Diversity and Speech Part 20: Communicating across Generations – by Carlos E. Cortés

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

In those memorable opening lines of his novel, The Go-Between, writer L. P. Hartley captured many dilemmas.  The dilemma of memory.  The dilemma of change.   The dilemma of misunderstanding.

It also captured the dilemma of generations, particularly conversations across generations.  We did things differently then.  They do things differently now.   How are we going to help them understand what we experienced?  How are they going to help us understand what they are experiencing?
Diversity advocates, particularly workshop presenters, face the dilemma of communicating across generations.   At 87, I often find myself teaching people more than six decades younger than I.  This can be challenging, but also exhilarating.

Often I am the only person in the room who can speak experientially about growing up in a city dominated by legal racial segregation as well as by deeply-rooted religious boundaries.   I can describe going to professional baseball games where tickets specified the White or Colored section, separated by a wire fence.  I can tell them about picking up a date at her home, knowing that her parents might well ask me about my religion and having to decide whether to mention my Mexican Catholic father or my Austro-Ukrainian Jewish mother . . . or neither.   

Today’s students learn about Pearl Harbor; I actually remember it, listening to the newscast from our Kansas City home.  They learn about Franklin D. Roosevelt; I vividly recall the day he died.  They learn about Jackie Robinson; I saw him play with the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro American League.  I can tell them stories, but I’m never sure how well I’ve actually communicated my recollection of that “foreign country.”

Then there’s the generation gap in reverse.  To be a cross-generational workshop presenter, I also need to be a life-long learner, particularly to keep up with younger generations’ changing standards of wokeness.  I must continuously adapt my historical mindset and my cultural reference points to better understand the experiences of those one third my age.  I have to shape and reshape and re-reshape my workshops to make certain that I am connecting with their knowledge, experiences, and value orientations.

Then there is the internet.  For some three decades I gave 75-100 presentations a year, flying more than 100,000 miles annually until my 80-something body began telling me to slow down and become more selective.  The onset of COVID-19 meant I could save some road warrior bodily wear and tear, but I needed to adapt my workshops to an online format and style, as well as recognize that I was now on their playing field.   

People of diverse generations seem to react differently to online learning.  This year I have been teaching a 15-week online creative writing class, Adventures in Chronologyland.   While the two dozen participants represent a wide age range, most of them seem to be 50-somethings or older.  They often have problems with the technology, but they seem inherently comfortable about talking openly and actively in class discussions.

My diversity workshops, which usually involve much younger participants, seem to be the reverse.  Participants are technically self-assured and generous, often helping me through my inevitable digital glitches.  However, they seem more reticent than older generations about opening up, revealing themselves, and taking risks.  Avoidance of saying the “wrong” word sometimes seems to be a restraining force.

For those reasons, workshops with young people tend to be more sedate and predictable.  More predictable, that is, until some provocation or miscue occurs.  Then we’re off to the races.

I never know what that moment is likely to entail.  A visual that I have been using for years but which abruptly proves disturbing to someone.  My misuse of gender pronouns when referring to a participant who identifies as non-binary.   Saying Latino when someone in the group insists (incorrectly) that the “right” term is Latinx.      

Yet such moments sometimes work to the benefit of the workshop, transforming predictable sessions into rousing, unpredictable conversations.   This is particularly true when younger participants overcome their reticence and challenge me, often forcefully.   I wish I could bottle those moments and infuse them into all of my workshops.  It is precisely those times — when generational visions, values, and conceptions clash — that true cross-generational communication occurs.   

Crossing generations in diversity work can be a blast.  That’s one reason I hope I can keep on giving workshops for another dozen years, maybe until the time I’m 100.  These young folks have plenty to learn from me.  And I’ve still got plenty to learn from them.


Also see: Diversity & Speech Part 16: Creating an Anti-Racism Vision Statement – by Carlos E. Cortés

Photo: liane-metzler-B32qg6Ua34Y-unsplash

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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