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Uncomfortable Essay #9: Death

Back in 1980, I saw an announcement about a concert of ethnic music, showcasing my own French-Canadian culture. I went to the concert, and decided to become involved in the organization, La Societe Canadienne-Francaise du Minnesota, which at the time had been formally in existence for less than two years, though its elements came into existence during the bicentennial year of 1976.

(I was 40 years old, then, and only a short time before had I become interested in my ethnic heritage.)

The organization was a vibrant bunch, with regular and active meetings and a newsletter. It was led by a very charismatic and passionate leader, a retired man about my present age, who had an immense amount of energy and talent as well. The organization had plenty of other talented sub-leaders. Two of them were pioneers on the twin cities public access radio station, KFAI. Their program focused on French and French-Canadian music.

As my engagement increased I volunteered to do the newsletter for the group, and I really enjoyed the task. While it was work, I learned a great deal I had never known about my own heritage.

The years went on, and slowly, and at first imperceptibly, things began to change. Somebody moved away; somebody else died; somebody quit because they were angry at someone else. All of these reasons, and others, are normal reasons for attrition in any organizations life. Members communicated by U.S. mail and telephone. E-mail came very late to us, largely because most of us had no familiarity with e-mail even after it became common.

The big problem for our group, and it became a very serious and ultimately fatal problem, was that the working (leader) base of the organization got smaller and smaller as people got older and older. We needed to recruit new and active members to refresh our leadership base, but new members took a lot of effort to find. Young people, for various reasons, had less interest in an ethnic heritage organization than we did.

Things both reached a zenith and a nadir for us at about the same time, in the spring of 1999. We had a gala celebration on the 20th anniversary of our history, actually got a nice financial grant from a Foundation to help with expenses, had a very large attendance, and everyone had a great time.

But most of the celebrants that night were simply consumers of the effort, and not contributors to it. Afterwards those few of us who remained active had less and less success marshalling support for anything related to the organization.

The daughter of a founding member did have an interest, and became President at about the same time she became a new Mom. Life interfered with her activity with our club. She wasn’t around very long.

In January of 2002, I put out the 122nd and final issue of our newsletter, and in effect ‘turned off the lights, and locked the door’ on a nearly 23 year history. I’m sure that among the subscribers who received that last newsletter there was sadness at our demise. But no one came forward to resurrect us.

These days it is only at an occasional funeral that I see dwindling evidence of our once vibrant past. Our charismatic founder died in 2005 at the age of 94.

I wonder, sometimes, if we could have re-invented ourselves. We celebrated a single nationality group with a distinct language and culture which was disappearing. Unlike we older-timers, few or our kids had little actual proximity to this culture. But we really didn’t pay attention to the re-invention process either. We are now just another historical archive entry at the Minnesota Historical Society and University of North Dakota Library.

Many small organizations I see today have similar problems to the one I just described. We are getting older, and we have not really come to grips with the absolute need to turn over the future to the youngsters. Our young people are more difficult to connect with. Life is complex, and kids communicate with different means than we elders are accustomed to. And it is difficult I would guess, for young people to feel very hopeful in 2009, particularly in an economic sense. There are lots of reasons for a present disconnect. But these reasons ultimately could turn out to be our individual and collective demise.

Our present day organizations also have a major difference from the French-Canadian club I describe. La Societe celebrated the past; while the Peace and Justice and allied communities advocate for the future which will directly impact on every one of our children and grandchildren and their cohort everywhere. Assorted documents can help bring to life the old ethnic culture for the presently disinterested youngsters; but we all have to work together to secure the future of the following generations, and it is the young people who need to take charge, sooner than later.

At the beginning of this Essay, I mentioned that I didn’t get interested in my heritage until I was 40. I said that as a specific reminder to myself. Because young people aren’t engaged now, doesn’t mean they won’t become engaged. But something has to be found to attract their attention, and that something exists in a multitude of forms. We just need to keep looking for the keys to make the connection, one or two people at a time.

We also need to talk very seriously about how to make a complete transition to a new generation of activists. This won’t be easy. But if we don’t find a way to cross this chasm, more of us will begin to “turn out the lights and lock the doors” at the very time we most need to be vibrant, alive and active.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 29, 2008 4:58 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Uncomfortable Essay #8: Grappling with "the Truth".

The next post in this blog is Uncomfortable Essay #10: Life.

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