I was raised to respect my elders in a way that went beyond saying “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing someone older than me. As I’ve grown close to elderhood myself, I’ve learned to recognize that age doesn’t always bring wisdom, but it often does, and those who have been around the block many times may well have thoughts that I ought to both hear and heed.

Most Americans probably aren’t aware that there is a global organization of people called “The Elders,” wise and well-seasoned from years of experience in dealing with world issues, who occasionally speak on important matters. The idea for the group began with billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, according to the Elders’ website. They wondered if an independent group of elder statesmen/stateswomen could offer advice that might help resolve issues of global importance and suggest ways to reduce human suffering.

Branson and Gabriel took the idea to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.With the help of Graça Machal (an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights, from Mozambique) and Anglican priest Desmond Tutu of South Africa, they called together a group of ten accomplished men and women of a certain age and established The Elders, whose mission is to “offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.”

When Mandela announced the formation of the group on his birthday in July 1989, he said “

“The Elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

Jimmy Carter is lone American in the truly global group, which includes accomplished advocates for human rights from many countries: Kofi Annan of Ghana, Ela Bhatt of India, Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, Gro Bruntland of Norway, Fernando H. Cardoso of Brazil, Mary Robinson of Ireland, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, Machel, and Tutu. Nelson Mandela and Aung Sn Suu Kyi of Burma/Myanmar are honorary members.

The group includes several winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. When they speak, their message is worth hearing.

The most recent statement from the group calls for equality for women and girls, decrying religious traditions that keep women in subordinate roles. It’s worth reading.

Later this month, six members of the group plan to travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, where historical and political issues are so thorny that they can only be resolved with deep wisdom, not hot heads. I’m pulling for them.

The Elders are a little bit like that grandmother or aged uncle that you haven’t seen in a while, but your really ought to visit and talk to, because you might learn something. The Elders are not an “in-your-face” group, and are rarely mentioned in the media. You might have to go to their website to see what they’ve been saying, but you’ll find the visit well worth your time.

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