We ripped it up. After spending most of 2019 developing a new strategic plan, we were all set to present a final draft to our Board of Directors in the spring of 2020. Then the pandemic hit and we put our plans on hold.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, it revealed just how deep systemic inequities are embedded. We saw disproportionate illnesses and deaths among older adults in communities of color, care rationing standards that discriminated based on race, age, and disability, barriers to care and vaccinations for older adults of color, anti-Asian violence directed at elders, and more—all amidst a nationwide reckoning with our history and present-day reality of anti-Black racism and police brutality.
In the fall of 2020, we returned to our strategic planning process. The plan we had developed before the pandemic was ambitious. Eight strategic priorities, each with goals and proposed activities—all important, all worthy. But the country had changed. And we needed to change as well. One of the original eight strategic priorities stood out as more important, more urgent, more critical than all the rest. So we ripped up nearly all of the old plan and committed all of our energy, resources, and talent to a single strategic initiative: Advancing Equity.
We publicly launched our Advancing Equity initiative last month. Through this Initiative, we will use deliberate strategies and dedicated staffing to help us more intentionally center our advocacy on issues that directly address systemic inequities faced by older adults of color, older women, LGBTQ older adults, older adults with disabilities, and older adults who are immigrants or have limited English proficiency. The Initiative’s primary emphasis will be on advancing racial equity specifically.
We developed a framework that will help us be more intentional in what issues we work on, the partners we work with, and the policy solutions we advocate for. We will prioritize issues, projects, and cases that either significantly impact or uniquely target older adults who have faced systemic discrimination. We will seek policy solutions that are tailored to these communities and go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach that can exacerbate or mask existing disparities.
This new initiative represents a significant moment for us in our development as an organization. While we have a rich 50-year history of fighting poverty, we recognize now that anti-poverty work is not always the same as equity or anti-racism work. Yes, we have long understood that senior poverty disproportionately impacts older adults of color, particularly older women of color, and we have been vocal about elevating the disparities in who ages into poverty and who disproportionately relies on the programs we advocate to defend and improve. Over the last few years, we have become increasingly explicit and intentional about naming the systemic racism and other forms of discrimination that cause those disparities.
But, upon reflection as an organization, we realized that we were not always centering the experiences of communities most impacted by systemic racism, other forms of discrimination, and poverty in our initial identification, assessment, and prioritization of the problems we work to solve. And we weren’t consistent in centering the experiences of these communities when advocating for solutions. Too often, we were tackling problems that presented themselves to us, but the particular inequities we were solving were considered and addressed at the end of our process or peripherally, rather than at the beginning.
We concluded that this may be one of the reasons we have not been as successful as we would like to be in reducing poverty and dismantling systemic inequities that impact how we age. We had a simultaneously simple and profound realization: if we want to get somewhere new, we would need to build new tracks to get there. We would need to change some of the ways we think about and approach our work so that we can achieve new levels of impact. We are launching this initiative because we believe deeply that doing so will strengthen our work and lead us closer to fulfilling the promise of our mission.
Coming to this realization and deciding to center our external, programmatic work in equity would not have been possible without the internal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work we have been doing over the last 5 years. Our internal efforts have been aimed at building a more diverse staff and a more inclusive and equitable culture within our organization. Doing so has expanded the expertise, experiences, and perspectives that inform our work, giving us a better understanding of the causes and effects of senior poverty and leading us to potential solutions. We still have work to do, but our internal work has already strengthened our organization and better equipped us to fulfill our mission and this new initiative.
We are excited to see many of our partners in the aging, disability, civil rights, racial justice, legal services, health justice, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights communities also examining ways to collectively reform how we work to advance equity. We have learned a lot from others and we look forward to continuing to learn—and to lead where we can.
I started this blog by sharing that, “we ripped it up.” That’s true of our old, pre-pandemic plans. But it’s not really a fair characterization of what we doing. Our work to Advance Equity in Aging is not about ripping things up; it’s about building things up. It’s about building a future that is bolder and better than the present day we’ve created. It’s about building a system and a country where we ALL can age in justice. Let’s join together and make it happen.