Youth Dialogue Project World Cafés

Rockrose Institute’s Youth Dialogue Project World Cafés for the 2008 National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation Conference in Austin
by Mariah Howard and Deborah Goldblatt


The team: etsuko kubo, Abigail Joseph, Deborah Goldblatt, Alissa Gentille, Jonna Justiniano, Mitch Findley, Milton Reynolds, Ken Homer, Nick Challed, Mariah Howard

How do you get ten people, ranging in ages from 21 to 58, to collaborate and design three sessions for a national conference on the topic of inter-generational relationship and live to write about it?  Mariah Howard and I, Deborah Goldblatt, both team members of Rockrose Institute’s Youth Dialogue Project for NCDD’s 2008 bi-annual conference have collaborated on this story with the intention of sharing some of the lessons and challenges that emerged during our Cafés – and hope those lessons will aid others doing inter-generational work.

Bringing together people across the spectrum of age is potent and at times raw, requiring time and energy you always wish you had more of.

On paper, in NCDD’s conference guidebook, it appeared simple enough: Two concurrent workshops and one sub-plenary held at the end of a hallway in an Austin, Texas hotel.  People who attended the three sessions that weekend in October walked into a space that had been prepared for them through dialogue, laughter, challenging conversation, tears, reflection, bold ideas, and sharing from the heart.

In total, ten designers made up our circle.  We are teachers, facilitators, parents and leaders. Some of us work in non-profit organizations, some support teachers in classrooms, others are consultants, and all of us are passionate about and committed to shared leadership. We had never worked together as a group before our first design session, and many of us had never met.

As we all know, everything begins with one conversation.  Person by person we came together out of a conversation between Deborah Goldblatt and Ken Homer about creating an opportunity for younger adult leaders to host inter-generational dialogue sessions at NCDD’s conferences.  That conversation culminated over several months into Deborah and Ken’s proposal for three workshops, which were then selected by NCDD’s planning committee early last summer.  In the end, between the ten of us, we hosted two concurrent sessions at NCDD, one World Café designed specifically for participants under the age of 30 and another for a group of people over 30, respectively titled “Including Our Voices: Young Adult Leadership in the D&D community” and “Creating Room at the Head of Our Tables:
Exploring New Mentoring Roles as Young Leaders Emerge
”. The sub-plenary was a trans-generational gathering welcoming all ages into a World Café conversation and exploration, drawing from questions that surfaced the day before in our two previous sessions for the purpose of cultivating inter-generational leadership within the D&D community.


Those who were representing the young adult leadership in this project were already part of a close-knit community of ‘On The Move‘s program called ‘On The Verge’ (OTV). Their mission is to develop the skills and vision of young people in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who have chosen to Team-member
become leaders in organizations committed to social change and social service.  Each of the six “Vergers”, as they are known, are skilled facilitators, teachers and mentors. Along with their own voices and experiences, they brought into our work a variety of group processes and ‘Verger culture’ born from their time spent in circles and meetings together. In many ways the Vergers were the heart of our circle.

The other four ‘Mentors’, ranging in ages from 32 – 58, came from a variety of work experiences and parts of the world, each bringing their gifts, experiences and practices from activism, the arts, civic engagement, business, education, parenting, and the process arts, including stewardship of the World Café process.

Our planning retreat weekend took place in the Fall where we spent two long days getting to know one another, sharing stories, exploring questions about inter-generational relationship in World Café conversations, choosing roles, clearing assumptions about our task and determining our measures of success.  Developing the content and design of the sessions became an on-going process through emails, conference calls and more face to face time until moments before our conference sessions began.

At our first meeting, we took the time to explore how people felt about labels. One challenge in using an age cohort is how to determine age categorically. What age is the end of ‘youth’ and the beginning of ‘tweener’ and the start of ‘elder’?  It’s arbitrary and subjective choosing these age ranges for other people.

Some of us could be considered ‘youth,’ others could be labeled as ‘elders’ or ‘mentors,’ and the rest could be categorized as ‘tweeners’ because they fit in-between the youth and elder labels as a bridge connecting youths and elders. Sometimes that bridge role feels like being stuck in the middle, other times it provides a balancing and rich perspective.

