Connecting the Dots Across Generations

I haven’t written a blog post in three weeks.

No, I haven’t been goofing off or enjoying our return to so-called normal.

Instead, I’ve been trying out new ideas while working on my next book, Connecting the Dots. As regular readers of these posts know, it will tell the story of some remarkable young activists who are working to build solutions to the many problems that the pandemic has forced us to face—including many we should already have been facing.

I’m learning a lot about institutionalized racism, economics, climate change, and the other issues those activists work on which helps explain why I’m writing less than I usually do.

However, I also found myself intellectually adrift. I was missing something that I couldn’t put my mental finger on. And it was driving me nuts.

Until I had a Zoom meeting with Laura Webber who will have a “starring” role in the book.

Laura and Melvin Webber

As is often the case, there is a backstory here because Laura has touched my life in two very different ways. A few summers ago, she served as an intern with us at the Alliance for Peacebuilding on  a project that explored the connections linking research on neuroscience, spirituality, and peacebuilding. 

That was our first “point of contact.” Even though I wasn’t involved in that project on a day-to-day basis, I quickly realized that she was one of the smartest young peacebuilders I had ever met. So, because I spend a lot of time mentoring—and learning from—young people like her, I decided to help her build her career. We’ve kept in touch as her career took her to Northern Ireland and back to France, and I’ve routinely called on her to help out on projects I’m working on.

I also found a second way to connect with Laura on the day we met. Since I knew that she was from the Bay Area, I asked if she was related to Steven Webber who teaches political sciences at the University of California-Berkeley and whose work on American foreign policy I had admired for years. She hadn’t heard of Steve, but she said that her grandfather had taught urban planning there. I shrieked something like, “you’re Melvin Webber’s granddaughter?”

He had died when she was very young, so she only knew him as “grandpa” and hadn’t realized how important Melvin and his colleague Horst Rittel had been for my generation of activists and scholars. They were urban planners who saw our cities continue to deteriorate a d were also frustrated by the seemingly never-ending war in Vietnam. Both were wicked problems not because they were evil but because they seemed so intractable. As I describe them today, wicked problems have causes and consequences that are so inextricably intertwined that they can’t be solved quickly, easily, or separately—if they can be solved at all.

A Multigenerational Project—Literally

But Laura didn’t call me last week to talk about her grandfather’s legacy.

Instead, she had a project of her own to run by me which I’ll concentrate on here and mostly leave the ways it connects to her grandfather’s work until next week. 

That said, she certainly understood what her grandfather had been saying. Like so many members of her generation. She understands that the crises that burst into the news since the start of the pandemic—the murder of George Floyd, and the 2020 election and its aftermath—feel like a whole bunch of wicked problems on steroids. That is why she and the other young activists I will be profiling realize that they will have to connect the dots across issue-based as well as ideological silos.

But she also understands something that I don’t think her grandfather ever wrote about. Because wicked problems can never be solved quickly, she realized that the members of her generation will have to make a life-long commitment to making progress on each and every one of them. So, perhaps because she has been working with some of elders in our field and perhaps because her own parents are on the verge of retirement, she wants to know how people stay involved in a cause once they realize that they mat not reach their goals during the course of their lifetimes, let alone in the next few days or weeks or years. 

What she said makes sense. After all, it took us centuries to create all these problems. So, why should we assume that we can take care of them in a shorter period of time?

Still, her message initially scared the crap out of me because it makes the challenge we face seem all the more daunting. I was only able to pull myself out those self-induced doldrums when I began thinking about what we elders—including this one—might have to offer. That, in turn, took me back to my professional and political roots and to why I’ve been able to spend half a century working for peace and justice and keep at it even though we have not made anything like the progress I thought we would make when I was a student at Oberlin the late 1960s.

So, she now has me thinking about a project in which young activists can learn about making life-time commitments from people like me whom she graciously called “elders” rather than a term I increasingly use for myself—geezer. That, in turn, let me to revisit two  aspects of my own political and professional life that could help focus both my book and my activism in whatever time I have left.

And maybe help Laura in the process.

My Own Aged Research

Laura had no way of knowing this, but I focused on a less age-related version of this problem in my early research projects, especially in my PhD dissertation which became my first book. In 1972-3, I spent an academic year in France studying the Unified Socialist Party which struck me as the one new left initiative in the world that had the most to offer American radicals. It had helped lead opposition to the French war in Algeria in the early 1960s, built a base of support in the working class especially among unionized Catholics, and, most importantly, had positioned itself to the left of the Communist Party during protests in May 1968 which came close to toppling the regime of President Charles de Gaulle. And, to the shock of American radicals of the day like me, it had won five per cent of the vote in the presidential election in 1969.

Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, the PSU was in decline. Within two years, it would be swallowed up by the mainstream Socialist Party that came to power a decade later during the presidency of François Mitterrand.

