The NYC Elder Abuse Center at Weill Cornell Medicine (NYCEAC) continues to highlight individuals and organizations that are working toward racial equity within the elder justice field. This month, we feature Justice in Aging’s new Strategic Initiative to Advance Equity.
Justice in Aging is a national non-profit legal advocacy organization that fights senior poverty through law. Founded in 1972, it has focused its efforts primarily on those excluded and marginalized from justice including women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and people with limited English proficiency. Through the new Strategic Initiative to Advance Equity, Justice in Aging is putting equity at the center of all its work.
To learn more about the Initiative, we interviewed inaugural Directing Attorney for Equity Advocacy Denny Chan, who joined Justice in Aging in 2014. Denny has worked significantly on non-discrimination, language access, and healthcare delivery reform issues for low-income older adults and brings all of these experiences to his advocacy. We are proud to share our interview with him about the Initiative below.
The Interview: Conducted by Francesca Kabemba (NYCEAC EMDT Program Specialist) and Deena Schwartz (NYCEAC EMDT Team Coordinator )
What is Justice in Aging’s Advancing Equity Initiative? How does it incorporate a racial equity lens in elder justice work?
At Justice in Aging, we believe that no matter our race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, language, or country of origin, we should all be able to access the resources, services, and programs we need to thrive as we grow older. In March 2021, we launched our Strategic Initiative to Advance Equity as a way to ensure that we are more intentionally pursuing systemic changes in law and policy that improve the lives of low-income older adults who experience inequities rooted in structural racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. A race equity approach in elder justice advocacy is critical to meaningfully address the needs of older adults of color. The absence of such a focus risks perpetuating disparities while ignoring the lived experiences of some of those most at-risk and the historical context between communities of color and traditional law enforcement. For example, calling the police to handle a situation involving elder abuse for a Black family may not actually result in a desirable outcome given the legitimate distrust of role of law enforcement. More broadly, our Advancing Equity initiative is timely as the COVID-19 crisis revealed deep systemic inequities, including disproportionate illness and death in communities of color, racist, ageist and ableist care rationing standards, and inequitable barriers to vaccine access, all during a nationwide reckoning on anti-Black racism and police violence.
How do you plan to approach pushback/resistance to change?
Our Advancing Equity Initiative is a long-term commitment to fighting the systemic inequities that older adults experience recognizing that successfully disrupting structural racism requires sustained effort over time and may not be universally popular or without controversy. The six elements of our framework will allow us to identify specific structural drivers of inequity for older adults, and we will make strategic decisions on where to focus our efforts, using our longstanding tools of policy advocacy, education, and systemic litigation to pursue change.
This work is challenging and requires people to uproot many of their belief systems. How do you encourage people to embrace the inevitable discomfort that comes with engaging in this work?
The Advancing Equity Initiative builds upon years of Justice in Aging’s work on creating an organizational culture committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In that work, we have learned important strategies and practices to manage the messy and inevitable discomfort that comes with dismantling systemic discrimination. Setting shared values and norms, providing inclusive opportunities for engagement, and normalizing discomfort and vulnerability have been invaluable in our own growth and learning as an organization, and we will actively apply these learnings in implementing our Advancing Equity Initiative.
How do you hope this initiative will change the approach to working with and for older adults?
I hope our Strategic Initiative to Advance Equity will produce more equitable policies and outcomes for low-income older adults who experience inequities rooted in structural racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. I also hope it allows us to think more expansively and create greater opportunities for us to center the lived experiences of these older adults in our programmatic advocacy in a way that honors their voices and perspectives.
What resources/best practices are you utilizing to create this programming/curriculum?
In 2019, Justice in Aging was fortunate to participate in the Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s Racial Justice Institute, which equipped us with different strategies and tools for racial justice advocacy. We remain active members of the Racial Justice Institute network, and as we have begun focusing on equity in our advocacy, we have found support, tools, and ideas from partners. We want to deepen our existing partnership and form new ones as well through active listening and community empowerment. We also look forward to continue learning from and with other aging advocates and legal aid professionals who share our vision to dismantle structural discrimination for low-income older adults and want to deepen our partnerships as well as form new ones.