In indigenous societies, the concept of the “tribal elder” is universal, and age is synonymous with wisdom. In such cultures, elders remain vibrant members of their communities, while younger generations are beneficiaries of the elders’ many gifts. Conversely, the elders remain enriched by the ever-present vibrancy of youth. But in contemporary western societies, community-wide inter-generational engagement is no longer the norm. It’s a loss … for everyone.
Enter the United Kingdom’s Susan Langford. Her “magic” power is the ability to connect the young and the old (can we still use that word?) around profoundly engaging and creative activities. Through her organization, Magic Me, Susan is rekindling that inter-generational dynamic, enriching everyone who is touched by it.
Back in 1986, a 25-year-old Susan Langford was working in London as a community artist. It was around that time when she attended a talk by Kathy Levin Shapiro, a Baltimore, MD native who founded Magic Me to link at risk school students with nursing home residents. Inspired by Kathy’s work, Susan saw that the model could be applied in her own community, but she wanted to put her own spin on the program, building it around the arts. After several years of fundraising and pilot programming, Susan (along with colleague Stephen Clark) launched Magic Me as an independent charity in the U.K.
“I started setting up Magic Me when I was 28 and I am now 54. I am sure that my own aging has been affected by working on a daily basis with people aged 9 to 90 plus. Meeting regularly with people in their 70s, 80s, and more gives me a really healthy perspective on life.” Susan continues, “We live in a world so dominated by pressures to look and act ‘youthful’ and deny our natural aging, that I feel lucky to be able to accept and explore this process as my life's work.”
Right now, Susan is leading an inter-generational group, creating a short animated video for an anti-ageism campaign. 17 and 18 year old high school students are meeting with seniors (citizens) from East London, along with a photographer and storyteller from Magic Me. The gang has only a few months to learn animation techniques, develop the storyline and script, and produce/edit the film (not to mention orchestrate a marketing and social media campaign to get it to a worldwide audience). The film will premiere at the prestigious British Film Institute in London on May 14, 2014.
Thank you Susan for your work, for answering these questions, and for showing people how to fearlessly pursue a passion.
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To make the most of all that is best about life on earth and to enable others to discover and experience this for themselves.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
I started setting up Magic Me when I was 28 and I am now 54. I am sure that my own ageing has been affected by working on a daily basis with people aged 9 to 90+. Meeting regularly with people in their 70s, 80s and more, gives me a really healthy perspective on life, and I meet many individuals who are using their so called retirement years to learn, take on new challenges and try things they never had the chance to do before. We live in a world so dominated by pressures to look and act ‘youthful’ and deny our natural ageing, that I feel lucky to be able to accept and explore this process as my life's work – including feeling relaxed enough about my age to publish it on this website!
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
Energy. Taking action often gives me energy and giving to others means that the action is bigger because I’m not doing it on my own.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO, AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
Malala Yousafzai, campaigner for girls’ right to an education. Her calm strength and ability to grow as the situation demands is very inspiring. She is however just an extreme example of the many thousands of young women around the world fighting for justice, and I admire the way Malala gives them hope and a voice. I would ask her “what will you do next?” because I am sure Malala has a lifetime of achievement ahead.
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
A Room of My Own, as Virginia Woolf put it. What I mean by this, is time and space to pause and reflect. In a busy day, and a world where busy-ness is one of the most valued things to be, I regularly need time to stop ‘doing’ and take stock. As an organisation Magic Me needs time for our team and our participants to sit and reflect together, to understand what we are doing and tune in, to plan so we know our goals are the right ones. Finances for 'thinking time' can be the hardest to raise – but the most important.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
What techniques and tools have you found to be successful to engage other people in your cause? The individual campaigner or social entrepreneur is a key in many campaigns and programmes, but can’t achieve much without building support and keeping others involved.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
Sharing the Experience is the title of my book – written with my long term colleague and friend Sue Mayo, Associate Artist at Magic Me, back in 2000. Our aim was to capture Magic Me’s philosophy and practice and share it with a wider community of artists, community builders, educators and care givers, interested in running their own intergenerational arts projects. But the philosophy rings true for our organisation – everything we do is a partnership with schools, older people’s groups, artists. No-one has all the answers and we need contributions from many points of view to create a rich and worthwhile experience for all. The book combines text, photographs and stories, because each format speaks to us in different ways.
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC.
In my first ‘proper job’ with a graphic design agency, as a young graduate, I was too shy and socially inexperienced to pick up the phone and talk to strangers. In my first week I waited till colleagues went out to lunch to make phone calls. I wasn’t born with this essential skill; I had to learn it. It’s good to remember, when I am mentoring shy volunteers and students, or going into a new situation.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN-PHILANTHROPISTS?
Don’t try to do everything yourself. Respect the talents, skills and viewpoints of other people and remember – they will be better than you at many things. By bringing together many perspectives, experiences and people, you will do more, build sustainability and stay in touch with other people’s day to day experiences and realities.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
Where do you relax and find new energy after a hard day?
One special time and place each Wednesday evening is my stained glass class, run by artist Sheenagh McKinlay in her East London studio, with a great team of classmates. If I arrive feeling too tired to be creative I always gain inspiration and energy from the beautiful glass – choosing just the right blue to go next to a particular red or green. A 7th century artform using lead and glass is my perfect antidote to IT problems!