Between Generations: Learning through our difference

By Emily Fitzgerald

This morning, while on vacation in Mexico, I read a news article about a shooting in Florida. The article mentioned one of the victims, a 27 year old male UPS driver, who had picked up a shift and was caught in the crossfire. The story showed a photo of the victim’s grieving mother. At the end of passage, almost as an afterthought, a second victim was mentioned, a 72 year old man who also died while on his way home from work. I couldn’t help but wonder if this man’s age was the reason he was getting such a brief mention––as if he might have died soon anyway. 

My husband used to work at a children’s hospital with state of the art facilities, and doctors and nurses from the highest caliber schools. He now works in skilled nursing at an assisted living facility for senior citizens, where he was hired straight out of nursing school. This facility, like many others, is desperate for nurses, especially those from high-caliber schools. During his training period they were so short-staffed, they called him in to work a shift on his own. 

Both of these examples, among many others, leave me questioning the position of societies’ most experienced members of our culture. I would imagine that every young or middle-aged person would be interested in older people, considering that if we are lucky we are all going to experience being old one day. It seems that we would want to spend time with old people, if for no reason other than the fact that many people seem to want to know what to expect in the future. Or, perhaps a reason why generations are so segregated in the U.S. is that people are scared of the future, scared of growing old, and scared of dying. 

Intergenerational work implies an exchange between different generations, but is typically understood as younger people working with senior citizens. How, as a society, do we define intergenerational work? Age may be the defining characteristic, but I wonder how much the desire really has to do with age, as much as difference of experience.

To me, intergenerational work has to do with understanding the perspectives of someone with a different personal, social, and political lens created by the passing of time. It has to do with learning from those who, in their many years, have (likely) made more mistakes than I have. It has to do with a relationship to time––which I seem to have no innate understanding of. And, hopefully, the longer you live, the more comfortable you become with change. I want to become more comfortable with change. Hopefully the longer you live the more comfortable you are with yourself. I want to be more comfortable with myself. I have talked to many older people who say they are now more comfortable in their own skin. I wonder if this is something young people can learn from elders or if we need to go through the process of aging in order to get there.

There is a societal perception that our value decreases with age. There must be a part of me that believes this, at least about myself, because as I prepare to leave my 30’s, I sometimes feel that my own value is decreasing. This is why personal exchange feels so valuable in this type of work. An older person that has been able to disregard harmful societal messages about value and become comfortable in their own skin has so much to teach us all. 

So often with age comes lack of energy, decline of the body, and many other feelings that I want to avoid. There is no universal value that people of any generation provide, so I guess some of the value is in relating and listening to each other because we learn from understanding our differences.

I started doing what may be officially called intergenerational work when my Nonnie (grandmother) passed on. By that, I mean I worked with senior citizens that I wasn’t related to and brought groups of young people and older people together for different types of exchanges. I learned to use the term passed on, instead of passed away from the family of a wonderful 93-year-old who I worked with on a project. I like it more; it helps me feel like they are not totally gone. While working with seniors over the past five years, I have lost a lot of people I loved. Sometimes it is so easy to fall in love, especially with someone who has lived a very long time and has an ease of perspective that I always seem to be searching for. The sadness can take a toll after a while though; building relationships only to say goodbye so soon. 

With my Nonnie, I had 34 years to build a relationship, to know her and to ask her questions. She was one of my soul mates. Our kindred connection seemed to transcend age, time, and dysfunctional family dynamics. With her I got to be myself. Someone seeing me in my best light helped me become the angel she thought I was. At least with her. She knew me before I guarded myself against loss and hurt and held that vision of me even when I didn’t feel it. I want everyone, young and old, to have an opportunity to be seen in their best light. 

At some point I formalized the exchange with my grandma and we started working on a socially engaged photography and video project together. I documented my grandma’s life through photographs over the years. During the last year of her life I began to document our exchange, our relationship. I wanted to shift the power dynamic of me being “the photographer” and her “the subject”–– we both became photographer and subject. She took photos of me and I took photos of her. We staged images of us together and filmed our exchange. We sang songs and she wrote a children’s story. This collaboration supported our relationship and I think we got to know each other in new and different ways. So many things made us different, but it didn’t matter. There was a lightness and curiosity, rather than judgment of our difference. 

How do we find and create more of these types of exchanges? Exchanges that add value to our lives and the lives of others? What does it mean to build that type of exchange between seemingly disparate people? How do we go about building alternate forms of exchange, interactions that are not built around transaction but on creating new paradigms, even if temporary? This is of endless interest to me––how to build or support infrastructures, environments, or relationships that encourage meaningful exchange, especially among people who are different from one another. 

