December 5, 2011

Opening Up New Possibilities with Personal Stories

I've been on the road throughout the fall, connecting with the amazing funders across Grassroots Grantmakers' network in a variety of ways - itching to share what I've been spotting on this blog but only now having the back-home time to sort through ideas and see what how they add up.

What is coming to mind first is my time in Indianapolis earlier this fall with members of Grassroots Grantmakers' EngAGEment Learning Circle - teams from Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, Denver, Ohio's Mahoning Valley, rural Minnesota and Indianapolis who began a two-year exploration of the intersection of grassroots grantmaking and aging last summer as part of our partnership with Grantmakers in Aging’s EngAGEment Initiative.  Over the next two years, we’ll be using the lens of grassroots grantmaking – with its focus on people as active citizens, its asset-based community development orientation, its emphasis on skillfully adapting community building and community organizing practice to elevate the role of community residents, and its artful way of using grants as an invitation instead of a destination – to explore two questions:  1) how to work as grassroots grantmakers with more intentionality about bringing older adults more fully into community in the places where we’re funding, and 2) what insights grassroots grantmaking can bring to the broader field of aging-related funding.

Since this was the first in-person meeting of this learning circle and we were laying groundwork for two years of work together, we put a high premium on getting acquainted and establishing a culture of learning at the Indy meeting. We began our first day together with the map exercise that is part of Lawrence Community Works' NeighborCircle process – using this exercise to share our personal journeys, specifically those experiences that have shaped our perceptions of aging.  I knew that this exercise would be a powerful team-building vehicle, but what I didn’t expect was the thread that ran through all of our stories - the important role that older people - grandparents or surrogate grandparents - had played in our lives. These stories provided a powerful reminder of how much younger people need older people in their lives – even when society suggests that it is older people who are the needy ones.

This experience and others over those two days really resonated with me. When I was very young, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents – fortunate to have four grandparents living in the same town with me.  My memories of time with them are so very special, and I've wondered in my adult years if they knew how much I learned from them - or ever imagined that decades later, I would still be thinking about them with love in my heart. When I was a new mother, thinking about the environment that I wanted for my children, one of the most important things on my list was a multi-generational neighborhood. Knowing that our realities included grandparents who lived far away, I wanted to find older people who could be in my children's day to day lives - and lucked out with a neighborhood that included wonderful elderly neighbors in the houses to the right, to the left, and across the street. And now that I'm of an age where I am a grandmother myself, struggling with ambivalence about my grey hair and AARP card, the realities of “aging” and “older adult” are becoming even more personal on a day to day basis.

The thing about aging is that, unlike other issues that we can work on from a distance, we all have personal stories about this issue.

When I think back to the work that learning circle members did together over our two days in Indy, what strikes me is how important it was for us to connect in with our personal stories on aging.  When we make that connection, it’s almost impossible to draw a box around aging – taking the older people in our community out of a community context and setting them down in a world that is mainly about services instead of real give-get relationships.

I want to encourage big thinkers everywhere to join our learning circle members in thinking about how your personal stories have shaped the way you think about (and work on) issues that are so often de-personalized – aging in particular, but also immigration, poverty, education, the environment, health.  And to think about how you can use your personal stories to open up opportunities for your colleagues, your grantees, and people in the communities where you are working to think in new ways about the work that they are doing – specifically about how that work resonates with their experiences as a family member, a neighbor and a friend.  My experience is that when I share something unexpected – a personal story – others find the freedom to share something that just might change the conversation.