The pressing need for greater attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the aging services sector was on full display at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting + EXPO in Atlanta. Our agenda addressed that need with a slate of fruitful DEI presentations, discussions, and networking events. But a disturbing racist confrontation by one member toward another reinforced just how far we have to go.
Let me address the incident first. As you may have heard, one of our members left the conference early after an inappropriate racist comment directed at him made him feel unsafe.
I unequivocally condemn this toxic incident.
Personally, I found it heartbreaking. Like others, including many LeadingAge members and staff, I was dismayed, disappointed, and angry that something like this took place at a LeadingAge event. This is not who we are.
What happened was unacceptable, and I want to learn from it. As a white leader in the field of aging services, I know I must find ways to address this incident—while also moving forward, credibly and authentically, in meeting LeadingAge’s strategic goal to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion across the continuum of aging services.
What happened in Atlanta does not invalidate our DEI work. Rather, I believe it underscores how important that work is. We must ensure that everyone in the LeadingAge community feels safe and respected, and that incidents like this never happen again. As we strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community and across the field, we need decisive action.
Our action must be focused on fostering dialogue, building understanding, changing cultures, amplifying others’ humanity, finding ways to recognize and eliminate racism, and holding a mirror up to ourselves to recognize the biases and attitudes we may hold.
Our action must be based on a belief that diversity—plus inclusion—is a moral imperative, and that it also creates a strategic advantage for our sector. Research shows that diversity and inclusion in the workplace can lead to increased revenue, reduced costs, greater innovation, and improved employee engagement, productivity, and commitment.
Acting to advance DEI goals is in our collective best interest. But before we act, we must listen. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of listening in the past two weeks, and I plan to do more in the weeks ahead.
I listened to a young woman of color from a prominent state university. The student was scheduled to describe her experience in the LeadingAge Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) during a conference meeting of LeadingAge members who lead large, multisite aging services organizations. But after looking around the room, the SEP intern abandoned her script and addressed the fact that, as a woman of color, she looked completely different from the assembled leaders, who were predominately white. Her message? If you’re going to attract people like her to the LTSS field, you need to do a better job of diversifying your leadership.
I listened to Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the esteemed president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who told CEOs that we must all work with intentionality to help more people of color move into our field and up our career ladders. Dr. Hrabowski urged us, for the good of our sector, to provide more internships to college students of color, introduce those students to mentors and champions, offer employees of color a clear pathway to success in our organizations, support them along that path, and document their successes so others will follow in their footsteps.
I listened to leaders of color within our membership, who were brutally honest about the difficulties they faced as they climbed their own career ladders. During interviews with researchers from the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston, these LeadingAge members described the pain of being unable to be their authentic selves at work, feeling pressured to constantly prove themselves, and being subjected to microaggressions from co-workers. Yet, the leaders also expressed a strong commitment to our field and described the enjoyment they derive from working for mission-driven organizations.
I listened to educators at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) who participated with LeadingAge providers and representatives of UNCF in launching our new HBCUs-LTSS Careers Initiative. That initiative is designed to improve racial and ethnic diversity in the LTSS career pipeline, with a focus on mid-level and senior-level positions.
What did I learn from these and many other conversations? Promoting DEI in aging services is a complicated, multi-layered endeavor that must take many forms and involve a variety of stakeholders. Promoting DEI involves listening to one another, diversifying our leadership, professionalizing our direct care workforce, expanding the diversity of our boards, changing our recruitment processes, recognizing and eliminating our biases, improving our training programs, and so much more.
LeadingAge has taken some steps in many of these areas— and bigger, bolder steps must follow. We are committed to making that happen.
We also know we cannot do it alone. It will take all of us, walking hand-in-hand, to bring about meaningful and permanent change as we promote equality and justice in our field. I hope you will join us in this critical mission.