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Letter to older activists

Dear older activists,

I hope this finds you well. I’m writing this letter, first and foremost, because I want to offer a long overdue thanks to those of you who have mentored not only me but so many of my comrades over the years. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without your support, your critical nudging, your passion, and, maybe most of all, your personal examples as people who have grown older without giving up your radical political commitments. You have played crucial, if often uncelebrated, roles in our lives and in expanding the possibilities for building broad-based transformative social movements. I don’t think you get thanked or acknowledged enough for this work.

Mentorship isn’t something that is talked about much in many of the radical circles that I inhabit. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I come out of a largely white and middle-class anarchist scene, rooted in the punk rock subculture. With many good reasons, this scene tends to be very suspicious of authority and expertise, and it really values self-reliance. For many of us in this scene, especially men, our first lessons about power were based on our battles with some of the most immediate sources of authority in our lives: our parents and teachers, both of whom offered little in the way of exciting and empowering models of cross-generational learning. I have no doubt that this goes a long way in framing how we think about learning from and with older people.

But mentorship is increasingly on my mind. Partly this is because I’m getting older myself, and I’m starting to wonder how I can nurture and support younger activists. There is a whole cohort of radicals like me, moving into our later twenties and early thirties, who are grappling with these and other related issues. I increasingly find myself in conversations about sustainable long-term movement-building as many of us look to history and think toward the future, imagining lifetimes of struggle. In these terms, mentorship seems vital. Undoubtedly, another part is that I’ve been able to learn and work with people, including some of you, rooted in other social locations and political traditions that are more richly multi-generational. Experiences like those make me realize that many of the political spaces I call home suffer from a lack of cross-generational dialogue and learning.

Pointing to this lack is of course much easier than proposing alternatives. Identifying and enacting radical models of mentorship is tremendously difficult work. Am I wrong to think that you, too, struggle to find and build these sorts of models? Do you, too, get lost or confused sometimes when you try to put them into practice? I suspect that, even for those of you who have successfully developed strong mentoring relationships with us younger activists, there are lots of ongoing unanswered questions.

This brings me to my second reason for writing this letter. In the spirit of egalitarian exchange, I want to offer you some of my own gentle critical nudging. That is, I don’t just want to thank you. I also want to make some requests of you, to challenge you to think more seriously about yourselves as mentors.

I especially want to encourage you to be more open about your uncertainties, your mistakes, and your struggles. They might seem inconsequential or quietly regrettable to you, but they have much to offer us. The Left in this country, at least in my experience, suffers from much mutual and bitter recriminations, self-righteousness, and posturing. There aren’t too many visible models of folks who are courageously and compassionately self-critical. But we can learn so much from those who are willing to talk honestly, humbly, and directly about their mistakes and sources of confusion. I know I’ve learned some of my most memorable and challenging lessons from some of you who haven’t been afraid to acknowledge ways that you’ve messed up, miscalculated, or misunderstood. I think many of us could use this kind of fearless openness, particularly from those of you who, like me, are relatively privileged. I’m talking about the courage to be self-critical, vulnerable, and willing to admit mistakes, all in the process of taking risks. This is something I’m trying to learn how to do better too.

I also want to emphasize something that is easily overlooked: we have a lot to learn from you, but there is also much you can learn from us. Perhaps one reason that some of us are suspicious of mentoring relationships is that we aren’t satisfied with the prevailing models of apprenticeship that we experience at school, at work, and elsewhere in our lives. I think there are times and places for apprenticeship, especially when it comes to learning specific skills from people who are more experienced. Yet I definitely empathize with other young activists who worry, along these lines, that mentorship simply means you tell us all of the answers and we receive them. This is what radical educator Paulo Freire called the “banking concept of education”: a fundamentally flawed view that those who know deposit knowledge in those who don’t. Of course you have so much to share. I respect that. But your generous sharing has to be rooted in a context where we listen to each other, where we collaboratively grapple with questions, where we learn together. The radical mentors who have most impacted me are those among you who, in this way, genuinely see cross-generational learning as mutually-enriching.

There is just one last request I feel I have to make. Here, I can’t be so gentle in my nudging. I’ve noticed that some of you struggle more with mentoring than others. I see this, negatively, when you sometimes give “advice” to us younger activists that sounds more like condescending lecturing than sincere sharing. Those of you who do this are often socially positioned in ways that lead you to feel deeply entitled to your expertise. And when you wield your age, experience, and achievements with self-righteous certainty, I find it hard to trust you. I’m thinking, for example, of some of you who are veterans of the often-mythologized “sixties.” There is certainly much we can all learn from the 1960s, as well as from many other historical moments. But the danger lies in romanticizing or demonizing the past, turning it into something that wholly trumps our new and creative ideas in changing circumstances. Young activists don’t need your status plays or your simplistic impositions of your past onto the present. Rather, we need you to recognize self-consciously how your past forms you, how it shapes your experience and understanding of the present in both limiting and illuminating ways. Please share that with us.

I hope for this letter to be a beginning, an opening. I spend a lot of time studying histories of U.S. social movements, and I recognize from this that cross-generational relations among activists are frequently fraught. Yet I also see that, in general, younger radicals lose out when they don’t have access to the lives and experiences of older radicals, and, in turn, older radicals lose out when they don’t have access to the imagination and energy of younger radicals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that sustained radical movements are necessarily multigenerational; they need storytelling, coalition-building, skill-sharing, collaborative reflecting, and all of the other things that mentoring relationships can foster. So, more than anything, I encourage you to reach out and share yourselves and your lives. Start thinking about how you can mentor younger activists. I’m sure you’ll find people willing to listen. And for those of you who already are, thanks again. Consider how you can deepen and extend your work. In either case, remember the importance of openness, dialogue, and mutual respect. I believe that’s the soil where rich cross-generational learning can grow. Let’s meet there.

In solidarity,

Chris Dixon

This letter was included in the collection Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow (New York: Nation Books, 2005).