Preserving, Culture, Wisdom, Intergenerational Learning
Skip To Content
Spelman College 2018 WEL Graduates

Preserving Culture and Wisdom Through Intergenerational Learning

Gloria Steinem, an icon in the feminist movement, once said: “We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.” It’s easy to fall into patterns of only associating with those who are most like ourselves in age and similar stages of life. After all, this feels very natural and it’s easy to relate to others who are experiencing what we are also experiencing. However, when we do not go outside of our own generation, we are missing out on opportunities and leaving an immense trove of knowledge on the table. Intergenerational learning is key to addressing this disparity by capturing the information and wisdom of earlier generations. And since more than a quarter of Black Americans live in a multigenerational household, this knowledge is well within reach.

Intergenerational Learning Throughout Black Womens’ History

Ann Nixon Cooper and Dr. Gloria Wade GaylesGaining knowledge from previous generations is critical for the Black community to help preserve traditions and heritage while also strengthening community bonds. As Marcus Garvey famously wrote: “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

The tradition of intergenerational sharing and learning in the Black community began long before the slave trade brought Black women to the United States, but it became even more critical once they arrived.

This exchange of information and knowledge across generations preserved oral tradition and cultural practices, allowing the wisdom from one generation to pass to the next. This continued on through reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond —  where women of different generations worked together, learning from the previous generations as mentors and guides —  creating deep roots in the Black community.

The Benefits of Intergenerational Learning

Intergenerational learning has long been integral to the Black experience, but the benefits go far beyond passing on oral traditions. Studies have shown this shared learning has mutual benefits for both parties involved:

  • Knowledge transfer. Gaining life lessons with a historical perspective.
  • Strengthened Connections. Enhance family bonds and those within the community. Also reduces the feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Empathy and Understanding. Fosters understanding across different generations by contextualizing their lived experiences.
  • Mentorship and Self-esteem. Young adults will have more confidence because of what they’ve learned from previous generations.
  • Cultural Identity Affirmation. Builds pride in their identity and deepens the understanding of intersectionality and the experiences unique to Black women.

Spelman’s Approach to Intergenerational Learning

SIS Oral History Photo 3Spelman fully believes in the critical importance and benefits associated with intergenerational learning and empowers our students to experience it.

One of the major components of intergenerational learning at Spelman is through the Spelman Independent Scholars (SIS) Oral History Project. Gloria Wade-Gayles, Ph.D., founding director of the SIS, had this to say about the importance of intergenerational education: “If our institutions are going to create critical thinkers, we must impress upon students the connections between the past, present and future.

The SIS Oral History Project is a two-semester independent, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational learning experience open to students across all majors. The goal of SIS is to enhance critical thinking and writing skills and allow students to have the opportunity to share research and grow in their knowledge.

"In the SIS Oral History Project, my learning stretched much further than the classroom and into the archival and oral history fields, as I became Alumni Editor of our journal, They Saw the Sun First. The journal will include stories from current students, alumni, and elder Women of Wisdom. It will surely spark conversation and learning as we explore age, ageism, and what those mean for us all," Alix Swann said.

Students in the SIS program have learning sessions with a SIS faculty mentor, but are also exposed to lectures by guest scholars including: gerontologists, oral historians, museum curators, and physician-researchers. This program is unique and allows and entrusts students to solicit, understand and archive stories of African American women elders. A global component of SIS has included oral history research in Accra, Ghana; Benin, West Africa; Nassau, Bahamas, and Kingston, Jamaica.

SIS Spelman Independent Scholars

These collections of oral histories have been preserved in a number of ways through this project. Starting in 2004, the SIS Oral History Project started a book anthology entitled “Their Memories, Our Treasures” that has multiple volumes. These types of oral histories can be seen in video interviews and short documentaries captured by SIS Oral History Project participants:

Here are some more projects and lectures that have been a part of the SIS Oral History Project at Spelman: