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15 Inspiring People Uniting the Generations

These Gen2Gen Innovation Fellows are bridging generational divides and helping fight ageism, racism and loneliness

By Sarah McKinney Gibson

"I walked into so many nursing homes where residents were just blankly staring into space or at a television," said Cristina Rodriguez, 28, of her days as a Florida Atlantic University student and volunteer. "I wanted to change that."

Side-by-side photos of two women. Next Avenue, Gen2Gen Innovation Fellow
Gen2Gen Innovation Fellows Sandra Harris, 71, and Cristina Rodriguez, 28, exemplify the power of generations helping each other  |  Credit: Courtesy of Encore.org

Now she is. She's president and co-founder of Mind & Melody, a Miami-based nonprofit using hour-long virtual, interactive musical experiences to connect young people and older adults who have memory impairment. Rodriguez, a cellist, conducted research revealing the positive effects of music on neurocognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

"The work of these innovators has never felt more timely."

"Music is the universal language," Rodriguez said, "and it's a beautiful thing to see how it's helping older people regain pieces of themselves while instilling purpose and empathy in younger participants."

Rodriguez is one of 15 new Gen2Gen Innovation Fellows, innovators of all ages with ambitious initiatives to bridge generational divides. Often, their drive comes out of personal experience and passions.

About the Gen2Gen Innovation Fellows Program

Now in its second year, the Gen2Gen Innovation Fellows program — run by the nonprofit where I work, Encore.org — provides recipients with expert coaching over nine months, peer support, $10,000 and exposure to leaders, advisers and funders.

"The work of these innovators has never felt more timely," says Eunice Lin Nichols, Encore.org's vice president of innovation. "I'm particularly inspired by the creativity and heart of this year's cohort. I believe their solutions to homelessness, polarization, social isolation, racial justice and more will help point the way to a thriving, multigenerational future."

Age segregation and loneliness were problems before the pandemic, of course, but during COVID-19, loneliness increased most profoundly among two already vulnerable groups: young people and older adults.

Another new Gen2Gen Innovation Fellow, Sandra Harris, 71, is working to change that. She's the state president of AARP Massachusetts and the founder and co-chair of The Massachusetts Taskforce to End Loneliness and Build Community, a statewide coalition.

Helping Curb Loneliness

"I see how the loneliness epidemic is impacting older adults and young people in our communities," she said, "and we're committed to providing mutually beneficial intergenerational programs as an integral part of our strategy to build connection and promote social well-being."

A man with short hair wearing glasses. Next Avenue, Gen2Gen Innovation Fellow
Gen2Gen Fellow Joseph Bubman, founder of Urban Rural Action  |  Credit: Courtesy of Encore.org

Harris has been guided to this work by her father's growing isolation. A long-distance truck driver with no formal education or training, he "could fix just about any vehicle until that work became automated and he lost motivation to get out of bed," Harris said.

"For me," she noted, "it's about creating mutually beneficial opportunities to ignite passions, develop friendships and find a reason to not only get up, but to stay up and enjoy each day."

For as long as he can remember, said new Gen2Gen Innovation Fellow Joseph Bubman, 40, conflict resolution has been a motivating force in his life. "My parents separated when I was eight and I experienced firsthand the negative impact of an inability to resolve differences," Bubman noted.

Working for Peace and Democracy

After several years working in developing countries to advance peace and prevent violence, Bubman increasingly realized that many of the dynamics in those conflict zones — political polarization, racism, income inequality, misinformation — existed in the United States, too. So, he founded Urban Rural Action, with a vision of a more peaceful, just and democratic America.

Bubman's group implements programs that unite older and younger people to build relationships, strengthen collaboration skills, explore different perspectives and work together on local issues.

"Bringing people from different generations together is a challenge," said Bubman, "because when you have different lived experiences, you have different perspectives, and you have different solutions for how you might address challenges. But it's also an opportunity."

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Here are brief descriptions of the other 12 new Gen2Gen Innovation Fellows:

  • Carrie Buck matches older Orange County, Calif. homeowners with college students in need of affordable housing for mutual benefit
  • Cynthia Barnett engages older mentors in Norwalk, Conn. to help girls complete science fair projects and ignite their interest in science and technology
  • Daniel Pryfogle, based in Cary, N.C., brings together younger and older leaders to repurpose religious space for the common good
  • Deborah Tien, based in Troy, Mich., works to rebuild intergenerational trust by training block stewards who cultivate the well-being of their neighborhoods
  • Emmanuel George blends historical preservation with the arts to bridge generational divides in the Florida communities of Hollywood and Dania Beach
  • Fernande Raine, based in Milton, Mass., works to change how history is taught and prepare young people to be changemakers
  • Grace Hampton, of State College, Pa., unites older and younger people to discuss the use and meaning found in quilts and Kente and Adinkra Cloth from Ghana
  • Jason Nguyen, in Santa Ana, Calif., uses intergenerational dialogue to heal collective trauma in Vietnamese communities
  • Katherine Kim works to empower immigrant communities in Los Angeles through intergenerational storytelling
  • Liv Schaffer, based in San Francisco, uses collaborative, intergenerational dance making and sharing as a vehicle for social change
  • Maurya Cockrell uses the Clayton, Mo. nonprofit she founded, Leaves Speak Healthcare, to reduce ageist behavior and speech by training young health care providers
  • Samantha Derrick, in Melbourne, Fla., helps ethically conscious entrepreneurs build a healthy, just and plant-centered food system
Photograph of Sarah McKinney Gibson
Sarah McKinney Gibson is a storytelling and media specialist at Encore.org. Read More
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