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Advocates for Senior Issues: Allies for authentic inclusion.

Racism and housing discrimination against senior citizens of color were not the first things that Advocates for Senior Issues expected to take on in their goal of addressing and enhancing diversity and inclusion. However, this non-profit and volunteer-led organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan realized that their initial focus on the goals and strategies of authentic inclusion required them to be responsive to the inequity and unjust treatment facing senior citizens of color in housing. After all, they are called Advocates for Senior Issues. They were my first client specifically in the diversity and inclusion area.

I was still in the beginning of my pre-assessment phase of the organization based on the Progress Strategies Standards for Assessment of Inclusion and Diversity Performance and Progress (SAID:P2) when the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHCWM) issued a report documenting notable housing discrimination against seniors of color in our county. County-wide almost one out of every three (3) minority seniors or seniors with a disability seeking housing may meet an unlawful barrier posed by housing discrimination. At the first review of the report it was my belief that Advocates for Senior Issues should act on this issue even as we were just developing their first-ever comprehensive inclusion program.

After full review of FHCWM’s report funded by the Kent County Senior Millage and the Area on Aging of West Michigan from 2007-2010, I asked Advocates for Senior Issues to take the following actions:

1. Invite the center to brief the entire membership on the report of housing discrimination against seniors of color.

2. Consider an action item or commitment to help call attention to this issue.

They immediately responded to the call. FHCWM provided almost 200 members of Advocates for Senior Issues with the presentation and briefing at a general membership meeting. This meeting also marked the first such presentation dealing with issues of race and inclusion. A handful of those members voluntarily enlisted to become ‘testers’ almost immediately.

Testing is a means to uncover evidence of race discrimination in renting and housing. It was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. An advocacy group will send a comparable (socio-economic similarities except for race or ethnicity) white or person of color to inquire about housing at the same property in order to document housing discrimination and preferential treatment based on race.

As I mentioned, some men and women of the almost exclusively white membership were so moved by the presentation that they stepped up to ‘test’ themselves and the system. They were also a part of my test to determine their readiness to engage in the full creation of a comprehensive organization diversity program of new policies, procedures and external partnerships for authentic inclusion. It was one of many choices they made to transcend the basic and myopic organizational focus of 'diversifying membership.'

Once again, this awareness and activity on the housing issue developed during the middle of my assessment, research, and identification of key findings, community surveying and sampling on community expectations of organization diversity and 10 major strategic project action items. The comprehensive report and strategies also included the development of the Advocates Improving in Diversity Engagement grant in order to position the group to obtain resources for sustaining their progress.

That progress has included the following achievements from a committed group of volunteer community leaders of a non-profit organization with two staff members:

· The first diversity and inclusion value statement and diversity and inclusion policies with the full range of inclusion from race to sexual orientation.

· The adoption of diversity and inclusion internal practices of membership recruitment and external partnerships to address issues of equity.

· African-American seniors as Elected Officers and Executive Committee members.

· African-American seniors serving on the very important Legislative Committee.

· Before the completion of the project they took immediate action on a specific recommendation to move their meeting location from the suburbs to recommended sites in the culturally diverse and second-largest city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They have since expanded site locations that now include core city locations that are home to religiously diverse communities.

· Continuing the internal diversity and inclusion governance body. The Advocates for Senior Issues Internal Committee established to monitor diversity and inclusion program progress is now a permanent committee with the Progress Strategies+ standard organizational diversity structure.

· Utilization of diversity and inclusion allies such as the organization’s financial sponsors that includes corporations, educational institutions and organizations. Many of them came together as the External Diversity Committee to critique the project and offer input and changes. At the time, the committee met quarterly to respond to the development of strategic action items and recommendations.

· While once again working to implement diverse membership cultivation strategies, the organization is also addressing systemic issues of exclusion such as transportation access for economically underrepresented senior citizens who are unable to attend Advocates meetings.

I could cite many other areas of progress that this organization is achieving based on the project. However, I have a personal observation to make as a result of the privilege to create and propose strategies that they are working on to enhance inclusion ---not simply promoting diversity.

