The Coalition that Changed the Aging Narrative
by Robert Espinoza
In December 2010, I took part in a first-time meeting of national aging organizations working with older people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders.
Over time, this group would form a coalition focused on federal policy reform—the Diverse Elders Coalition (DEC)—but what resonated in those initial meetings was a belief that we needed to sort through our individual interests, find multiple points of commonality, and employ a joint advocacy agenda that would profoundly change older people for generations to come.
We knew that a coalition approach was tactically smart; it leveraged our organizational resources and challenged the single-issue orthodoxy that too often shapes the dominant policy rhetoric. This approach also acknowledged our overlapping missions, growing demographics (and societal burdens), and multiple identities. We recognized that our communities shared many of the same political opponents and allies. And our aspirations for joy throughout the lifespan were in many ways similar. We believed that we could both unify and transcend our identity-based politics.
And while we shared a hopeful view of our collective future, this group also understood that our organizations existed precisely because the individual futures of so many marginalized older people in this country remain grim. Widespread discrimination, entrenched poverty, thin support systems, unemployment, a miserable economy fraught with racial and economic injustice, poor health and health care access—all of these conditions collide to ravage the latter years of millions of poor and low-income people, people of color, immigrants and LGBT people. (And it’s simply getting worse, according to recent reports on the U.S. economy.)
I’ve overseen SAGE’s national advocacy program for LGBT older people since 2010, and I wrote recently about our many achievements over the last several years. One of my proudest successes has been to help lead the Diverse Elders Coalition to develop an advocacy and communications apparatus that could respond to the troubling trends described above.
In the nearly three years since we first gathered in Washington, DC, the coalition has made significant strides for older people of color and LGBT older people. Here are five ways:
- By focusing on the shared challenges facing our communities, as well as the large-scale policy vehicles that best enable the relevant “fixes,” our coalition was able to quickly move policy conversation and reform in areas such as Social Security, health reform and the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. For example, in 2011 the DEC offered concrete recommendations to the National Prevention Council for its ambitious National Prevention Strategy—and six of those recommendations made it into the final strategy. This coalition-led win made the national framework for health reform more inclusive of older people of color and LGBT elders.
- By working directly with policy leaders in the aging network to conceptually link discrimination and disparities in aging, the Diverse Elders Coalition was able to position itself squarely within the federal debate on aging in this country. In April 2011, after months of dialogue between DEC members and members of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), the DC-based LCAO issued eight policy recommendations in support of LGBT elders, elders of color and older adults with HIV as part of its “consensus” document on reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA). This meant that the aging network affirmed our communities’ interest when reforming the OAA, widely considered the country’s largest vehicle for funding services to older people.
- By producing original policy analysis and educational resources related to older people of color and LGBT older people, the Diverse Elders Coalition filled a knowledge gap that made it irresponsible to ignore how marginalized people are uniquely affected by social and economic forces as they age. The DEC produced a landmark policy report on economic security, hosted a Congressional briefing, and launched a news blog that compiled resources and commentaries on these populations—reaching thousands of policy leaders and consumers across the spectrum. Even philanthropy took notice, as it articulated to grantmakers the importance of funding programs that reach older people of color and LGBT people.
- By engaging in the public debate on the social safety net, the Diverse Elders Coalition brought awareness to the ways in which vital programs such as Social Security and Medicaid need both protection and reform. In late 2010, three member organizations of the DEC launched a national social media campaign that illustrated the importance of Social Security to our communities. Yet while the coalition lent its voice to the broader advocacy effort to protect Social Security, at a time when Congress was debating the program’s solvency and future, the DEC also noted how Social Security could better reach immigrants and support same-sex couples, which are denied federal benefits under Social Security. We must imagine more inclusive systems of support.
- By creating a space where our organizations examined the daily realities of our populations, the DEC opened up a dialogue about the ways in which many of us live with multiple identities that cut across our organizations’ missions. For SAGE, this approach meant partnering with several of the DEC organizations to inform our national training program so that aging providers better served LGBT elders who are people of color. Additionally, the DEC helped release SAGE’s original report on health equity among LGBT elders of color, a population that faces significant disparities in health, among other areas. SAGE has also taken important stances on issues such as immigration reform, recognizing the importance of supporting older LGBT immigrants, and an upcoming report from the National Hispanic Council on Aging will document the realities of older adults who are Latino/a and LGBT.
The Diverse Elders Coalition has made significant strides over the last few years, and it now prepares to tackle new challenges, including: supporting national outreach and enrollment efforts under health reform to ensure that LGBT families and people of color obtain better health insurance; ensuring that the Older Americans Act, in the upcoming reauthorization process, better serves LGBT people and people of color; and bringing awareness to the policy barriers facing older adults with HIV, many of whom are LGBT and/or people of color.
The progress that has been made by the Diverse Elders Coalition is monumental—and yet so much awaits us. That’s a description of the aging process, one might argue.
It’s also social change.