Now that I’m in my 30s, every time I reach a new adulting milestone or tackle a life lesson, I’m reminded of the importance of not just having a mentor, but also establishing friendships with older women and femmes. The realization hits especially hard when I think of all the elders who raised me or who were around during my formative years and who are now ancestors. They were Black Southern women who grew up under Jim Crow and lived through experiences that I will never fully understand, no matter how many times I recount their stories. These women, like my grandmother and the widows in my neighborhood, instilled their values and compassion upon a curious, nerdy disabled girl like myself. 

Fortunately, I have found baby boomer and Gen X women/femmes to act as aunties or big sisters/big cousins to my millennial self, and it has refilled the intergenerational cup that was so empty from the earthly departures of my elders. These relationships are different from what I grew up with—they speak to the woman I am and not the girl I was.  

One such relationship is with my mentor and friend, Pat Kelsaw. Kelsaw, one of my graduate school professors, is responsible for shifting my focus from wanting to practice therapy to becoming a macro social worker and later activist. She not only changed the trajectory of my career, but she was also a supporter and listening ear for all of the major life transitions I have endured since we met a decade ago. Her wisdom, guidance, and humor reminds me of my silent generation elders, but she has her own twist as a boomer who also learned from the older women in her own life.  

Kelsaw advocates for and champions intergenerational connection, both professionally and in interactions with the millennials and Gen Zers she meets. She often says she is “connecting the dots” when the pieces of her life or work effortlessly connect. Her ability to see hidden and obvious connections makes her an incredible social worker, friend, and mentor.  

I wanted to ask her about the need for older and younger generations to join forces in learning from each other, her experiences with the elders she grew up with, and the lessons from them that she still holds dear. Most importantly, I wanted to share her loving and encouraging words with others who are also navigating soft and hard truths in their journey through adulthood.  

[Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

Vilissa Thompson: You pride yourself on supporting younger people, especially young women and femmes. Why does that matter to you?

Pat Kelsaw: It’s simple—young people don’t stay young people. As I age and I become older, I will have to depend on those once-younger people to make informed decisions on policy, social justice, and quality of life [that will affect me]. I think about how I [will] need to rely on younger generations when I am older and may not be able to make decisions for myself and [how] others go through similar life experiences with aging. 

I grew up in a time when a young woman’s voice, especially the voices of young Black and brown women, were not really heard. But we had also gained the right to vote and began truly exploring our bodies with books like “Our Bodies, Ourselves” that gave women [and others] critical answers to questions on human sexuality—discussions that typically were not addressed or talked about among adults and young people, even though sexual exploration and the sexual revolution were major issues at that time. Messages like, “Keep your panties up and your dress down,” or “Make sure you wash ‘down there’” were prevalent while growing up [but there was] little about learning the anatomical names and how they function.

Thompson: When you were a young woman, what were your relationships like with the women who were older/elders, and what did they mean to you?

Kelsaw: For most of my formative years, I was an only child and spent time with people older than me. I felt more comfortable [around them]—conversations about books, listening to music of all genres, and political conversations covering civil rights to the Black pride/power movement helped me to navigate life and social justice issues that were prevalent during teenage years. Women like Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, and the late Toni Morrison were pivotal in shaping my view. 

Listening to the life journeys of my elders—women in my family who came from Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and rural communities in the South—gave me hope and instilled a sense of pride. They asked me about my goals after high school and “forced” me to figure out a way to move out of the projects [where I grew up] without forgetting where I came from. Their wisdom, sense of history, sharing their struggles, and lessons taught me about resilience.

Thompson: Why is it essential for multiple generations of women/femmes among marginalized communities to share knowledge and experiences, especially now? Has anything changed between the time you were being mentored and becoming a mentor yourself?

Kelsaw: Generational constructs are somewhat arbitrary yet learning about their unique characteristics and traits has given me perspective and proven to be invaluable in my coaching approach and engagement. Each generation has distinctive expectations, habits, attitudes, and motivations; their thoughts vary on what “success” and achievement mean. Older and younger women/femmes enter this world in different times and that has a profound influence on how we view the world and our place in it. 

From my experience in coaching and mentoring, younger leaders (Generation X and Millennials) feel that older leaders (Boomers) undervalue their contributions and experience because they lack the understanding or willingness to acknowledge the experiences and lessons learned from social movements during the 1960s and 70s.

Thompson: What do you think prevents generations from engaging without butting heads or being dismissive of each other?

Well, the problem is that “butting heads” should not stop or impede you from engaging. You can agree to disagree and set up certain boundaries, if both parties are willing to be open to “seek understanding” not to get a “win.”

Thompson: What did you wish you knew in your 20s and 30s that you share with women of that age now?  

Kelsaw: Stop comparing your life to others, whether you know them personally or through following them on social media. You don’t know their entire story and publicly, folks can portray the image they want you to see and believe. Women and femmes have more choices now (although there are those who want to shift those rights back to a different time) to be who you want to be and not “fit” a particular lifestyle.

Thompson: You wear many hats in your relationships with others: friend, mentor, supporter. How do these roles shape the ways you interact with those to whom you’re an influential figure, whether personally or professionally?