During an intergenerational project with youth from Beaumont Middle School and elders from Hollywood Senior Center I was interested in creating an exchange where youth and seniors could explore both the commonalities and differences between generations. As the creative producer of the project, I began by asking myself what my role was in bringing these two generations together, when I didn’t belong to either group? Wanting to make sure that the youth and seniors were directing the exchange, I started the project with seniors writing questions they wanted to ask the youth, and the youth writing questions they wanted to ask the seniors. 

Similarly, I questioned  how we were going to be able to dig deeper into more meaningful and intimate exchanges with a group of strangers when we only had six weeks together. An activity where participants mapped all the people and experiences that greatly impacted their lives helped guide the interactions in meaningful ways. Young people shared their fear of coming out as queer. Seniors shared how they understood the word ‘queer’. Students talked about depression and experiences with self-harm. One girl and older woman bonded over a love of the ukulele. One day a senior and youth came to our meeting in matching shirts. Both groups shared about people and loves that they had lost. Both groups shared their fears about the future.  

After several projects that lasted less than a few months, I was ready to work on something longer-term. Molly Sherman, one of my collaborators and dear friend, and I were thinking a lot about the ways in which we, as young white artists living in NE Portland, were contributing to gentrification. We wanted to learn about our neighborhoods from people who really understood the history of this place. Our project, People’s Homes, paired longtime residents of NE Portland with local artists to create small-scale front yard billboards that shared the homeowners’ lived experience. That year we spent a lot of time in people’s kitchens and living rooms getting to know the homeowners and their families. Collaborating artists also spent a lot of time with the residents and created custom pieces for the homeowner’s front yards based on their exchanges. In addition to the front yard billboards, we created a newsprint publication featuring conversations between the artists and homeowners, project documentation, a map of the signage installations, biographies of the project participants, and interviews with art writer Lucy Lippard about her examination of art, place, and social engagement, and Norman Sylvester about his strong commitment to community and honoring the history of North and Northeast Portland. Since the project was completed in 2016, some of the older homeowners have passed away, people who had become so dear to me. I wonder if this kind of loss is a deterrent for people engaging in work with old people.

The senior from People’s Homes that lives closest to me is Paul Knauls. He just turned 89 on January 22nd this year. He has so much energy. In November he told me he hadn’t stayed home one Saturday night since May because he was invited to so many events and parties by his friends in town. He sends me photos of the new babies born into his family or moments when he is honored by another community plaque or mural. I stop in to see him occasionally and we chat at Geneva’s Shear Perfection, the barber shop he owns. We talk about his granddaughters, my work, what he is doing in the community, and anything funny that has happened to either of us since we saw each other last. He works at the shop seven days a week greeting people with his contagious laugh and exuberant smile. 

When I returned from my vacation in Mexico about a week ago, I felt the weight of a return to the Pacific Northwest during the darkest days of winter. I wasn’t really excited to be back here and was missing the way strangers interact more freely when the sun is out, or in smaller communities. My husband and I went to the grocery store and the first person we ran into was Paul. His huge smile reminded me that this place isn’t so bad afterall. During our short catch up I noticed he was holding on to the shelf next to the Opal apples, his favorite. I guess in your late 80’s, your balance isn’t the best. He seems so youthful, but even if he lives to 100 he is still nearing the end of his life.

This exchange reminded me of the importance of knowing and sharing life with people of different generations––not just youth––but people much older than us as well. In our neighborhoods. At the grocery store. People that we have grown to know. It made me realize that without structures that encourage intergenerational exchange many of us might only know the elders in our own families. I continue to wonder how to build projects that encourage others to foster ongoing intergenerational exchange? How to get people to question the age segregation that exists? How to get people to think about what may be missing in a society that is so segregated by age? And how can we make these questions relevant to people of all ages? Age may be the defining characteristic of intergenerational work, but the value really lies in the depth of experience and perspective that comes with learning through difference.

Emily Fitzgerald is a creative consultant, socially-engaged artist, photographer, and storyteller. Through her consulting and art practice she focuses on integrating the relational and visual to elevate engagement, invoke curiosity, and demonstrate multi-dimensionality. Her work is responsive, participatory, and site-specific—seeking to shift systems of power, and build meaningful connection. Emily brings large-scale art installations into non-traditional, public and unexpected places in order to deepen our understanding, reframe our ways of relating to one another. In addition to creative consulting, Emily teaches Art and Human-Centered De- sign at Portland State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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