Across America, youth and older adults have limited opportunities to understand, learn from, and care for each other. Nancy Henkin is helping communities bring generations together to identify issues of common concern and develop strategies that will promote interdependence and enrich the lives of all.
The New Idea
Nancy has developed a new social contract for American communities which values interdependence, reciprocity, individual worth, inclusion and social connectedness. Her vision is to create Communities for All Ages (CFAA) that intentionally promote the well-being of children, youth, adults, and elders; strengthen families; and restore the social fabric on which all citizens rely. Her community building approach renews the value and power of intergenerational relationships and brings together residents of all ages, community organizations, and policy makers to address issues of concern to multiple generations, such as family support, housing, transportation, lifelong learning, civic engagement, and health. Nancy is helping move individuals and organizations out of age silos and into powerful collaborations. The results include more coordinated services, expanded social networks, and a physical infrastructure that supports people across their lifespans.
Demographic shifts in America are having a profound effect on communities, most of which are unprepared to negotiate the changes. The “graying of America” is narrowing the gap between the percentage of older adults and children/youth in the total U.S. population. By 2030 these groups will be roughly the same in size; each will comprise about 22 percent of the population. The potential of both older adults and youth to make significant contributions to their communities is great, however often these two groups are seen as problems rather than resources. This view is compounded by the age-segregated framework in which, most communities operate. Solutions to chronic social problems—inadequate child care, limited housing options, poor schools, and lack of support for caregiving families—elude discovery because each problem is addressed by agencies focused on age-specific rather than whole-community solutions.
Existing community building efforts reinforce this age-segregated approach by focusing on creating either “elder-friendly” or “youth-friendly” places to live. This encourages competition for scarce resources, diminishes human connectedness, and squanders valuable sources of social capital. Most advocates for children, youth, and older adults have not yet recognized the need to come together as allies to develop a comprehensive, shared agenda. Although there are a growing number of programs that bring generations together to address specific needs, these programs cannot be sustained unless they are embedded in communities that embrace policies, practices, and partnerships that are life-span focused and promote interdependence.
Having worked for over 26 years developing a wide range of intergenerational programs, Nancy is now focused on more systemic efforts to strengthen communities. Since 2003 she has worked with the Arizona Community Foundation to create a state-wide Communities for All Ages initiative. After a series of public awareness workshops, the foundation offered planning grants to communities interested in forming CFAA teams. Nine ethnically and geographically diverse sites across Arizona were each given $10,000 and technical assistance to develop action plans based on an assessment of the needs/ resources of residents of all ages and local organizations. Six of these communities were then given $50,000/year grants for three years to implement a CFAA plan. In inner city Phoenix, an intergenerational leadership academy has been developed to build the capacity of residents of all ages to work together on projects that will make their neighborhood safer and healthier. In rural Concho, an unincorporated town in Northeast Arizona, the CFAA team created a multi-generational community center that engages all ages in educational, recreational and cultural activities. In Ajo, a small town on the Mexican border, an abandoned school has been transformed into a live/work space for artists and a learning center for people of all ages and cultures. These projects are not only solving single problems, they have become the springboard for other intergenerational collaborations and the framework for community problem solving.
The models that emerged from this demonstration are serving as a template for other CFAA initiatives. In Westchester County, NY, the Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation partnered with the United Way of Westchester and Putnam to support five Communities for All Ages sites. Two neighborhoods and three communities are currently addressing issues such as housing, transportation, tension between ethnic groups, isolation, lifelong wellness, and education. In Brunswick, Maine the Florence V. Burden Foundation is supporting a CFAA planning effort that is spearheaded by a strong team of key community stakeholders.
Though sites differ in their approach, they all are intentional about engaging individuals and organizations that represent different age groups in both the assessment/planning and implementation phases of the CFAA process. Each community initiative reflects a life span focus and promotes interaction across ages and cultures. Outcomes from the CFAA sites include increased well-being of children, youth, older adults and families; the development of cross-sector alliances; increased civic participation; stronger social networks and the leveraging of limited resources. Through a shared planning process, CFAA finds ways to use human and economic resources strategically to address societal needs.
The CFAA national office, located at the Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning, provides technical assistance and training to each community team and links them to potential resources. To help communities engage in this comprehensive planning process, Nancy worked with a group of colleagues to develop the Viable Futures Toolkit (www.viablefuturestoolkit.org). A national advisory committee, which included representatives from AARP, the Aspen Institute, the Center for Community Change, the Pew Partnership on Community Change, the American Planning Association, La Raza, Generations United and the Environmental Protection Agency helped guide the Toolkit’s development. It is now being used across the country as communities face the challenges and opportunities presented by an aging society. A CFAA National Network was recently formed to facilitate the sharing of ideas and expertise across sites.
Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning recently won a grant for their national initiative, Communities for All Ages from the Kellogg Foundation. The overall goal of this initiative is to improve the lives of children, youth, adults and elders by building the capacity of communities to address critical issues from a multi-generational, cross-sector perspective. The proposed initiative will expand and strengthen the CFAA’s national network by: 1) partnering with 6 new community foundations to promote multi-generational approaches to improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families in targeted communities; 2) building the capacity of existing and new sites to effectively use the CFAA approach; and 3) telling a new story about long-term community change that benefits all generations.
Nancy was raised in Fairfield, Connecticut. Nancy’s family instilled in her the values of honoring elders and serving your community. She had a particularly inspiring relationship with her grandfather, whose experiences she saw not only as a link to the past, but a guide to the future. During high school and college, Nancy organized social justice projects, tutoring programs for children, and volunteer programs in a settlement house. After graduating from Simmons College, she married and settled in Philadelphia where she studied group dynamics and organizational development. She completed her dissertation on issues of aging and was hired to direct a gerontology certificate program at Temple University’s new Institute on Aging.
Inspired by Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Grey Panthers, Nancy decided to move beyond a purely academic focus and explore ways that young people and older adults could build meaningful relationships. In 1979 she organized a 5-day residential intergenerational learning retreat that brought together a diverse group of 75 people ranging in age from 14 to 98 years of age. Through structured and informal activities, this group of strangers grew into a powerful intergenerational community. As the process unfolded, Nancy realized that people want to connect across culture and age—they just need a vehicle for doing so. Soon after the first retreat, she founded the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple. In addition to organizing intergenerational retreats for 21 more years, she has pioneered over forty innovative programs that demonstrate how youth and older adults can serve as resources for each other and for their communities. Maggie Kuhn became a trusted mentor, partner and friend, continuing to shape not only the model but Nancy herself.
Now Nancy is taking on the challenge of changing the way policy makers, practitioners, educators and residents address community issues. The Center, too, is shifting from primarily a service provider to a national training and technical assistance center that helps organizations develop effective strategies for lifelong civic engagement and intergenerational exchange. Nancy plans to take CFAA across the United States and beyond. Her work is clearly enriching the lives of all ages and reweaving the social fabric of our communities.