The Common Good
March 2006

Green Hair, Gray Hair

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | March 2006

What do you get when you mix punk rockers with senior citizens?

On a grocery delivery day last year for “We Are Family,” a small interfaith initiative serving the elderly, volunteers gathered to fill bags and take them to residents of the North Capitol neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

One of the volunteers, a young punk rocker, had shaped his hair into three mohawks standing on his head. Mark Andersen, 46, We Are Family director and co-founder, said he remembers “the interesting conversations with the seniors as they tried to figure out how in the world he got his hair to be so stiff.”

We Are Family—part of the Northwest Settlement House, an organization with a long history in Washington, and Faith in Action D.C., a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—draws many of its volunteers from the D.C. punk scene and the global justice movement, known more by the broader public for protest and rebellion.

“One of the things I’m interested in is drawing people from all these faith-based communities into relationship with not faith-based and sometimes anti-faith-based activists to find common ground,” Andersen said.

Community activist and poet Lucy Stokes, 68, said she welcomes visits from young punks involved with We Are Family through “Positive Force,” a punk activism group started in 1985. “They dress a little funny, and wear their hair a little funny, but they are wonderful. Once they get in and you start talking, the fact that they got green hair, blue hair, just disappears.”

Andersen said he found common values between seniors he works with and punk philosophy. One of those common values is a “do-it-yourself attitude,” he said. “I don’t know how much more do-it-yourself you can get than the seniors of the Shaw neighborhood,” he said, given their history that includes struggles against segregation, limited rights for women, and the challenges of raising a family on a limited income in an expensive city.

Another value of the punk movement is siding with the underdog, Andersen said, and understanding feelings of marginalization. “With punk, I see a connection with liberation theology, the view from the underside,” he said. It’s natural for punk rockers to work with “a multiply-marginalized group of people,” Andersen said, such as the We Are Family seniors, who are mainly elderly, low-income African-American women with little formal education.

With Andersen as its only paid staff person, We Are Family’s main workforce consists of the more than 200 volunteers who have participated since the group’s creation in September 2004. Roughly 50 people regularly help provide advocacy, services, and companionship to the elderly, primarily through visits to their homes. “The most key volunteers are seniors themselves,” Andersen said.

In starting We Are Family, Andersen partnered with seniors from his Catholic parish, St. Aloysius Church (known as “St. Al’s”), as well as with Stokes, who has lived in D.C. since the mid-’60s. Stokes said she has known Andersen since he came to D.C.; she worked with him at Emmaus Services for the Aging, a nonprofit agency in the Shaw neighborhood.

Mary Judd, 79, a member of St. Al’s and the We Are Family advisory board who has lived in the district since the ’40s, said her good health allows her to help other seniors. “I try to reach out to others, with something as simple as a conversation, and in that way we are all family,” she said. “Some of our senior volunteers are lonely themselves and that drives them to visit others.”

By the act of sharing time, gifts, and resources, the group behaves in a manner similar to the early church, as described in Acts 2, Andersen said. “We are Family is at best an experiment in building a caring, just, and inclusive community—and not just a social service organization.”

Andersen, who grew up Lutheran in northeast Montana, began attending St. Al’s after nearly two decades of not being connected to a church. “My journey back into Christian community really began in earnest when I went to Central America in 1985 and encountered what I would call the liberation church there,” Andersen said. “The poverty and violence that I encountered there absolutely humbled me—and the inspirational example of people not talking about Christianity but living it out.”

Andersen has also been a longtime member of the D.C. punk movement, which sponsors shows, low-budget music releases, and community ventures, especially through Positive Force.

Sarah Lawrance, 22, from Ottawa, Canada, a senior at American University in Washington, is one of numerous volunteers who have connected with We Are Family through Positive Force. She said her visits with seniors have impacted her and the seniors she has visited. One woman Lawrance went to see, who was bedridden, “seemed to physically come alive during our conversation.” Lawrance said she has also learned to know Washington beyond the wealthier neighborhood where American University is located. “It really opened my eyes to the reality of racism, discrimination, and ageism.”

Many young people volunteering with We Are Family find a passion for serving, and also learn to be more patient, Stokes said. “A lot of times a young person will think, ‘that wasn’t much I did,’ but that was a lot to the seniors that you helped.” Volunteers value the stories seniors tell about social change in the past century, according to Stokes. “We can provide knowledge of what has happened, how far we have come, the progress we have made in this country.”

“There are lots of places of pain where you can hopefully be part of the healing,” Andersen said. “My wish is to more-firmly ground that idealism—the idealism of young punks—in the larger community.”

“You have to keep growing,” Andersen said. “You’ve got to keep stepping out of your comfort zone. This is a lifelong process.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank is editorial projects assistant at Sojourners.

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