny Martin, who was also a model dialogue participant, said that the discussion showed him how conversations on interfaith understanding and work and intergenerational understanding and work can happen at the same time. His biggest takeaway from the panel was the importance of not stereotyping people by their age.

Martin said he really felt like the panel modeled inter-generation discussions: although in the beginning, it felt like people were sticking to their “clique,” through dialogue, people began engaging with each other.

“It’s empowering to me when older people lift up my voice,” Martin said. “And I can avoid wasting a lot of time and energy if I sit down and listen to older folks.”

Another benefit of generations sharing leadership is that, often, when there is age diversity, gender, ethnic and economic diversity come into play, Youde said.

When working with different generations, both Youde and Martin said it’s important to remember how economic inequality, employment, and power dynamic could hinder the pathways to leadership for young people. Even for conferences such as NAIN Connects, there has to be consideration of best practices so people who have full-time careers, children, or may not have the ability to travel are able to participate.

This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Grace King. You can read more of her work here