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How to Work With “Difficult” Community Elders

A baby penguin happily standing in the middle of two adult penguins who are happily looking down at it.
Image Description: A baby penguin happily standing in the middle of two adult penguins who are looking down at it.

A few years ago I visited a Vietnamese community leader to get a letter of support for a grant proposal I was writing. It was for a project designed to mobilize youth and elders to work together to create a ten-year vision for the community. I got yelled at. “You are only doing this work because you have no intelligence or talent,” the elder said. “Otherwise, you’d be a doctor or a lawyer or some other respectable profession. Now you are just using your community as a way to make a living. This grant is just a way to pay your salary. Shame on you!” This was a low point in my career, and I wondered why I bothered to do community work.  

As RVC works to help our partner organizations develop their capacity, a frustration that often comes up is the difficulty of dealing with elders. Many join boards, where they stay for years, even decades, preventing progress, despite not have any experience with nonprofit management, program delivery, board governance, fundraising, or other skills that would be useful to the nonprofit. They often drive younger people up a wall, sometimes causing them to leave the sector in a ball of burning rage.

And few of us are prepared to handle this. I got a Master’s in Social Work, and not once did we talk about dealing with difficult community elders and all the cultural dynamics wrapped up in these relationships. This is not a topic that is covered in Board Governance 101 workshops.

So all of us are left scrambling and making mistakes. The problem is that the mainstream model of board governance best practices often fails to account for cultural dynamics. It also fails to take into consideration the positives, the strengths, that elders bring. And we younger leaders, lacking trainings in these dynamics, perpetuate the same sort of ineffective engagement with our elders, trying to force the mainstream model of board governance we learned onto our boards, with disastrous consequences.

I was told by some funders, for example, that they were not supporting the organization I was then leading because our board was too messy and not conforming to standard board best practices. “Many of your board members have been on the board for 20 years. That’s not good. You need new leadership.” So I went to my board and told them, in so many words, “If you want this organization to survive, y’all gotta go.” This caused resentment and decreased morale and nearly destroyed my organization.

Because community elders play a prominent and critical role in our communities, and thus our community organizing and capacity building work, we need to completely rethink how we engage with them. Please keep in mind that these are general suggestions. Our elders, like other generations, are diverse. We should avoid stereotyping them. With that in mind, however, here are a few suggestions I have, based on over a decade of working with community elders:  

Be appreciative: Elders play an important role in our community. They are often the keepers of culture, history, and tradition. They are the best connections we have to our heritage. They often provide a calming presence when community tension runs high, serving as our moral compass. Many of us younger people have forgotten this. We only see the negatives, not the strengths that our elders bring.

Slow down: I have seen so many community efforts get derailed because the young leaders leading them are in too much of a hurry. Take time to figure out who are the key leaders you need to check in with, and take time to build those relationships. Understand the balance between short-term convenience and long-term investment. Yes, if you slow down and check in with the elders, that will cost you time. But having those strong relationships will not only help you in this project, but all projects you will lead in the future.

Search for understanding: Many of our elders have gone through things we can only imagine. My father was put into labor camp after Saigon fell. Another colleague’s father was imprisoned for ten years. Those of us who are younger will never completely understand what that’s like. We never lived through it. Few of us have actually had a deep conversation with our elders about what they went through, their sense of loss—of homeland, of power and status, of loved ones. It is easy to dismiss our elders as old-fashioned and holding up progress when most of us can barely imagine what they have had to endure to get here.

Be sympathetic: Many elders have gone through a lot, but they also face considerable challenges here psychologically, economically, and even existentially. Many still carry wounds from the traumas they endured. Some have PTSD from war and immigration, combined with the constant guilt of having left friends and family members behind. Some go from having prestige and community respect, to now possibly feeling like they are on the margins of society. Many feel a sense of being out of place, especially as they might not speak the dominant language fluently, and as their kids and grandkids grow up and acculturate.

Use one-on-one meetings: The one-on-one meeting is one of the most critical tools in your arsenal. The one-on-one will prevent tension from arising, and will decrease it when it does get to that point. Prioritize meeting one-on-one with elders in the community you are working in. You don’t even need an agenda. The purpose is to get them to know you, and to know them better. Hear their story, share yours. Talk about whatever interests them. Talk about your hope and vision for the community. Ask them who else you should talk to.

Be where people are: It is a sign of respect to go to people, not expect them to come to you. I mean this in the figurative sense, but also in the literal. Go to their offices, churches, temples. Go to their social gatherings. And remember that you are in another’s space. Be curious and respectful. Look around your surroundings and ask about the pictures and objects you see. Ask the elders to tell you about the people in the pictures, about why certain objects are meaningful to them.

Reflect on your role: Often, we may have the right message, but we are not the right messengers. It doesn’t matter if you have the degree, the data, the skills, etc., to back up your point of view. If you are not the right messenger, the message is unlikely to get through. I’ve seen young community leaders with brilliant plans get frustrated because elders do not see them as the right person to lead the effort, for various reasons: They just moved to the area so they are not yet seen as an insider, their parents are famous or infamous for something, etc. It is important to take time to analyze whether you are or are not the right vehicle for some of the work you are trying to do, or if you need to play a supporting role.

Acknowledge people: This is a huge lesson I learned: checking in with elders and asking for their advice works miracles. You don’t even have to follow their advice if it does not make sense to do so. Simply the act of asking for it helps to build relationships. Oftentimes, the tension between a community elder and a young leader happens because the younger person fails to acknowledge the elder. Acknowledge elders by asking for advice, sharing your visions, and bouncing ideas around. They appreciate it, relationships are strengthened, and they often have brilliant ideas and perspectives that you may not have thought about.

Ask for other elders’ help: This is one positive result that comes out of having strong relationships with other elders. People are just naturally more likely to listen to their peers. After I got yelled at by that elder, I called up another elder and asked him for advice. He said he would talk to the first elder and vouch for me. That made things go far smoother.

Use symbolic gestures: The elder above whom I asked for advice also said, “Go visit [the other elder] and bring him some oranges.” I thought that was ridiculous, but I did it anyway. It made a difference. Food is important in many cultures, as is the exchange of small gifts. The oranges themselves were not as important as the fact that I symbolically acknowledged his presence and showed appreciation.

Question the mainstream model: Many of the “best” practices that we learn about have never had the lens of culture applied to them. The funder who told me that his foundation would not support my organization because our board members have been on the board for 20 years and that’s not a “best practice” probably never considered the fact that for many of these elders, joining the board of this community organization is not just a hobby. It is a way of holding on to a sense of community, a sense of prestige, a sense of purpose. For these elders, it is not just a way of spending a few hours a month doing something; being on this board or that advisory committee helps them to maintain an identity that they may desperately need after war and other trauma and the ensuing existential crises that many elders continue to go through.

Be a bridge between elders and dominant society: Our job, as community leaders, is not simply to take the dominant models and systems and find a way to make them work. Our job is also to be a bridge and to speak up for our communities, including our elders. Instead of thinking, “Why can’t these elders just do it this way! This is the way I learned is the best way to do things!” we should think, “Does this really work for my community? Who is being left behind by this? How do I help change systems and practices to be more responsive to everyone in my community?” Sometimes, this means pushing back against funders, donors, political leaders, and others in power.

I hope that is helpful to you as you do community work. If you have other thoughts or recommendations, please write them in the comment section.

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