So, I was surprised that so many of its activists were willing to devote ten hours a week or more to a party who future was bleak indeed. Over the course of a year, I attended countless Gauloise-filled meetings and interviewed near one hundred fifty party members in an attempt to figure out why they stuck with the dying party. Several thousand regression equations pointed me to a conclusion that stood out from the rest of my data. 

Most remained active  because they were still convinced that they were having an impact. Most, in fact, continue to milite in Mitterrand’s party, their unions, or the feminist abd environmental movements once the PSU itself died. As young academics are wont to do, I coined my own piece of jargon to describe those commitments—organizational efficacy. Rather than the individual sense of empowerment that political scientists of the day focused on, I sensed that these folks soldiered on (pun intended) because they were convinced that they were making progress.

At about the same time, my friends Ron Rapoport, Jere Bruner, and i did some research comparing radicals and other Oberlin students five years after we graduated. We never published the findings, but they echoed what I found among PSU activists. 

A decade or so later, Sandy Maisel and I wrote an article on radical activists within the Democratic Party for a book Ron co-edited and discovered that something akin to what I called the organizational efficacy of PSU militants held among what we called the “tumbleweeds” who came in and out of electoral politics depending on who the candidates were.

Notes from a Fiftieth Reunion

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about how this kind of efficacy applied to the twenty-first century very much until Laura called to outline her project. I had lost track of all the PSU militants and those mid-level Democratic Party activists Sandy and I analyzed. I have, however, kept up with a lot of my Oberlin contemporaries, many of whom could actually be Laura’s first wave of interviewees. 

 When we began planning our reunion in 2018, I was already surprised by three things that made Laura’s project ring true once I remembered them:

  • how many of my fellow radicals from those were still politically active
  • how many classmates who were not all that radical in those days had become more active on climate, gender, race, and other issues
  • how many of my friends were looking forward to the reunion as an opportunity to talk about what we could do in the rest of our lives rather than reliving our exploits from the old days

Meanwhile, the Alumni Office decided to run an experiment. They thought it would be cool if the members of our class offered some words of advice to that year’s senior and asked my friend Bonnie Wishne (two seats to my left in this picture) and me to coordinate the project. Neither of us liked the idea until we decided that it would be just as much fun to ask the class of 2019 to give us some advice, too.

Although our prompts to the two classes were a lot vaguer than Laura’s will be, we found a lot of openness to learn from each other on both ends of the generational divide. We hoped the young people would never lose the sense of engagement for which is justifiable proud. They hoped that we would learn from them especially about issues like the use of gender pronouns or the rights of the LGBTQ+ community which were not on most of our agendas half a century ago. 

We passed the results out at a picnic dinner attended by members of both classes. As Bonnie , some other volunteers, and I passed them out, we talked about our conclusions with the seniors (and their parents) in ways that carried over into our class’s discussions that weekend when we were on our own. 

Most of us have retired and therefore most of us have time on our hands. Unlike earlier generations of retirees, most of us still have our health, while few of us want to just play golf, go on cruises, or visit the grandkids (although we all would love to do more of the latter as the pandemic eases). We dedicated the two morning sessions to issues that included our political futures, both of which I also helped organize. The first day we met in small groups, most of which ended up focusing on the future of progressive politics. The next morning we met in separate men’s and women’s breakfasts as we have done at every reunion since our twenty-fifth in 1994.

As the men’s and women’s breakfasts demonstrate, we are looking for ways of staying engaged on the new issues that have emerged since we graduated. Like my PSU activists, my Oberlin classmates remain involved because we are still convinced that we can—and do—make a difference. A few of us have our sights still set on the national stage, especially those of us who live in the DC area and have worked “inside the Beltway” during our careers. I’m struck more, though, by the way my friends are poised to get involved in their local communities on the issues of the twenty-first century.

It was easy for progressives to feel pessimistic in 2019 just as it is now. However, when we took the time to look backward over our professional and political lifetimes (which are the same for a lot of us), we realized that we could point to progress on all of the issues that still stymied us at the end of our professional careers. And that we’d each had something to do with making some of that progress.

And on to Wicked Problems

Obviously, I hadn’t heard of Laura’s project when I did my research in France or even when I planned that reunion. Nonetheless, once I summoned up all of those memories, I came to a very different one than I did when she and I first spoke. A few weeks ago, I was convinced that we geezers didn’t have much to offer. Now, I think we do—not on the the specific issues we face but on how one goes about getting involved and staying involved in dealing with them.

Much of that is emotional and depends on the ways we personally react to the events that take place around us, which is what I’ve focused on here.

Next week, I’ll go on to consider what Laura’s generation and mine can do about the kinds of wicked problems her grandfather first warned us about.

For what it’s worth, Laura’s grandfather and my father were born five days apart.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.