Along with the tweeners, there are others who act as a bridge; some people have the gift of being able to translate the work and words of young people into language that elders can grasp, and vice-versa. Other translators have a gift of being able to express what is taking place in the room, acting as a voice for the circle itself.

Unpacking these labels brings up one of the early lessons we encountered: it’s important to be clear and conscious about the language we use when describing each other. In particular it was necessary to unpack the term ‘youth’ and its many associations. While we may use the term habitually, it can have a pigeonholing affect. What if someone doesn’t like being called a youth because they feel there are status or power dynamics associated with the term? Another person might not want to be identified by age, so how do they fit in and can we create space for that age-less option? We made a space for this discussion and came to a good enough resting place, one where we could use the terms and understand some of the feelings and history that lay beneath them.

As we built familiarity over the weekend, there were two highlights of connection and clarity for the group.  To open our circle, we individually shared photographs or artifacts from our families, bringing a more “trans-generational” quality to our circle and, hopefully, to our planned sessions.  Later, we spoke individually in a fishbowl process – elders listening to youngers and vice-versa.  Our questions were: “Why are we here and why does this matter to me?”

More time could have been given to clarifying our roles.  Asking a group, “Does everyone fully understand their roles? Do we all feel we know the purpose and the goals of our gathering?” would be critical to visit and re-visit along the way.

Looking back on our co-creation and the “very positive” impact we made on the D&D collective, it is clear that younger people in particular want to be asked this question:  “How can the whole D&D community help young people succeed and thrive through D&D?  Mariah’s visual recording of the young adult leadership session illustrates some of the ideas and requests for mentors and elders:

“We want people to ask us how we can get there and what we need.  We need you to listen, not lecture.  Having a lot of one age in a room can be a block to younger people joining in.  Cheesy talk doesn’t cut it across generations and cultures.  How can we be brought into the design and processes for our understanding?  What is our role in articulating our needs and our responsibility for sharing those needs?  How many times have I let tension in the room go unspoken/unnoticed (because I’m the youngest in the room)?  When we have full partnership, older adults don’t need to come in and fix.  Risk, allow failure.  What would it mean for an older person to let go of their power and value?  Older adults need to break habits of fixing or supporting right away.  Frame the conversation more in terms of ally than mentor.  What constitutes legitimacy in a community?  Who has the entitlement to bestow legitimacy of someone’s work and skill sets?  Acknowledging people (at NCDD) here have a heartbeat for change, and an interest in collaboration, what does really collaborating across generations look like?”


A challenging moment surfaced early on in the young adult session that resulted in one of the “more seasoned” participants leaving the room feeling unwelcome.  His discomfort had to do with the design of splitting younger and older apart (Under 30’s and Over 30’s) to raise issues and questions independently before coming together across generations in the sub-plenary.

Nick Challed, one of the facilitators and hosts of the young adult session, in his report back to Sandy Heierbacher, E.D. of NCDD, comments on this challenge:  “Perhaps the language could be framed differently, and the purpose of these sessions more clearly defined, however I think there is actually a very important value and opportunity for both younger and older generations to engage in separate dialogue to better explore and process the challenges that arise around intergenerational leadership and work”.

Nick also reports, “A great source of inspiration and potential could be found by especially bringing in programs for youth (ages 13-18) that are practicing, or interested in practicing, D&D methods. My experience is that youth are in some ways “naturals” for D&D. I’ve found them very willing to dive into deep and meaningful conversations and engage in creative solutions for tough problems. I think they have less “social masks” and barriers to wade through than us adults! Again, the networking and creation of “youth-friendly” spaces (ie: not tons of jargon!) will make this possible. It would also be essential to bring in and network with the leaders of these programs who often are young adults themselves.”


Following the long first day’s work of the two concurrent sessions at the conference, our design team spent several hours in circle that evening. This time, by our collective invitation, Edd Conboy, our appointed listener and witness to our overall process, facilitated our de-briefing dialogue.  Issues surfaced among us about “Authorship, Ownership and Stewardship”. Edd’s AOS model presents a way to process parent-child projections, which can often arise in cross-generational work. We could see that further processing between and among us as a leadership team, clearing conflicts from the day, would assist us in making the most out of our following day’s sub-plenary.  Several key learnings surfaced out of those late hours together.  One example was, provided we agree that trust is something to be given away, not earned, is the permission elders can give themselves to raise issues to be worked through, then walk away to rest, and trust whatever resolution is created in their absence.

