By Cierra Duncan
Spirits are high each week when members of the Elders Institute of Wisdom gather for their weekly meetings at SHAPE Community Center.
Each gather begins with a word of prayer. The elders then participate in a moderate exercise routine, listen to a guest speaker or performer, and discuss current events and how they can improve issues in the community.
Members of the institute come from various backgrounds and occupations, including activist, teacher, minister and poet.
“The institute is extremely important in terms of getting the wisdom of the elders, what they’ve been through and what they can help you with,” said Sister Valerie Mawiyah, a member of the National Black United Front and former development worker in Haiti. “They can do mediation and give you a perspective of many years.”
A key part of belonging to the Elders Institute of Wisdom is being able to provide guidance to the young.
“We speak openly,” said Milton Randle, an ordained minister and leader in the elder’s institute. It is not uncommon to see Randle or another elder being a mentor to a SHAPE youth.
Randle said the Institute of Wisdom is derived from an African concept where elders are the leaders in a community. Elders make the final decision when an issue is brought before them and that decision is honored and carried out by younger members in the community.
“An elder is someone who’s old and wise,” said Deloyd Parker, executive director at SHAPE. “You don’t have to have a Ph. D. Your wisdom, knowledge and understanding make the difference.”
“As a collective, SHAPE is healing,” said Mother Jean Dember, founding member of the National Black United Front.
She said people have come into SHAPE disoriented and lacking focus due to the disrespect they’ve encountered in their everyday lives. However, once spending time at the center, interacting with the elders and being respected, they gain a new outlook on life. “That’s what gives them dignity,” she said. “They are respected here.”
Dember became involved with SHAPE shortly after she moved to Houston. She was encouraged by a doctor at Riverside Hospital to become active in the community.
“We do not need a list of the problems,” she recalled the doctor stating. “We need a list of solutions. What are you going to do about the problems you see in the community?”
Dember has been a long-time activist in Houston. Most recently she has fought in support of keeping the Southmore Station Postal Office open. She has also been vocal about HISD’s decision to repurpose Jones High School and close Dodson Elementary.
She said some political and community leaders have lost their reverence for elders.
“They are supposed to come to the elders and find out what we have learned in life and what we can transmit to them,” Dember said. “Then they can put them into the laws, customs and services that we need.”
The Elders Institute of Wisdom has made a vital impact on SHAPE Community Center. It has not only reenergized and enhanced the lives of its members but the institute has also been a source of knowledge for younger generations.
“The community would not be if it weren’t for SHAPE,” said Lillie Starks, a retired City of Houston employee.
Starks came to SHAPE after retirement to continue working with people. She said she enjoys the center and the elders because of the community and interacting with people close to her age.
“If their life is enhances and extended then that means we benefit more because they are here for us,” Parker said. “It’s like a circle of interdependence, when they grow we grow. Then they can teach us, we can learn from them and they can continue to learn.”
“They are active,” he continued. “They are not elders sitting down, lying down and waiting to die. They are elders who are making a difference. They are still making a difference.”
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 26 (May 1, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX. (http://defendernetwork.com/)