Peace and Twenty-Somethings

Over on Nonviolence.org, I've posted something I originally started writing for my personal site: Where is the grassroots contemporary nonviolence movement? It asks why there's no the kind of young, grassroots culture around peace like the networks that I see "elsewhere on the net."

The piece speaks for itself but there is one point of context and a few observations to make. The first is that the grassroots culture I was thinking of when I wrote the piece was the "emergent church," "young evangelical" movement. Thirty years ago the kids I've met at "Circle of Hope", a Philadelphia "emergent church" loosely affiliated with the Brethren could easily have been at a Movement for New Society* training: the culture, the interests, the demographics are all strikingly similar.

(MNS was a national but West Philly-centered network of group houses, publications, and organizing that forged the identities of many of the twenty-somethings who participated; Nonviolence.org is arguably a third-generation descendant of MNS, via New Society Publishers where I worked for six years).

The observation for Friends is that retro-organizing like the relatively-new "Pendle Hill Peace Network" [website URL long since dropped & picked up by spammer] will have a really hard time acting as any sort of outreach project to twenty-somethings (a main goal according to a talk given my monthly meeting by its director). The grassroots peace-centric communities that were thriving when the Network sponsors were in their twenties don't exist anymore. Rather predictably, the photographs of the next two dozen speakers for the Pendle Hill Peacebuilding Forum series show only one who might be under forty (maybe, and she's from an exotic locale which is why she gets in). I'm glad that a generation of sixty-something Quaker activists are guaranteed steady employment, but don't any Quaker institutions think there's one American activist under forty worth listening to?

I think the best description of this phenomenon comes from the military. They call it "incestuous amplification" and define it as "a condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lockstep agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation." I suspect that peace activists are so worried about their own relevancy that they have a hard time recognizing new peers or changed circumstances.

These numbers and the lack of speaker diversity explain why I rarely even bother with Quaker peace conferences anymore. I wouldn't mind being overlooked in my peace ministry if I saw other activists my age being recognized. But I can't take my invisibility as feedback since it's clearly not about me or my work. The homogeneity of the speakers lists at most conferences sends a clear message that younger people aren't wanted except as passive audience members clapping for the inspiring fifty- to seventy-somethings on stage. How much of current retro peace organizing is just self-stroking Boomer fantasy?

The in-group incestuousness has created a generation gap of relevancy. When institutions and movements become myopic, they become irrelevant to those locked outside. We have to go elsewhere to build our identities.

The internet is one place to go. From there it's clear that the institutional projects don't have the "buzz," i.e., the support and excitment, that the Gen-X led projects do. The internet alone won't save us: there's only so much culture one can build online and computer-mediated discussions favor argumentation, rationality, and ideological correctness. But it's one of the few venues open to outsiders without cash or institutional clout.
But what about the content of a twenty-first century twenty-something peace movement?

Many of today's twenty-something Quakers were raised up as secular peace activists. Our religious education programs often de-emphasize controversial issues of faith and belief to focus on the peace testimony as the unifying Quaker value. Going to protests is literally part of the curriculum of many Young Friends programs. Even more of a problem, older Friends are often afraid to share their faith plainly and fully with younger Friends on a one-on-one basis. The practice of personal and Meeting-based spritual mentorship that once transmitted Friends values between generations is very under-utilized today.

Almost all of these Friends stop participating in Quakerism as they enter their twenties, coming back only occasionally for reunion-type gatherings. Many of these lapsed Friends are out exploring alternative spiritual traditions that more clearly articulate a faith that can give meaning and purpose to social action. I have friends in this lost Quaker generation that are going to Buddhist temples, practicing yoga spirituality, building sweat lodges and joining evangelical or Roman Catholic churches. Will they really be won back with another lecture series? What would happen if we Friends started articulating the deep faith roots of our own peace testimony? What if we started testifying to one another about that great Power that's taken away occasion for war, what if our testimony became a witness to our faith?

Why are a lot of the more thoughtful under-40s going to alternative churches and what are they hoping to find there?

Don't get me wrong: I hope these new peace initiatives do well and help to build a thriving twenty-something activist scene again. It's just that for fifteen years I've seen a sucession of projects aimed at twenty-somethings come and go, failing to ignite sustaining interest. I worry that things won't change until sponsoring organizations seriously start including younger people in the decision-making process from their inception and start recognizing that our focus might be radically different.


Postscript
I share some observations about the different way institutional and outsider Friends use the internet in How Insiders and Seekers Use the Quaker Net.

UPDATE: The Pendle Hill Peace Network was laid down in late 2005. The cited reason was "budgetary constraints," an empty excuse that sidesteps any responsibility for examining vision, inclusion or implimentation. It's forum is now an advertising stage for "free mature porn pics." It's very sad and there's no joy in saying "I told you so."

UPDATE: After twelve years I laid down Nonviolence.org and sold the domain. I never received any real support from Friends.