May 25 ~ Bob Stilger’s Notes from Japan #16: Intergenerational Leadership

I do love this land.  Sitting on the high-speed train from Kyoto to Tokyo, tanbo  (rice fields)  covered with water glisten in the morning sun.  Spring’s many shades of green cover the nearby hillsides.  I’ve been here for almost two months and will leave in a week for Thailand.  This final week will be spent reflecting with many partners about what we’ve learned from the work we have done together.

A week ago I was at the KEEP at Kiyosato, a place that has become another home in Japan.  A onsen (hotsprings) bath each morning helps to invigorate my day.  This time we gathered nearly 60 people from across Japan to think together about what youth leadership is needed in Japan right now.  About three quarters of those who came were in their 20s.  The youngest was not quite 2 and the oldest were in their 40s and 50s.  Our intent in this gathering was to bring people from the Fukushima area together with others from Japan.  In the end, we had about 15 from Fukushima, 20 from Tokyo, 8 from Shikoku and the rest from all over Japan.

Many, many learnings!

The first learning was about inviting from Fukushima.  People in the Tohoku region, of which Fukushima is a part, speak of themselves as being very tied to their land.  Even in these times of tragedy, the tie is very, very strong.  We had clear plans a month or so ago.  We’d invite up to 50 youth from Fukushima, some living in one shelter, others working in the shelter, others living more normal lives around the shelter.  Nothing of the sort emerged.  As I wrote in an earlier note, it is almost as if there is a wall around the shelter — hard to enter, hard to begin conversations.  There are now about 1500 people living in the Sports Complex, down from a high of 2000.  Different members of our team made 4 or 5 trips to Fukushima to help and to see who ought to be invited.  Eventually we found 15 who would come.  What’s clear to me is that more work needs to be done directly in Fukushima.  More on that later in this note.

The second learning was another affirmation of what happens when people enter space.  This was mostly a gathering of strangers.  Very few people knew others who were coming.  They were attracted to the idea of three days of dialog about what comes next for Japan with a focus on youth.  The people from Fukushima, especially, arrived with cautious energy, not quite sure what they had gotten themselves in for.  The deep beauty of Kiyosato and the KEEP was, of course, welcoming.  But who were all these other people gathered here and what am I to do with them?  Three days later we had a deeply connected field of people who had stepped into a new relationship with themselves and each other.  It is always magical when this happens and it happens most of all because we yearn to be with each other.  In the evening of the first day one of the women from Fukushima said today was fun because we all cried together.  Another spoke of listening so deeply that I, myself, almost disappeared.

On the morning of the second day we did Joanna Macy’s powerful Seventh Generation exercise which takes place 100 years in the future.  With a circle inside a circle, facing each other, people gaze at each other across the generations.  The outer circle are people born in the future.  The inner circle are people from these times — 2011. Questions are asked and answered across this span of seven generations.  A deep field of both speaking and listening is woven.  One young friend came up to me afterwards and said when you asked those questions, I thought I had no answers; but when I started to speak, the words just rushed out from me. This is an almost shamanic process which reaches deep into our unconscious knowing.

These long days go quickly as we move from silence into dialog in pairs, circle, world cafe and open space.  We continued to work with the beauty of our environment, spending individual and collective time on the land — usually in silence. There was beauty in the air, alongside confusion and grief.

On the first evening one woman from Fukushima said the disaster made us all the same age; and I understood something more about this work.  I think it is still useful to use the term “youth leadership,” because the insights and energy of people in their 20s are critical to this unfolding.  AND, this is clearly an intergenerational field.  We need all the generations, working together now, to steer a new and more resilient course.  This spirit of intergenerational leadership has become more and more essential to me over the last ten years.  Never before has it been so compelling.  Resilient communities can be build in Japan when all the generations work together.  We know in our bones that this is so.

One man from Fukushima came filled with grief and anger and hopelessness.  He was in his fifties and said when I saw the flyer for this gathering, I knew I was too old, but I had to comePerhaps I could find something here that I could not find at home.  I could tell immediately that before 3.11, he was the kind of person who was the life of any party, open hearted, gregarious, ready.  He spoke of himself as being broken hearted, frozen in place, unable to muster clarity or energy to do anything at all.  The land he loved was destroyed.  He had shut down, grown more inward and despondent as the weeks turned.

The situation is still almost impossible to comprehend.  In Fukushima, where land is life, the land has been destroyed for many generations.  AND, we still don’t know when any of the land will be safe, the water drinkable and crops safe to grow.  All this is also invisible.  Things look normal.  Some people insist whatever they say, I want to go homeI don’t care if there is radiation. Many in Fukushima say if they here gambre (do your best) one more time they will go crazy.  There is nothing they can do.  There is not visible physical damage.  And even if there were, they can’t go back to clean up.  They can’t go back.  So they sit in the shelter day after day, without home or work or livelihood waiting, waiting, waiting.

Take one step further into the entire region and a half million people are either without homes or jobs or both.  So many people have no money to spend that the rest of the economy is teetering.  Store owners have goods, but with so many customers without funds, the shops are on the edge of collapse.  People across Japan, and around the world, want to help — but what is helpful?  What will make a difference and when?

For me it starts at a human scale.  People getting unstuck in the company of others.  It is a small, but essential first step.  People become related again.  And that was part of what happened at the KEEP last week.  People started to remember each other.  People started to remember their own identity.

On the afternoon of our third day a number of action groups formed in Open Space (OST).  I can’t tell you what all there are because my Japanese isn’t good enough.  But I could feel the positive energy.  I participated in two sessions.  One was organized around the question of “how do we create and connect more spaces where people can speak the raw truth?”  The second was organized around “how do we create a network of Future Centers in the Tohoku.”  It was one of the most energized Open Spaces I have ever seen.  And watching the comments on the list serve created via Facebook for the gathering, the energy continues.  The actions which may result from this may have importance.  What already has importance is that people have shaken loose some of their inability to move — and will remember this shaking, if nothing else.

At our closing circle, my new broken-hearted friend ran around the circle shouting I have hope again; I can move again. I don’t know how long this feeling will last when he returns to his local context.  But, again, he will be able to remember the smell of hope and it will help him go on.

I got to know a few of the people from Fukushima.  As we closed, I asked them if they were interested in inviting this dialog work directly into Fukushima.  They said they were and this seems like one of the next important steps.  We need to work with the dynamic of people from Fukushima not wanting to leave their land.  We need to go to them.  Step-by-step…..

Best,

Bob

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