The Youth and Elders Project. Interview with Co-Leader Erik Van Lennep by Willi Paul, Magazine
The Youth and Elders Project. Interview with Co-Leader Erik Van Lennep by Willi Paul, Magazine

In June of 2012 we will set sail for one week with an inter-generational crew of 30 change makers from all walks of life, forming a microcosm of the world we inhabit. As we come back from the open sea and approach land once again, the boat will become a space in which ideas for collaboration and new ways of embodying inter-generational exchange can crystallize. Being out in the open will inspire our minds, hearts and will to be open - likewise, being confronted with the very real task of sailing the boat will keep us grounded, and inspire us to move beyond concepts and words and into action.

It is a journey of self-discovery and inspiration and of coming home with new ideas and concrete steps to take. A journey of playful exploration and deep sharing - where youth and elders mirror. Your contribution will make a tremendous difference, as we collectively seek to navigate what may well be the most turbulent time in human history. In so doing, you will also be seeding new projects, new collaborations and new relationships which will be born through the fusion of elder perspectives and skills mentoring with the fire and idealism of youth. The results can only contribute to restoring balance and creativity to our shared quest for a healthier and happier world.

Contact us to receive a sponsorship package or hear more about sailing along with us in June.

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Interview with Erik by Willi

Why use a ship for both a project base and metaphor?

The metaphor is strong, that of a shared voyage and exploration. The ship is also a powerful tool for team building as the voyagers will be learning to help sail her and taking "watches" through the days and nights. In this sense the ship becomes one of the teachers. The combination of tight quarters with expansive horizons facilitates a very dynamic interaction while also making space for reflection. And of course the ship itself is pretty attractive as a venue and an experience, which helps people decide to participate. But really, the experience we are co-creating could take place in many other settings; any place where a group can get away from the everyday and focus on group process, ideation, storytelling and sharing. Future iterations of this project may well take place on wilderness hikes, lakeside retreats, permaculture blitzes...

What is eldership?

For our society and culture, we need to explore, redefine and re-articulate what eldership might mean, especially in the context of the search we are undertaking for a more sustainable way forward. As we've several generations now where elders are consigned to the dust heap, awkwardly waiting out the end of their days someplace their families visit with guilt and resignation, and simultaneously, fulfilling one further role as commodities to the retirement industry... we are in a cul de sac with respect to where and how being an elder fits.

The only way out, is back the way we came, and then to look for something more reasonable, more human, more appropriate. We can't just jump back to an idealized sense of what it is to have or to be an elder in our society. We need to reinvent the relationship consciously, and in the context of today. But for certain, the ability to share experience, to effectively create and hold space for others to explore within a defined framework, to temper the urgency of youth with an ability to consider actions more deeply, due to experience... these are attributes long associated with eldership and still needed today. So for both elders and for younger people, this is a time when the very notion of being an elder in the sense of wisdom and transfer of learning and some sort of guidance and mentoring is being considered anew. We have an increasing number of people now realizing that they are 'emerging elders'.

One of the things we said among ourselves when originally thinking of the emerging elders idea is that eldership is not simply about age; it's more about how we share our own experience in ways that support that of other generations, rather than trying to shape their experience for them. If we can learn that, we can be an elder at any age. Since early January, we have been hosting global SKYPE Circles to explore and evolve the nature of our project, speaking with some really amazing individuals of all ages.

Two of the questions which have already emerged from our discussions are:

"In what ways do you consider yourself a youth" and ...

"How do you see yourself as an elder"?

It turns out the answers are far richer, deeper and more diverse than one might imagine.

It would seem fair to say that different cultures support their elders in different ways. True?

I think so, although it's also important to recognize a few points about how we use the word "culture" in our own thinking.

In sheer numbers of cultural possibilities; the ways in which humans encode and transmit their agreed values across time and space, the ways in which we distinguish "us" from "them", our loosely agglomerated so-called western culture is just one of many thousands. Amongst the incredible diversity of cultures over time and over the planet, ours is a minority: this way of viewing human existence and community; and (at least loosely) agreed behaviors and realities.

