Celebrating National Grandparents Day

[Editor's Note: The following guest post was written by photographer Paola Gianturco.]
Storytelling Grandmothers throughout Argentina read to children in schools, libraries, bookstores and parks. The program, coordinated by the Mempo Giardinelli Foundation, has been so successful kindling a love of reading that the government has incorporated Storytelling Grandmothers into the national education curriculum and seven other countries have copied the program. (Credit: Paola Gianturco)

There’s a new kind of grandmother for us to celebrate on September 9. 

Today’s grandmothers are not like mine. My mother’s mother lived a mile away. I played under her bushes where spring violets grew delicate and dense. She baked treats for me--a dollop of meringue on a saltine cracker---and prepared delicious Sunday dinners for our family: chickens that my grandfather beheaded in the garage and vegetables she grew in the garden. My grandmother kept an art-nouveau lamp lit outside the room when I stayed overnight. She took the streetcar to visit her sister. Her bathtub had feet. Christmas wrappings got stashed in her linen closet to be used again. She kept her money in a safe hidden in a kitchen cabinet. The coal that heated her house was heaped high in the basement. She daubed on face powder with a puff. She wore housedresses with tiny prints and braided her hair into a pigtail she could sit on.

By contrast, many contemporary grandmothers have careers (half of all US grandmothers are too young to retire). They may read bedtime stories to their grandchildren via Skype because they’re travelling---or they live far away. If their hair is (what used to be called) grey, they think of it as silver---a shining symbol of a new life chapter.

Traditional Inca weaving patterns and dying processes were lost; the ancestors had been betrayed. Nilda CallaƱaupa founded the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco and arranged with local high schools for students to interview their grandmothers about their grandmothers’ weaving. Today, the practices have been recovered. Traditional garments are worn with pride in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Today, thanks in part to the Boomers, there are more grandmothers than at any other time in the history of the world: younger, healthier, better educated, and (despite the economic downturn) better off than they have ever been. Those attributes give them power: not “power over,” but pure power, the ability to catalyze change.

Causing change is in their DNA. Many grandmothers were students in the 1960’s; they know they can change the world because they did. They are passionate about their grandchildren, and uncompromising about making the world a better place for them.

They are working locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally because they understand that national borders are irrelevant since their goal is to improve the future for our interconnected, troubled world. I spent almost five years researching my upcoming book, Grandmother Power, A Global Phenomenon, interviewing 120 grandmothers on five continents. I was inspired by the intractable problems grandmothers are tackling: installing solar electricity in dark villages; reversing illiteracy; resuscitating good traditions (like Inca weaving) and convincing their communities to abandon bad ones (like female genital mutilation). Raising AIDS orphans; planting community gardens; monitoring military checkpoints to prevent abuse; demonstrating in the streets to end sex slavery.

The Grandmother Project understands that grandmothers are the family health authority all over the developing world, and that if one contemporary medical fact were added to their traditional knowledge, children’s health could improve permanently. When Senegalese grandmothers learned that their daughters were dying in childbirth due to female genital mutilation, they moved immediately to stop the practice. Next, the grandmothers want to eliminate teen pregnancy and child marriage. 
These grandmothers are not only changing the world, by modeling behavior, they are teaching their grandchildren patience, perseverance, generosity, justice, mercy, and peace.

I find great hope in this remarkable, unheralded grandmother’s movement and suspect you will, too. Just as IMOW’s new gallery honors MAMA POWER, let’s also celebrate GRANDMOTHER POWER with a salute on Grandparents Day, September 9. Please comment below and describe an activist grandmother—or activist grandmother group---you know!


About the author: Paola Gianturco’s fifth photographic book, Grandmother Power, A Global Phenomenon will be available September 18; 100% of her author royalties go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, which benefits African grandmothers raising children orphaned by AIDS. The International Museum of Women will co-sponsor Paola’s slide lecture at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club on December 3. Find out more at www.globalgrandmotherpower.com