Emerging as an Elder-Activist

by Lynne Iser

With the birth of my son, 35 years ago, I felt a new sense of responsibility. Not just to keep him safe, clean and well fed—but to insure that he had a decent and kind world in which to live. That insight gave me a wider perspective in which to view my world that went well beyond the narrower concerns of my young self.

But it was not till my late 50’s that I truly became an activist. My initial insight was now much stronger, most especially after my youngest daughter expressed her ongoing concern with the state of our world. As a teenager she was noticing the inequality, the racism and the ecological harm that we are doing to our precious Mother Earth.

My heart ached for her while my spirit felt disturbed. As an emerging elder I questioned the legacy that I was leaving for my children and I discovered my growing commitment to bring forth a thriving and just world for future generations. I spent several years wrestling with questions about what was happening in our world and why—and most importantly, what could I do? Where and how could I direct my energy and resources?

I have used my understanding of Spiritual Eldering to guide me in this time of my life. As a women with 67 years of life experience, I can tally the skills, resources, networks, and the wisdom that I have acquired in my lifetime. I also have a heart that brims with love and my inner urge to create a legacy for future generations.

My elder activism is rooted in my love for my children and for life on this beautiful planet—this can also be called “sacred activism”. Andrew Harvey wrote, “sacred activism is a transforming force of compassion-in-action that is born of a fusion of deep spiritual knowledge, courage, love and passion, with wise radical action in the world.”

I am empowered when I honor the pain, despair, and the anger that I feel when noticing the harm that is being done to our planet and our neighbors. I have learned that our lives are all connected, so that harm to one person or one community weakens the web of life that sustains us all. Joanna Macy has said: “When you act on behalf of something greater than yourself, you begin to feel it acting through you with a power that is greater than your own. This is grace.”

As an elder I feel a greater sense of “deep time”—the bonds with my ancestors, all those who have gone before me, which sometimes include the mountains and those magnificent redwoods. Deep time also connects me with the children of my children—my descendants. I am alive in this moment as one link in a long chain of life, and I must do my part to sustain life and keep the chain strong.

As a life-long optimist, I have discovered that, as elders, we are fortunate to be alive at a most amazing time in the history of the world—for two reasons.

First, although we might feel that the world is a mess, we have the opportunity to offer our energy, resources, and life experience at this significant evolutionary moment of the “Great Turning”—to further a thriving and just future for all.

Second, our age-wave, our boomer generation, gets to develop a new vision of growing old—of becoming elders. We have the opportunity to both reclaim and redefine elderhood for ourselves.

In our contemporary world the role of an elder might feel muddied or murky, but we can’t complain or sit back, waiting to be recognized for our wisdom or our expertise. Oh, no! It is up to us to claim our rightful place—even if we have not been “given” that place. We can explore and discern, “What is my work as an elder? How do I stand in the world as an elder and transmit my years of life experience?”

It is clear to me that the world needs elders who speak for future generations, those envisioned by the Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nation: “In all your deliberations look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations – the unborn of the future Nation.

In his book, “From Age-ing To Sage-ing,” Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, inspired us with this vision of the role of an elder. “Elders feed wisdom back into society and guide the long term reclamation project of healing our beleaguered planet. Once elders are restored to positions of leadership…. they will function as “wisdomkeepers” inspiring us to live by higher values that will help convert our throwaway lifestyle into a more sustainable, Earth-cherishing one.”

Let me share with you one example of elders engaging in sacred activism that we have recently witnessed.

The elders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were instrumental in creating the paradigm of prayerful, ceremonial protection of their sacred water. With the call that “Water is Life,” Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, a Lakota elder, co-founded the Standing Rock Water Protectors in April 2016, providing her land for the first encampment. It was the elders of this community who deliberated in council meetings with the younger activists, as they made crucial decisions concerning the Water Protectors.

That encampment may no longer exist, but the spiritual and ethical force of it has become a movement, capturing the attention of people from around the world; and, the Standing Rock Water Protectors were successful in delaying the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

How is it possible for a band of disenfranchised Native people, who have been pushed around in this country for 500 years, to stop a $3.7 billion pipeline intended to move crude oil along a 1,134 mile path?Something more powerful than money, more powerful than corporate interests, has been awoken. Let me offer a few ideas.

All the actions on the part of the Water Protectors were prayerful, ceremonial, and non-violent. They called upon sacred activism to empower their actions.

