Gilbert James, social worker at the Jewish Association Serving the Aging Legal Social Work Elder Abuse Program (JASA LEAP)

The NYC Elder Abuse Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, in our strive to honor our commitment to the advancement of racial equity within the elder justice field, wanted to highlight individuals who are making advancements in the field. This month, we feature Gilbert James, a leader in the elder justice field.

Gilbert James is a social worker at JASA LEAP, where he works to identify, eliminate, and prevent elder abuse. In his own words, his role is to ensure that any clients referred to his program are met with an open heart and a real genuine desire to understand their circumstances and the conditions that they’re living under to ensure that they get quality service. We had the incredible opportunity to speak with Gilbert about how racial justice shapes his work, and the personal and spiritual journeys he has embarked upon outside of JASA to explore equity and truth. 

How do you feel that your work is impacted by racial identity and racial justice?


My role is to ensure that a client’s particular needs after experiencing abuse are met and that they are able to transition to a more humane quality of living, safety and protection. Being from the African American community, I realize that historically, the African American client or the person who’s struggling with abuse does not always get service with parity compared to people of other cultures or races. For me, that alerts me to the fact that I have to be particularly open and receptive to this particular client because for the past 400 years we have been involved in a legacy of discrimination and of systemic racism. The cause of this lack of parity is two-fold. On the one hand, there is the obvious discrimination and systemic racism where a family could come in for services or mental health services or medical services and they’re not highlighted as a valuable client to see right away. They can wait, they are deprioritized. On the other hand, we have within ourselves a subconscious legacy that tells us we better not try to improve ourselves. Or else we’re going to feel the sting of the lash. So generation after generation we are programmed not to even expect quality service from local organizations in our neighborhoods.   


What does racial justice mean to you? 


It means that when we have, for example, an elderly black man who’s being abused by his wife. She’s verbally abusing him, stealing from him, and neglecting him. Racial justice means that a particular client needs to be seen by a professional who’s really going to be available to him and has the ability to provide resources for this particular client. Too often, a client like that would be deprioritized wouldn’t get the kind of response from non-black professionals that he should get. In our JASA LEAP support group, 90%- 95% of the clients in our support group are black or African American and they say that because my co-facilitator and I are from the same background, they feel that we are representing them and we are representing the service in a genuine way where we really care for them. That hasn’t been their experience in the past with other service providers. They didn’t feel that level of acceptance. So I think it is important, in working with black clients, the worker has got to be sensitive that this person with a history and a story. For all clients, we have to look at the cases from a cultural perspective. That is racial justice to me.


I love that you connected the impact of the support group to the impact of racial justice. Could you speak to how your work has shifted within the context of this year and the impact that we’re seeing on our communities? 


Well, the support group meets on a weekly basis and it is designed to provide empowerment, encouragement, and a pathway to emotional freedom for those who are now victims or survivors of elder abuse. These clients even though the abuser may be locked up or out of the home they still within themselves have fears of the abuser coming back, of retaliation from abusers. They blame themselves. They feel depressed, isolated, or ashamed. And coupling that with COVID-19 it engenders a lot of deep emotional messaging and generational trauma. Well, I’m locked up. My forefathers, black people were historically locked up. And it’s a very difficult reality to engage with, so the support group provides a platform to work through those feelings – we provide trainings, we have speakers to present on anything from learning how to assert oneself, how to forgive oneself, how to be grateful for the good that you have, and how relevant is that? How valuable is that? Clients get to the point where they feel so much more connected to something that’s real. And something that they can really identify with and get real help with. 


Are there any projects beyond JASA that you’ve been a part of and have been rooted in racial justice? 


I am a part of a wisdom circle that has regular discussions around truth, spirituality, and the impact that religion has made has been on the black community. From my perspective, we look at service to the community from a perspective that is based in truth, rather than ego. When I talk about racial discrimination and utilizing black people in the workforce, I’m not talking about identity politics. I’m referring to black people who come to work with a skillset to offer, who have deep empathy for their neighbor. The scripture says where there is no vision, the people perish. If you don’t have a vision for where you’re going in life or what you want to do for your community, you’re not going anywhere. You have to do something. You have to take action. The quality of our thinking really determines our experience in life. We meet to ensure that as we try to teach others, especially black people, to understand and embrace truth and spirituality, that this is accompanied by a degree of action in service of who you want to be, what you want to do, and what you want your community to have. And that strengthens their confidence in themselves and gives them the ability to overcome obstacles and achieve goals and dreams. 


What is your vision for the future and how does that relate to your work? 


My vision is that we continue to dialogue honestly, despite discrimination and the systemic racism in organizations and systems throughout our society. At JASA we regularly have those dialogues about discrimination and racism in a genuine way and I’d like to see that continue so that workers can be empathetic and sensitive to the needs of the African American community. One of the most serious, sad things, dating all the way back historically to slavery, is that there was no intervention for racism or discrimination. Then when the slaves were freed, there still was no intervention for the trauma that African American people, men, and women, boys and girls had experienced. No intervention after freedom. And here we are in the 21st century: discrimination and systemic racism still continue, and there is still no intervention for the trauma of slavery on our psychology. Every now and then when I attend trainings through JASA, I believe there is room in the elder justice field to create those interventions, because finally there is discussion. But it has to be consistent for growth to happen and to foster sensitivity to the needs of African American people and families. The key is to root everything in empathy and compassion.