On Elder Activism

by John Sorenson

“Houston, we have a problem!” This was the message from three astronauts 52 years ago, as their spacecraft had a life-threatening design failure on its way to the Moon. I was a member of the Apollo engineering team that responded to that call for help. Today, within Elders Action Network (EAN), other concerned elders and I are urgently confronting national issues that include (a) life-threatening climate chaos; (b) growing economic disparity between the richest few and the lower 99%; and (c) democracy-threatening voter suppression and intimidation. These are truly Texas-size problems with cries for help from our younger generations. The following is a brief description of my improbable journey and transition from rocket scientist to one of elder activism, again answering calls for help. 

I was fortunate to have had a fulfilling career as an aerospace engineer, project manager, and business entrepreneur spanning 40+ years. In 2005 it was my time to move on. I was not ready to “retire”, but to do something different, not knowing what that would be. I began my search, realizing vaguely that I wanted to give back for the bountiful life that I had been given. 

To gain clarity and direction as well as to heal old psychic wounds, I went on a series of personal growth retreats. It was the right preliminary action for me to take, for in so doing I developed levels of forgiveness and compassion I previously didn’t have, and I regained my youthful spirit.

One retreat was a long weekend led by Ron Pevny who introduced our group to “conscious elderhood.” During the event, Ron mentioned Theodore Roszak’s book The Making of an Elder Culture. Its message was that young, rebellious men and women of the sixties and seventies had the right ideals about American society being more just and equitable. However, they did not succeed in pursuing those ideals because they had no elders to guide them. Those young have become us old seekers, we have not lost our idealism, and we benefit by having gained some elder wisdom in the intervening years. We could now claim some semblance of elderhood and harness that idealism to transition to a new American reality. But only if we have the heart and will to take it on.  

That message struck a chord. I had done a lot of complaining over the years about the dysfunction of our government and society, why so little meaningful legislation got enacted, and what did get done was often counter to achieving “a more perfect union.” I needed to quit complaining and to do something about it. This would require re-inventing myself, transitioning from being a left-brained engineer, to using more right-brain imagination and heartfelt response to what would come.    

Another retreat was an Animus Valley Institute vision quest in summer 2011. During my solo time, I received the message, “teach leadership.” I interpreted it to mean that I was to demonstrate leadership by guiding a group to take on America’s societal issues.  I had understood that whatever we decided to do would not be small and it would be working with elders. But I was stymied by the enormity of what I was imagining – how could I, with little background in organizational development or this kind of leadership, proceed? I decided to go on another vision quest the following summer.

By pure synchronicity, in December 2012, Charles Lawrence, the very wise co-leader of that second quest was on a project near where I lived. Charles called me asking if I would like to have lunch with him. I jumped at the chance for I needed to relate my still present indecision dilemma and ask for his advice. Charles listened, said I needed to ask a small group of like-minded elders to join and help me see the way forward, that with them, we would form a circle with me in the middle, and Charles would facilitate the process.

I was, throughout this, operating on intuition. I called Ron Pevny, asking if he had colleagues who could help, which he did. By asking others, the following March 2013 six men and six women met to form that circle at a monastery on the Hudson River. Those included my wife Sue, Ron, Charles facilitating, and me asking for help.  It was for all of us an emotional gathering, and from it I got the clear direction I was looking for: Yes, we should begin a movement of elders to boldly take on our society’s serious problems, it would have a spiritual base, I should take the lead in forming it, and those in the circle would back me in the process.  

The following year I sought other elders who would resonate with this vision and would consider being included in forming the response.  Most were not interested, but I was not dissuaded. The result was that in April, 2014, 47 of us, including nine from the Hudson River circle, met at Mercy Center, a convent in Burlingame, CA. We were there, as fellow co-founders, to begin a movement of elders to transition our society to one that is more just, caring, equitable, and in service to life prospering for all future generations. We had a common vision, it would have a spiritual base, but we had few details to what and how it would unfold.

During our gathering, a participant Paul Severance came to me suggesting that we should take on climate change, as that was now seen as a growing threat to humans and all life. He suggested that we go to Washington DC, meet with Members of Congress, express our concerns about the changing climate, and urge them to act. I agreed, and Paul, who was a veteran community organizer, quickly formed what has grown to be known as our “Elders Climate Action” (ECA) group. In September 2015, 85 of us went on our first of several subsequent trips to DC and met with Congress.

Over the seven years since then, we have strived to be “sacred activists” committed to growing in our inner consciousness while taking on one or more forms of outer activism. In our evolution, we adopted the name “Elders Action Network” and the mission “To build a movement of elders to confront the social, environmental and governance issues of our time.” To the ECA action group we have added three others – social justice, regenerative living, and sound democracy. EAN has flourished as a virtual organization reaching well over 20,000 elders nationwide. Each year our activism projects expand, while understanding we still have a long way to go.

I currently serve as co-leader of EAN’s Elders for Sound Democracy action group, which includes forming the Texas elders’ voting rights team. It’s our response to misguided politicians that are intent on replacing our still evolving democracy with a white-supremacist-led autocracy.  

Yes, Houston, we again have another big problem, but we counter with an intrepid group of elders willing to face this and many other societal issues. We strive for the good of our grandchildren and all future generations, and in so doing realize our destiny as being activated elders and good ancestors.  For more information, please check our website www.eldersaction.org

John Sorensen is EAN’s founder. As a youth he heard the aerospace call and followed it for 45 years of engineering design and entrepreneurial experiences. In 2005 John heard another, deeper calling – time to re-invent and dedicate himself to humanitarian service. He uses earlier experiences to fulfill that calling as an elder strategist for social / environmental justice and sound governance. He can be reached at jasoren10@gmail.com

 

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