National Issues Forums: A Great Intergenerational Learning Program

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Several years ago I was looking for an enriching, new intergenerational program at the senior center where I work. That’s when I stumbled upon the nonpartisan nationwide network of educational and community organizations that deliberate about issues of national importance: National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI).

NIFI has identified a wide variety of pressing national issues for deliberation. Their slogan is, “Citizens cannot act together until they decide together.” These “deliberative forums help people find the places where their values, interests, and goals overlap, which helps create a public voice that determines public policy.” (NIFI)

We invited leaders in the community to take part and be trained as forum facilitators: a moderator, a recorder, and a trained observer (to mark time, etc.). Also important to the forums was the professional or experienced speaker who presented on the issue.

A few of the topics we introduced for deliberation were: “The Boundaries of Free Speech: How Free is Too Free?”. The speaker was a judge who discussed the First Amendment rights. For the forum “At Death’s Door: What are the Choices?” we asked a well-known community physician to speak. “The Troubled American Family: Which Way Out of the Storm?” brought in a speaker who was a probation officer.

No two forums are alike. Ours were held with high school students, college students, the general public and older adults from the senior center and community in intergenerational format. Participants fill out pre- and post-forum questionnaires to see if they changed their mind about the issue after listening to varying points of view.

I must give high praise to those responsible for developing the accompanying DVD and booklets for each issue. The materials present the issue and offer three choices that cover an entire spectrum of thought or choice for each issue. For example: the issue on end of life decisions (“At Death’s Door…”) offered the following choices to be deliberated: Choice 1) Let patients die with dignity/physician assisted suicide, Choice 2) Improve care for the dying/focus on symptom relief and patient involvement in treatment, 3) Above all, sustain life.

The participants then deliberate the pros and cons of each choice, led by the moderator with comments listed for all to see by the recorder. This process of deliberating pressing national issues gives participants “a place at the table where decisions that affect their lives are made.” Results from the forums are shared with elected officials at the national level.

Holding the forums in intergenerational format was especially interesting during the freedom of speech issue. Students came in with preconceived ideas that older adults would be in favor of greater censorship, when in fact, the exact opposite was true. The older adults at the forum recalled the hard-fought wars that were waged to win this and other freedoms. Their strong viewpoints regarding the protection of these rights surprised the students and taught them that prejudging others based on their age was wrong.

I have been advocating for NIFI to develop forum materials on ageism, the last accepted form of discrimination in America. We need to bring this topic into the community square for deliberation and education of the public. For it is only an educated public that can make wise decisions regarding the future course of this great country; including the treatment of its citizens of all ages.

INTELLECTUAL WELLNESS – Keep your brain active! Learn a new activity, solve puzzles, play brain games.

AGEISM: Prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly.

5 Comments

  1. Malia Fox

    Thank you for this article. Have you shared this on Crossroads. Great programming ideas. My education committee will have great interest, I’m sure.

    • Malia, Yes, I shared it with everyone I could think of. We really enjoyed the learning time with people of varying generations on varying topics. Sometimes we learned as much about ourselves as the topic we were deliberating; such as don’t prejudge someone until you at least talk with them! – Kathy

  2. I hope that NIFI and other important focus groups begin to address the prevalence and noxious results of ageism in our society. Ageism is one of the main things that inspired me to develop A New Wrinkle, a musical revue on aging that provides a paradigm-shifting, life-affirming look at later life. Why is ageism such a ho-hum form of prejudice? I find it incomprehensible that our entire culture is so unconscious about how detrimental it is to fear and ridicule old age and older adults.

    • Gaea, I totally agree. Mankind does have a history of treating one another badly. We’re supposed to be so evolved in comparison to other life on this planet. I sometimes wonder how we could be so cruel then. Blessings your way. Kathy

    • gaea – I would be interesetd in learning more about your musical revue as we have a theatre school for older adults and I am sure they might be interested in this!

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