Towards the beginning of my work I thought of my late grandfather who grew up in the segregated south in Louisiana. Although he was an entrepreneur and self-trained electrician while working for a local elementary school, he was subjected to racism during elections. Election officials would inform him that his voting place was not in his parish (county), but another one miles away. Officials in that next parish would 'produce' information that his voting place was in an adjacent parish. So on and so forth as they hoped to run the clock out on his time to vote as he was finishing a regular late workday.

During the work with Advocates for Senior Issues my thoughts grew towards wondering how his full inclusion into civic participation would have been if such an organization existed in his town---a town that only a few years ago drew national attention when a Justice of the Peace refused to marry an interracial couple. It is rewarding to know that in my hometown Advocates for Senior Issues is developing into allies and practitioners of inclusive policies for senior citizens of all backgrounds.

Here are my thoughts of how they are developing into allies and practitioners authentic organizational inclusion policies:

· They recognized that addressing diversity was not simply a membership issue. Rather, doing so is a moral issue. They realized that the imperative of including seniors of all backgrounds into every fabric of their organization (especially in leadership) was not one solely of membership enhancement. Advocates knew that they are not truly authentic advocates if they are both absent of diverse members and absent of awareness of the particular conditions that racially and ethnically diverse seniors face every day.

· They demonstrated a willingness to confront issues such as race prior to starting the work of authentic inclusion. Authentic inclusion means creating internal and external systems of meaningful power sharing and intentional outcomes among people of color coming into an organization. The leadership of Advocates enrolled in Healing Racism sessions at my request before I started my work. The basic premise was that the leaders needed to be prepared for the reality that their work was not just setting the table to invite ‘different’ people to their group. Their call as leaders is to change that table and the unseen structures that prevented seniors of different backgrounds from coming to the table.

· They are becoming allies of inclusion and not just a group simply embracing diversity. Remember their fair housing response. Ally development regardless of the organization is the harder work of inclusion and diversity. The Center for Assessment and Policy Development defines an ally as “someone who supports a group other than one’s own (in terms of racial identity, gender, faith identity, sexual orientation, etc.). Allies acknowledge disadvantage and oppression of other groups than that of their own. They take risks and supportive action on their behalf.”

Ally development is what Steelcase, Herman Miller, Irwin Seating and others are doing in supporting the addition of anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community in Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. As a young woman of the ‘creative class’ that cities so desperately desire once said to me, “I’m about working at places and joining groups that have my back like the Verizon man.” She was partially quoting a rap song lyric equating allies with the Verizon commercial where thousands of people in the phone network are following the Verizon man around. His network is that extensive. I should get some 'cool points' translating all of that for you.

Basically, her point was to underscore that being an ally to your diverse employees or membership is the best and basic recruitment tool. Advocates for Senior Issues represent this quality as they are addressing transportation as a socio-economic impediment for financially vulnerable seniors who cannot attend meetings. That is the work of what an inclusion ally does.

Let me end by doing what is part of my personal and professional endeavors---specifically one of five social responsibility areas of my project management consultancy: Public Policy and Advocacy. I want to take a brief moment for advocacy on behalf of Advocates for Senior Issues and all senior citizens in my hometown. Here in Kent County of the great state of Michigan we will look forward to a vote on our Senior Millage. On August 5, 2014 the Senior Millage is up for renewal and a slight increase. Approving the millage will continue important funding of 43 different services for senior citizens ranging from home care to fair housing services.

For those local allies who want to ensure that we can continue to promote the health, dignity and safety of older adults, please support the millage and visit to learn more about the millage and the services it will continue. Thank you.

Eric K. Foster is Principal and President of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy specializing in five areas of social responsibility (Diversity & Inclusion, Community Engagement Strategies, Grant Writing/Project Management, Public Policy & Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility). Advocates for Senior Issues is highlighted as a former client for their great commitment and accomplishments. They are also highlighted in recognition of his grandfather’s perseverance.

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