“How do you plan on getting the younger generations involved and interested in the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV)?”
When I was hired in August of 2020 this question was first and foremost on the minds of the people that interviewed me. History tends to interest those that have a lot of it. As a result, involvement in historical organizations tends to be inhabited by the older generations of society. However, if the stories of history do not get passed on down the generational lines, we lose their formational purpose. Complicating the task of passing the torch stands the overwhelming proliferation of stories that flood all our social media feeds. So how do we pass along our history to the next generation?
Often, when the opening question is asked – the underlying assumption stems from placing the responsibility to involve the next generation on someone else. A complex problem needs someone to coordinate resources to find a solution. When dealing with an organization like MHV our greatest resource is the membership network and numerous volunteers that tell the story of the Russian Mennonites. Therefore, passing the torch begins with each one of us. Everyone can make an impact in engaging younger generations. Look around and identify one person who you could invite to join you in your involvement. If the history is important to you – it will likely be important to those around you as well.
For those of you involved in an activity – invite them to join you. Make normative the presence of multiple generations in all aspects of your involvement. I’ve had a chance to visit the blacksmith shop a couple of times and what stands out to me is the three generations at work. They may be working on separate projects, but they are learning from each other. Whether it be participating at an event, volunteering for a tour group, or demonstrating a pioneer activity bring someone along. Share with them your story of why you do what you do.
Inviting people brings them once. Giving them responsibility draws them back for more. Being careful not to overwhelm them, providing meaningful work that engages their capability and makes a difference to the outcome is important for continued involvement. Be careful not to simply give them the frivolous and menial tasks that you don’t want to do. Give them as much leadership as they can handle and learn the art of stepping back. Including others demands our own humility. As others take on leadership, we must allow them to lead. The alternative frustrates the interested as they wait for us to relinquish control.
Be willing to allow ideas and innovation to be a part of their involvement. This may mean that the long-standing ways of doing things may get changed. There is a delicate dance between passing along the wisdom and significance of the established pattern of doing things and embracing new and innovative change.
Our typical answer to the opening question begins with crafting a program that will get a younger demographic to experience the museum. We follow up these programs by trying to engage on Social Media platforms like YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram which provide persuasive platforms to engage our audience. Program development and social media marketing are important, but I fear that puts the cart before the horse. Programs create opportunities for people to engage and social media keeps people interested and engaged with the activities of the organization. Ultimately the vision for passing the torch comes down to a grass-roots movement of people identifying, inviting, including and innovating with those of a younger generation.