Another learning example was our tendency to be expedient rather than qualitative.  Do we sacrifice the quality of our questions to end our planning session on time, dismissing the expertise that’s being offered to go deeper?  It would have been potent in that late hour to explore the questions that we designed by asking “ Why is the subject or question significant to you?”

Decision-making processes and agreements remained a bit murky at times.  In an inter-generational group you naturally have a wide range of experience levels, so the rules you create together can take into consideration what people can offer and how they can contribute their expertise and gifts.  Time often presented a challenge in several phases of our work, however this crucial area needed more refining in our group.


Again, as Nick Challed points out, “As someone mentioned in the sub-plenary, many of the conversations that arose were not much different than any conversation dealing with inherent issues of power, ally-ship, and bridge work, such as discussing issues of race, sexual orientation, etc. My experience has been that doing “caucus” type work, where for example, people of color and white folks discuss some issues separately, is sometimes very important to heal and process the challenges we are uniquely facing. I believe there is also an important value of engaging in these caucus-like conversations around generational work with a bigger purpose of us coming together. Again, this is not only for the younger generations to have “their space” but also for the older generations to have the same. We have unique experiences and roles throughout this process of working across generations and sometimes engaging in dialogue specifically with those who directly identify with your experience is helpful and healing.

I believe it is also worth noting that it is common, from my own and others experience, for folks who tend to be in the positions of power to complain about this structure of “caucus” work, and claim that it is a form of discrimination and non-constructive. For example, when I have been in structures of dialogue that provide a space for people of color and white folks to meet together to discuss strategies of healing and building bridges from racism, some of the white folks have claimed this to be a problem – never people of color. This is not to say that issues of working across generations and race are identical, but I do believe some similar power dynamics do exist when we deal with issues of leadership.”


From the elder or Over 30 session questions, the sub-plenary generated the longing to create spaces for generations to share power.  It was heard that “Change is natural, the process needs to be intentional” and it was suggested that by beginning with an “Elder/Youth Jam” celebration, it might kick things off to a good start!  There were requests for opening current boundaries by becoming more dialectic. It was clearly noted that fear is keeping generations boxed in.  Someone expressed “Pause to ask yourself:  “How can I help you get to the next level, (regardless of age)?”  “How do we communicate in youth generated language?”  “Why are we still using dualistic language?”  Another question was “How/What conditions are present to allow people to let go of their power they possess cross-generationally?  After all, isn’t leadership all about empowerment – strengthening each other?”

Due to the fact that we had a challenging closing circle in Austin, we experienced on another level the importance of taking time to appreciate the work we’d done, our contribution and relevance to one another. To devote space and time for everyone to check out of the circle as we checked in and honor what we see in one another is essential to making an honorable closure. We used a process from Angeles Arrien’s work of gratitude practice, speaking briefly about our key challenges, offering forgiveness or making reparation, if needed, and discussing next steps.  We also expressed appreciation for one another by naming specifically what struck us or moved us about a person’s words or actions and committing to take time for creating the ‘end pieces’ of the work: the continued conversations, reports, writing this article, the Visual Recordings, photographs, and the digital stories.

People of all ages respond to Image Theater work, as well as Digital Stories, and non-traditional ways of communicating. We had a chance through this project to put into practice our creativity, values and theories about inter-generational leadership. In designing and facilitating with an inter-generational team, we had the opportunity to trust people much younger than we are and see that they can care for their needs, recognize the needs of elders, and lead.

Being in this group provided us with a space to become more aware about our judgments of people in other age groups – seeing into what we don’t know, as well as discovering how people of other ages can contribute to us. One simple question observed on a Café table, asked, “No, really, how are you?”  This is one small but significant way to foster respect between generations that seems to get forgotten all too often.


Out of this successful and sometimes magical inter-generational collaborative journey, another seed has been planted to co-author an On the Verge Inter-generational Project next year.  Perhaps this “new day” we’ve all been waiting for, of transparency, accountability and willingness to really listen to one another will assist us in this vital work of inter-generational collaboration.

* * * * * *

The fabulous photographs in this piece were taken by Mitchell Findley. If you’d like to see more photos from this event, have a look at his Flickr pages, here and here.

If you’d like to read this story from a slightly different angle, see the report in the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation blog.

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