Kelsaw: Almost two decades later, many of my former interns, staff, and mentees, primarily BIPOC, remain in contact. Some affectionately refer to me as “Mama P” and it speaks to the value in developing long-term relationships that outlast a specific need or point in time. They are now serving in leadership roles [and many are] soon approaching or are in the throes of “middle age.” We connect monthly or “as needed” for continued personal and professional growth, a mutually beneficial experience to keep me active, engaged, growing, living out my journey, and working on my own healing.

“Your job, as a social worker, is to work your way out of a job!” is a memorable quote from my graduate school days over 40 years ago. Now as a 60+ year-old Black woman, my work and life experiences over the years are attributed to a personal and professional need to stay relevant and think critically about ways to connect as a “seasoned leader” or “wise adult” in my quest to work my way out of a job. In the words of Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

Thompson: You are so open about what you have learned, which helps others feel less isolated. Why is it critical to speak your truth about life lessons and realities to younger folks in your life?  

Kelsaw: No one else was born to and raised by the late Lena Brown, a proud, highly driven, and determined Black woman from rural Arkansas, other than me during the 60s and 70s. Being her only child, I quickly grew to learn the importance of relationships, learning to play with others, and talk to others as I was thirsty to learn about their lives. In middle school, I was one of a handful of Black kids from low-income areas, chosen by lottery, and bussed to a predominantly white school in the hills overlooking Oakland, California. En route from west Oakland’s projects to my school consisted of riding more than 2 public buses each way there and back. It was there I discovered I was “poor” in the economic sense, living in the housing projects in stark contrast to the people I spent most of my before and after school hours with. 

This journey has led me to understand myself better and help guide/teach others to understand and acknowledge who they are and how their stories impact the people they touch by working to heal, grow, and thrive. I have always been intrigued by “community” and how one defines theirs—the people, the relationships, and support that we need. 

As an educator and a social worker, I have made it my life’s work to leave the communities where I live and work in a better place than when I arrived. I learned that “helping people ” doesn’t mean “fixing” or to have the answer. It’s about empowerment. My personal story differs from their story, even though we may travel similar paths and have common backgrounds.

If you can connect with and understand someone’s story, that is where the power lies—in the relationship. Life is simple. People make it hard. You can’t tell people how to do the most important things in life but you can show them by how you live yours. They get to unapologetically pick and choose those aspects of your life that resonate (or don’t) for them. That’s why I’m here now at this place in my life.

Thompson: Internalized misogynistic fears about aging can make it harder for women/femmes to embrace growing old. What is something about aging you weren’t aware of that you now appreciate?  

Kelsaw: I appreciate getting advice from wise elders, not just from women/femmes who happen to be older than me. There is a maturity factor that must be recognized and respected but aging is not a guarantee about who is capable of contributing a solution or advice. “Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional” is a quote that rings true, as you age and learn more about [others]. 

I appreciate the advice from my aunt: “You must learn how to respect your age.” That does not mean stopping, it means learning to do things differently. It may take me a little while longer to do something, but eventually, I get it done or pay to have it done. This advice was given to me by my ex-mother-in-law: “Your time is valuable and if or when you can afford to, ‘work smarter, not harder.’”

Thompson: What is critical for those approaching middle age to know about why having communal support matters as their adult paths may change? How have your friendships shifted with age, and what value do you find in acknowledging those changes?  

Kelsaw: This question made me think of the quote: “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime…” What I have learned is that your circle of communal support tends to get smaller as you get older, for a few reasons—one being that not everyone was meant to be in your life for a lifetime due to death or drama, distance, or divorce, etc. The social bonds that remain will more than likely shift in terms of the role that they once played in your life. 

But that brings value and a sense of belonging with lots of history, both the good and not-so-good. It’s important to acknowledge those changes [even though] you may not be the one to initiate or notice that something’s changed. Life happens. We depend on our “community” to help us make sense of that life. Sadly, our communities were shattered during the pandemic and as a result, more loneliness and isolation for many was heightened. Therefore, I believe that we need that “human connection” more than ever. 

Thompson: Any final loving words of encouragement or wisdom about getting older, having support from elders, or what it means to you to be able to pass on the ways older women/femmes have influenced you?

Kelsaw: That’s a book to be written—currently in progress! But for the purposes of this article, let me share a few suggestions and words of wisdom that I’ve collected. 

When my mom died almost 10 years ago, at age 89, and her last remaining sibling was still alive, I wanted to capture some of that knowledge from their generation to remind me and my family of their wisdom and how we can remember it by honoring them. So, I sent a blank spiral notebook to my aunt, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope. My aunt still liked to write and the spiral notebook was easier for her to turn the pages. I asked her to write down her words of wisdom that she wanted me to remember and pass along. She didn’t have to fill up all the pages, but when she felt she was finished, she could send it back. Here’s just a few:

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Gratitude is a shortcut to happiness.

Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.

One that my mother used to say was, “Just keep on livin.’” The older I get the more I can relate to that! Keep living. Keep being alive. Living means you were given another day; living with the aches and pains; living with and through the storms and challenges; trusting that the sun will shine. Keep on living and learning how to navigate life when your body starts to fail you and your mind is still thirsty for learning, for moving, remaining as independent as possible, for existing.

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...