Community Development Field

Indigenous Approaches to Succession and Mentoring

The American approach to work often values productivity in terms of outputs and deliverables, and generally, this prevails even in our social justice work. Many of us give of ourselves and sacrifice our time, energy, and other facets of our lives for the cause or to advance the movement; but without some sort of balance and planning on our end, we could face a harsh reality as we meet our advanced years in life.

An intergenerational space for founders and supporters to talk about their hopes, dreams, and experiencesWhat would you do if your output and activity at your current job dipped substantially? Looking from the outside, how might you feel to see someone else in a position you had at an organization you’ve worked at for a substantial time? How might your organization’s work continue after you leave?

I’ve been fortunate to transition into my role as executive director with the help of my predecessor, and I’ve see him grappling with these very real questions. The American approach to work often values productivity in terms of outputs and deliverables, and generally, this prevails even in our social justice work. Many of us give of ourselves and sacrifice our time, energy, and other facets of our lives for the cause or to advance the movement; but without some sort of balance and planning on our end, we could face a harsh reality as we meet our advanced years in life. There maybe an increased need for health care due to physical and emotional sacrifices. There may be a need for continued income due to financial sacrifices. And there is the undeniable fact that as we advance in years, our initial capacity and productivity (from the perspective of one set of metrics) may decrease. There is always a push to find younger talent that might at least maintain, if not increase, productivity levels and bring in fresh ideas. But what about the individuals who have accumulated years of valuable experience? How do we build in processes and systems within our workflow to learn from and honor them?

Sit back, close your eyes, and think of at least one person you know of who fits these descriptions and say their name out loud.

These individuals were and are tireless in their work, their advocacy. They are powerhouses and did the work of at least three people, because they had to. So the question many of us put off answering is: What will happen when they are gone? How do we create transition and succession plans for them and in turn, a plan for the organization?

I have also come to see another side of the question: How do we support these pioneer, visionary elders when we know they are so committed to the work that they will never “retire” in the traditional sense? How do we continue to learn from and with them and find roles that feel good for them? How do we ensure they have the space to process and reflect as they change their role?

My thought goes to the wide range of indigenous cultures in which an elder is not expected to provide physical labor to provide for their community, but rather to rest and be available to share their experiences, stories, and lessons learned. But because this is the 21st century, how might we compensate our own elders in this work for their knowledge and experiences? What might it look like to support of our elders to just “talk story” as we say in Hawai‘i?

As we try to navigate this on our end, we hear many of our grassroots and community-based partners grappling with these questions of organizational succession and personal transition. Many of these long-established organizations, what a partner of ours termed as “kūpuna,” or elder, organizations, were started by one or a small handful of charismatic activists and leaders whose goal wasn’t to start a nonprofit organization, but to address a need they saw and felt in their communities that shook them to their core. They are the pioneers in our work.

On our end, we have younger generations who are seeking out guidance as they enter into and navigate this work, and we are beginning to talk about how we recreate traditional mentoring processes. We are creating spaces for intergenerational dialogue and co-learning that start with the broad question: “How do you strive to serve this place?”

We continue to grapple with the question of how to properly compensate people’s time and stories and create different approaches for succession and mentorship that are place-based and culturally grounded so that all feel honored and respected. I would love to connect and hear thoughts and suggestions from others working on this issue of succession and mentoring.

(Image: An intergenerational space for founders and supporters to talk about their hopes, dreams, and experiences. Courtesy of the author.)

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