The story of Old School

How three persistent people build an anti-ageism toolkit

Movements need tools, best practices, and ways to share them. Ashton Applewhite, a writer and activist, started dreaming about some kind of online repository for ageism-related resources in 2014. But ideas are cheap, things take time, and she needed the right collaborators. She’d met coach and fellow activist Kyri√© Carpenter in October 2015. That year she also met Ryan Backer, an activist with a B.S. in Gerontology. In late 2017, in a borderline-brilliant feat of intuition, she realized they just might be the partners she was looking for, and we three joined forces.

First came naming: the Old School Clearinghouse. We liked all the possible wordplay: how we use “old” as a pejorative when of course it isn’t; the connotation of something well-respected from an earlier era; and school for getting ‘schooled’ in ageism. Dot-com was taken, so we took .info. We went back and forth on “clearinghouse”—an informal channel for distributing information—and went with it because that’s exactly what we wanted Old School to become: a place that tools and ideas move in and out of

We figured out how to describe the site: Old School is a clearinghouse of free and carefully vetted resources to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it. You’ll find blogs, books, articles, videos, speakers, and other tools that are accessible to the general public. Our goal is to help catalyze a movement to make ageism (discrimination on the basis of age) as unacceptable as any other kind of prejudice. 

We established simple criteria:  Resources have to be really good. We’ve gotten pickier, and we know we’ll eventually have to prune, that’ll be a good problem to have, and a welcome indicator of how much the anti-ageism movement has grown. Resources have to be free. Everything on the site is free except most of the books and speakers charge for their services. We’re also committed to an open-source ethos, because a proprietary, capitalist mindset is antithetical to movement-building. People are welcome to share, adapt, and appropriate our words and ideas and we encourage contributors to say the same...

We decided on six initial categories: Tools, Books, Blogs & Papers, Humans, Videos, Organizations. The Organizations category was a headache because very few are ageism-centric. We ran into the same problem with Humans. So, we decided that ageism didn’t have to be a person’s or organization’s sole focus, but it had to be an explicit priority and area of expertise – and the more central to their mission, the better.

We built the thing: Old School began life as a spreadsheet, and spreadsheets are indispensable, but the resources we were finding were a complete grab bag -- a bunch of things that looked and worked differently — and the clearinghouse needed a coherent structure that made sense visually. A basic “store” template filled the bill, with rows of images, and muted earth tones and vintage photos for an old-timey play on “old school”.

The three of us finally met in person in August 2018, at Ashton’s best friend’s house in Oakland, California, at what we grandly titled our first Founders Summit. We added finishing touches, set up social media accounts, drafted a newsletter, and decided to introduce our work to the world. On August 12, with an email blast to the This Chair Rocks mailing list Ashton had built up over a decade, Old School 1.0 launched with 78 resources.

We were astonished by how many people checked out the site, let us know they liked what they saw, and submitted things—immediately! Once we’d stopped blinking in surprise, we went right back to the drawing board. It was clear that the site needed to work faster and offer more features - like search! (We couldn’t believe no one had complained that it was missing). And it was apparent that Old School would be an ongoing, dynamic, and very demanding, enterprise.

The flood of submissions also made it obvious that we needed to be clearer about our criteria. Many fell into a category we call “positive aging.” They offer a welcome corrective to the conventional gloomy narrative of aging-as-decline. They tell upbeat stories about inspirational olders doing things typically associated with younger people. They suggest that the right lifestyle and right attitude can enable us to control the way we age. Where’s the rub? This approach downplays the role that class, luck and structural discrimination play in shaping our aging - forces that benefit people who are privileged. A feel-good approach also avoids addressing the very real challenges of growing old, which reinforce age denial. And that feeds the very thing we’re trying to eradicate: ageism.

We quickly amended our submission form to read: If you have an ageism-related resource to contribute to Old School – notabout positive aging or productive aging or healthy aging or conscious aging or creative aging, but explicitly focused on ageism – please use this form to get in touch.

We point out that aging is a huge field, that Old School can't be all things to all people, and that we’re all on the same team, working for a better world in which to grow old. We hope they’ll make the cut later on, and that we’ve made the right call.

Culture change is complicated! We operate by consensus, and our monthly meetings to review submissions feature a lot of energetic back-and-forth. More and more people are getting the memo —that it’s time to confront ageism— and creating new resources. Thanks to a growing circle of users and contributors, what started as a spreadsheet has developed a life and momentum of its own. More and more organizations and websites are listing OS as a resource. We’re getting press attention, including a nice mention in the NY Times.

On February 19, 2019, we launched Old School Version 2.0 with twice as many resources. To everyone but us it looked almost exactly the same - but under the hood there were all kinds of new functions: robust search; two new sections: Podcasts and Campaigns; optimization for mobile; ways for users to rate and comment on resources. We also added contact info for the creators of the resources, a first step towards the community-building we see as part of our mission. In May 2020, we launched Old School 3.0, which runs faster, contains a COVID section, and new search features, banners to indicate new resources, and ways to share resources on social media.

Concrete evidence of social change is rare, but our fast-growing Campaigns section offers exactly that: proof that a global movement to end ageism is underway. Clearly Old School is positioned to become a hub of awareness-, community-, and movement-building activity. We hope all of you in the pro-aging community are excited about its potential— will help us achieve it. Check it out here 

[Source: co-founders Ashton Applewhite, Kyrié Carpenter & Ryan Backer,]