However, in terms of sheer numbers of people who have more or less bought into the western cultural viewpoint, we are the dominant culture on the planet. So how and what we believe and do has enormous consequence. But we kinda know that. What we tend to forget, is that while it may not seem so, we still have a choice, and whether actively or passively participating, we are co-creating culture all the time.

We live a culture which sees value in terms of commodity and cash value first. People are treated according to the short term cash opportunities they provide society, and thus the under aged, the elderly, the poor, the disenfranchised are seen as afterthoughts, inconveniences and problems. When we feel like it, we celebrate our various diversities (at least the convenient ones), but for the most part, as a society and a culture, we fail to engage them. So we lose out on all the different ways in which we could be learning from each other and all the different possibilities for creative problem solving.

The societies and cultures which I've worked or engaged directly and which have a different valuation of elders and their place within the community would be termed as 'traditional', and in many cases, 'tribal' or indigenous. As a good friend and mentor, Walt Bresette (Ojibwe) used to say, "The Creator gave us all the same rules in the beginning as the peoples sat around the original campfire and were sent out into the world. The difference between indigenous societies and others, is that we were so comfortable at that fire, we stayed around it a lot longer...". So there's hope for our own culture and societies to remember and restore values once common to all societies, including the relationship between youth and elders.

What program values are now in place?

Guiding values in place in the project are that we work from the heart, the primary center of perception, and the base of interpersonal communication. This is metaphoric as well as objectively verified, by the way. We are better linked through our hearts than via the internet.

Reaffirming our commitment to work through the heart, we also affirm the ability to learn from everyone, and to share what useful knowledge and experience each of us has to offer. This is not about age, it's about being human.

We value, embrace and incorporate diversity within the group and its aspirations. We are guided by a shared desire to co-create new stories about where we are going as a society and a culture; stories which embolden us, empower us, and embed us in a world once again rich in possibilities and where our activities regenerate the ecological, and social capital previously depleted.

How are you using symbol, songs and mythology in your work there?

Much of the Youth and Elders project is still being defined. We see it as a voyage of exploration and discovery, both in its literal form as a boat journey and a floating conversation, but also in the deeper and widely interconnected sense as we speak with more and more individuals already active in their own local (and some much wider) circles. It's as if we awoke one day to find we had stepped into a meme, where many people and communities are simultaneously engaged in very convergent explorations of the role for elders and mentors...particularly in the quest for sustainability and transition to community self-reliance.

So of course there are stories. In fact stories are always the medium and the connection which bring people together. But we haven't set out to tell them; we're making the space for people to bring them out and share them. It's a co-creative process. Inevitably, mythologies, metaphors, hopes and fears, aspirations and legends weave their ways through. But again, we see ourselves more in the role of convening the sessions rather than defining the stories.

Nowhere is the digital divide more obvious than in the senior population. How do you blend a speeding socially mediated planet with the isolated world of elders?

Actually, you'd be surprised how many 'elders' we're speaking with who are flowing with the social media tides. But I take your point, and I'm also aware that we have a somewhat limited elder subset we're speaking with at this stage due to the project's reliance on social media and digital presence. Of course anytime you set out to facilitate a focused community in coming together, you end up selecting for many factors and inevitably interest and accessibility are linked.

Having said that, we also should consider that isolation is a factor of the way in which society currently sees and thus treats elders, and like many other feedback loops in the personal/social sphere, this marginalization of elders reinforces the sense of being irrelevant, disconnected and isolated. If we, and the many other convergent projects cropping up around the world can change the expectations of inter-generational connections, then much of that negative tangle of dysfunction will start to be replaced by genuine relationships, and a re-embedding of elders within a more appreciative society.

What are the major age biases in this conversation?

I think the most apparent biases are around the respective definitions of Youth and Elder, and as we've already discovered, for individuals, those categories are far too simplistic and mostly identified with in times of over-simplification and as excuses not to listen to one another. When encouraged to think further, almost everyone can tell of situations when they feel elder as a young person, or young as an elder.

