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Advancing Equity in Aging: A Conversation Between Metta Fund & Justice in Aging

May 25, 2021
Janet Y. Spears
Image of Kevin Prindiville
Kevin Prindiville

Janet Y. Spears: Kevin, you’ve announced a major new initiative to center all of your work in [racial] equity. Can you tell me a little bit about what led Justice in Aging to this moment? 

Kevin Prindiville: Our mission has always been about fighting senior poverty, with a special focus on individuals who have experienced discrimination and been marginalized throughout their lives, which leads to health inequities and poverty in old age. And then we had the COVID-19 pandemic alongside our national reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality and it became clear that older adults of color were getting sick and dying at much higher rates due to deeply embedded systems of racism. That’s when we realized that anti-poverty work isn’t always anti-racist work and that we needed to go farther in centering our advocacy on the needs of those most impacted so we can build better policies for older adults from the ground up.  

Janet, you and Metta Fund have been real leaders in highlighting Inequities facing older adults and I know Metta Fund recently committed all of its grantmaking to aging and older adult issues. What led you in that direction?

Janet Y. Spears: I’ll give you the short answer. We’ve found that not everyone is aware that folks 65+ are the fastest-growing population group. Here in San Francisco, 1 in 3 of us will be 60 or older by 2030. And many elders – especially elders of color – are faced with unique challenges and barriers. A stark number is aging into poverty. At the same time, due to racial inequities, there is unequal access to services and supports in our aging service delivery. Our safety-net and infrastructure are not prepared for this population shift. From my vantage point in philanthropy, that’s alarming. Yet and still –– only about one percent of philanthropic dollars go directly toward aging programs. For us at Metta Fund, it became clear that there was an opportunity to make tangible impact by strategically prioritizing this population group and funding both direct service and advocacy groups.

At Metta Fund, we’re energized about JIA’s public commitment to advancing equity. Can you share how you’re going to go about doing that?

Kevin Prindiville: Thanks to support from Metta Fund, we were able to start by hiring a Director of Equity Advocacy to lead this work. The Director is leading a cross program team tasked with ensuring that all of our advocacy strategies address inequities for older adults of color, LGBTQ older adults, those with limited English proficiency, women, immigrants, and/or older adults with disabilities. The entire staff will be involved in this work. We’re expanding and deepening our partnerships, digging into more data to inform our work, and creating new planning tools and communications strategies to ensure that all of our work Is centered in equity.   

Metta Fund has also been vocal about systemic inequities faced by older adults. From your perspective as a funder, what do you think it will take to truly advance equity in aging?

Janet Y. Spears: I fundamentally believe change begins with consciousness-raising. We have a long way to go, but in recent years, we have seen a noticeable shift in philanthropic sector conversations — a greater focus on racial equity. We will need to continue to reckon with our racist and ageist systems, policies, and practices. And to get there, first our awareness, behavior, and culture needs to shift. Because changing the narrative will help change systems and the policies that support them.

As you mentioned, inequities cumulate as we age. And the root of all inequity is racial and economic injustice. Moving towards age equity means many things –– from closing the income gap, expanding access to healthcare, caregiving, housing, or simply being able to have broadband access to the internet—I would love to see all of that addressed in my lifetime. Ultimately, it will take partnerships like ours, and broad movements, advocacy, and systems change efforts to equitably impact the lives of older people.

How does this new initiative fit in and move this vision forward? What will these changes look like on the ground for older adults?

Kevin Prindiville: As we develop new and more diverse partnerships and coalitions, we’ll learn more about problems people in the groups we’re focused on are facing on the ground. This will lead to us developing different types of trainings to help advocates solve different problems, filing new kinds of cases and advocating on policies that have a particularly racist or discriminatory impact on people. For example, a policy like Medicaid Estate Recovery requires states to recoup the costs of care after a Medicaid recipient passes away. Many people lose their family homes this way. The policy is horrible for everyone subject to it, but has a particularly racist impact on low-income families of color because, for some, the family home is the only source of wealth. Losing the home can set back younger members of the family and perpetuate poverty for generations.

Are funders seeing these connections between aging and equity too? What recent advances have been made in philanthropy when it comes to issues faced by elders?

Janet Y. Spears: The silver lining is that the pandemic has brought attention to disparities faced by older people, so there is increased recognition that philanthropy can do more to erase disadvantages faced by elders. Over the last year, philanthropy has made meaningful contributions, starting with rapid response funds to address the immediate impacts of the pandemic, which has disproportionally impacted BIPOC elders.

A number of funder collaboratives are also working together to raise awareness, pool funding, and build a movement. Metta Fund is part of a state-wide funder collaborative which supported the development, and now the implementation, of California’s Master Plan for Aging. In the Bay Area, we are part of the Aging Intersections Funder Network, the first California collaborative focused on equity in elderhood. There are also a number of national efforts springing up. Increasingly, philanthropy is recognizing aging as an equity issue, so I think we will see continued developments in this area. There is definitely much more room at the table though.

What else do you think funders can do to contribute to this work to advance equity in aging?

Kevin Prindiville: As I’ve said Metta’s support has been so powerful and is allowing us to completely transform our work in such an intentional way. I don’t think we would be doing this now if we hadn’t already done the internal DEI work with staff to get us to the point where we can effectively take on these systemic issues. More funders should support organizations in their internal DEI work and continue that support to enable the organizations to center their programmatic work on equity. Having funders that ask grantees about their commitment to DEI and to equity in their programs empowers us grantees to have hard conversations at a staff and board level and to evaluate deeply how our programs need to change to align with our values.

Janet, what advice would you give funders looking to get more involved in this work and support organizations?

Janet Y. Spears: I would say that there are many onramps to get engaged. The first is to connect with your current grantees to see how, and if, they are serving older populations. Join one of the aging funder collaboratives, or link up with others in the field who are doing the work. I believe that we don’t need a few people doing it perfectly to make progress, we need a ton of people doing it imperfectly. If more and more of us consciously begin this work, we’ll advance equity not just for our young, but also for our old.

Kevin Prindiville is Justice in Aging’s Executive Director

Janet Y. Spears is Chief Executive Officer of Metta Fund, a private foundation dedicated to advancing health and equity in aging. In this role, she leads one of the only California foundations with a population focus on older adults, working with nonprofits, the community, and government partners to influence solutions that foster more equitable outcomes for older San Franciscans. Janet is currently Vice President of the San Francisco Disability and Aging Services Commission and serves on the boards of Northern California Grantmakers, the Giants Community Fund, and the University of the Pacific (UOP), her alma mater. Previously, she was Chief Operating Officer at the East Bay Community Foundation and Sales Vice President at AT&T.

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