The Water Protector camps were based upon traditional cultural values, foremost of which is respect for all beings. When I visited the camp, I witnessed a tough looking young Native man “calling out” another tough looking young native man for directing a challenging question to the elder who was speaking in a community meeting—as “being disrespectful.” The young man immediately stood up and apologized to all assembled, and to the speaker. It was a powerful demonstration of how values sustain a community and are able to mediate conflicts.

The basis of this action was to protect the water. This stems from the Native belief that the Earth is our Mother, and we must protect her as we would our own human mothers. They were able to stand courageously before the bulldozers, in front of the militarized armed police force—and they prayed.

“Our prayers are really strong,” says Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Our elders told us to focus on praying for the federal agencies and the US government and North Dakota to hear what we were doing and saying: ‘We have to protect the sacredness of the water.’”

I don’t want to romanticize what happened at Standing Rock. There were conflicting needs and perspectives; and tensions arose between young activists and elder leaders—as you might expect. But there was also a reawakening of spiritual values that is restorative and nourishing for Native peoples.

How might all this apply to us—who are non-indigenous elders?

We have the opportunity to learn from our indigenous neighbors; to witness how they act as elders within their communities. We can be inspired by their actions. They are standing for the future that they want to create for their great, grandchildren. They are doing so, grounded in their sacred values, using their resources, wisdom, and passion to stand for what they know to be true—that water is life.

I too want to create a better future for my great, great grandchildren.

I want to do it with other elders, as we learn together, sit in conversation, share what we love, what causes us pain, and what is possible.

We can do this. We have the resources, time, networks, and talents; and, collectively many thousand of years of life experience!

I believe that we have the opportunity to be the tipping point to a thriving and just world.

I sometimes think that our generation, our enormous age wave—the “silver tsunami” as we have been called—is Mother Nature’s “immune response” to the runaway greed and short-term goals that now power our world.

Of course, there is no certainty that we will be successful—just as there was no certainty for the women suffragettes, or for those who opposed apartheid or the Berlin Wall.

And this can take a long time, so we must cultivate couragecourage to look foolish, to take risks, to continue to move forward—even when we do not have the support of our family or our friends.

We need to be committed and courageous. Committed to the Future Ones, the generations to come. If we give up, they might never have their opportunity to enjoy the blue skies, fruitful land, and clear waters as we have had.

I am inspired by the poetry of Drew Dillinger: “It is 3:23 in the morning, and I am awake, because my great, great grandchildren will not let me sleep. They ask me, what did you do while the planet was plundered? What did you do when the earth was unraveling? Surely you did something….”

What will we say to our great, great, grandchildren?


Lynne Iser became an “elder activist” motivated by her love for her children and the beauty of our world. She was the founding Director of the Spiritual Eldering Institute, now teaches in the ALEPH Sage-ing® Mentorship Program, and offers her own workshop series, “Becoming Vibrant Elders in Our Evolving World”, using the teachings of Joanna Macy. She founded her website, Elder-Activists.org, to inspire, educate, and support others, primarily on issues concerning climate change and social justice. When she discovered CEN she knew that she had found “her tribe’ and now serves as the co-convener of the CEN Elder Activists Social Justice Team. She is a recent empty nester, living in Philadelphia.

Sue Sorensen

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J. Allen Fitz-Gerald

I applaud Lynne Iser and CEN for their work. Lynne’s article here reminds me of ourchildrenstrust.org, the ongoing lawsuit of 21 children against the federal government for its fifty years of failure to protect our planet from the accelerating climate change. That is also the subject of my new play, PRISONERS OF HOPE, which has now had free public readings at colleges and a community theater. For more information and to read a sample, go to http://www.newplayexchange.org/plays/16329/prisoners-hope or contact me: fitzge35-2@charter.net.

John Sorensen

Witnessing and joining in the group prayer at Standing Rock moves one, and its message surely reached far and wide. I felt the same witnessing and joining into the literally moving prayer at the Peoples’ Climate March in Washington DC. It was boisterous and messy, but we each knew in our collective hearts that we were envisioning a future time when caring,loving justice would prevail. We knew that our prayers were blending into an ocean of prayers that shall overcome.

Phyl Taub Greenleaf

hello Lynne Iser,
I too am an Elder Activist…..and have been using that label to describe myself for the past 4 years.
I learned about your wonderful group’s “Sit-Out” (remembering the “sit-ins” of our early Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.),
from Daniel, who lives in my mobile home park. …….When I recruited him (at our little swimming pool) to write postcards to AZ unregistered voters, he began telling me wonderful stories about your activism…..So how can I order those ElderActivist T-shirts?
We are sister allies Elder Activists who are energizing others. Sent with love and solidarity. Phyl Taub Greenleaf

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