Beyond that, there are biases concerning abilities expected of members of each grouping, including presumptions around impatience and being headstrong as younger people, or the notion that an elder might automatically have greater wisdom, more patience, or simply be out of touch with the world and current innovation. When we disconnect labels from individuals, and allow ourselves to embody and express the complexity each of us truly holds within ourselves, a lot of that falls away.

What accomplishments make your project team "accomplished social entrepreneurs?" How much success have you three had in the elder sphere?

Our core team comprises two younger trainers and one aspiring elder. So in some ways we embody what we hope to bring to the wider community: a creative collaboration focused upon striving toward a shared vision, bringing our collective set of experiences and skills to the task, and in a way where much of the time nobody even thinks about relative age.

We have all three been involved with social entrepreneurship for a long time. I've been at it since I was a child, and way before the expression was coined. Most of my projects have had lasting and positive social and ecological impacts, but I've learned it as I went along. There were no schools or training courses for social entrepreneurs when I started out. In any of my endeavors, communication, facilitation and support for the emergence of leadership amongst the groups has been a key factor in success.

The other team members have social enterprises focused on leadership and vision-quests, and on group process, international development, and communication of complex social issues.

• Benjamin Kafka, Impuls, Germany -
• Mark Hessellund Beanland, Denmark -
• Erik van Lennep, Tepui, US/Ireland -

Do you think that Youth and Elders can be a sustainable effort?

Absolutely so. Because it is timely, needed, and recognized as such. But also because it is evocative of something deeply felt within each person we've spoken to. Even companies and NGOs who we have invited in, tend to respond as individuals, and in a highly personal way. This tells me that a more or less universal feeling is there already. People resonate with the project because everyone has elder relatives, and many have grandchildren. In today's world we all feel the lack of stability, wisdom, guidance and support...the classic domain of mentors.

Whether our specific project will have a long or a short lifespan is as-yet unknown from where we stand, but it's obvious to me as we engage in more and more discussions with like-minded projects and communities, that the reconnection of youth with elders is a movement gathering steam.

Is stewardship your bridge between youthful visioning and elder support?

I can only speak for myself, as the project team comes into the discussion from a variety of backgrounds and focus areas. Or rather, I can say that stewardship is A bridge between the two, and for myself, a primary reason for the conversation.

Anything as essential as reforming this bridge we're discussing is most tangible and most relevant when contextualized. Without a specific context, a rallying point and focus for discussions, it remains theoretical. So by contextualizing the relationship in the sense of stewardship, we can share our discoveries and intentions through a practical application. This is experiential learning as well as applied learning. And stewardship as a concept and a way of being in the world is pretty important.

How does the voyage promote a collaborative wisdom?

We all carry wisdom: as sentient creatures, as experienced human beings of any age. In coming together for this literal voyage on the Baltic Sea, as well as the many ways we are connecting beyond the boat itself we are continually pooling our wisdom and focusing it on the twin goals of stewardship and reconnecting youth and elders. As we move forward this collaborative, co-creative project will reflect and express this in stories, strategies for mutual support, new ideas.....

"We envision a future where we live in mature societies shaped by a mature culture; a tomorrow where individuals help each other step into their highest potential, where Youth act out their passion for shaping the realities they inhabit and where Elders step into their wisdom to hold space for the generations that are emerging. "

Tell us more about 'stepping into wisdom to hold space.'

As we've been speaking with elder (and also younger) advisers in the shaping the project, we have been exploring the questions of "what does eldership mean to you?" The reply we've gotten more than once, and again from all ages, is that one of the gifts that elders bring through their experience is the ability and willingness to define topics for exploration, and through that experience to be able to see the value and the need to create a space that safely holds the conversations, and holds firm the definition agreed at the outset, in the face of temptations to lose focus or change the agenda midstream. It's many things: the confidence to keep the focus, knowing it's worth persisting, the experience of going deeper into an exploration and awaiting the synthesis of knowledge that comes back, and just bearing witness to the process. All very powerful in their own right, and the sorts of support that many younger explorers feel lacking in their immediate communities.

Connections -

Erik Van Lennep
Erik at

The Youth and Elders Project
Target="blank">EU's SALTO_Youth training site