In 2011 I felt lucky to be a partner in ASA’s New Ventures in Leadership program, for one, as it gave me a chance to have Fernando Torres-Gil as my “national mentor.” Asking Professor Torres-Gil to be my mentor was my first attempt at getting out of my comfort zone. I knew he was very busy and likely unable to assume such a role for the year-long program, but he did! As a great academic and thinker, he promotes reflection and self-evaluation, which has been invaluable in my career.
So it is encouraging to know that the American Society on Aging (ASA) is starting a new leadership program, ASA Rise, that will offer Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in the aging field an opportunity to develop professional networks and leadership skills that will translate into opportunities to better serve individuals and communities facing stark inequities.
Initiatives that work to diversify the field of aging are not new to ASA. The New Ventures in Leadership (NVL) program, which ran from 1994–2013, fostered leaders of color, while working with their organizations throughout the 12-month duration of the program.
My 2011–2012 NVL cohort was the first following the past year’s revamping of the program. I couldn’t wait to apply to the program after hearing the 2009–2010 cohort speak of their projects and about their NVL experience during the Aging in America conference in Chicago. I wanted a chance to gain the knowledge and relationships they had.
Most importantly, I wanted to be part of the group that felt empowered to make a difference in the aging field. Waiting one year for the program to resume was worth it. The personal and professional relationships I began developing during that time have continued to grow.
Beyond my mentee relationship with Professor Torres-Gil, there are a few experiences I’d like to highlight as they remain relevant today. First, NVL offered me the opportunity to take my first trip to Capitol Hill to advocate for the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act! Congress had been delaying any action for two years, so there was a sense of urgency. NVL partners received advocacy coaching before our trip to the Hill. And we heard a passionate speech from none other than Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) who, as Chairman of Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, was introducing provisions regarding family caregivers.
NVL offered me the opportunity to take my first trip to Capitol Hill to advocate for Older Americans Act reauthorization.
I thrive on this type of advocacy. Since that first experience, I’ve visited the Illinois State Capitol as part of other advocacy efforts, and in 2019 I returned to Capitol Hill as president-elect of the National Association of Social Workers–Illinois Chapter. Each trip to DC has been less intimidating than the last.
Second, I gained a great deal of advice from the NVL program via the Everything DiSC self-assessment we completed at the beginning of the program. It not only helped me understand which leadership behaviors come more naturally to me, but also how I might want to approach others with different styles. The key message, which I carry with me to this day, is that at times I must leave my comfort zone to be an effective leader. It’s a concept that I’ve explained to interns or mentees and one that is so crucial to being an agent of change.
Third, during the year in NVL, partners needed to develop a service or research project, which helped us put into practice leadership concepts we were learning, as well as the concrete skills involved in program planning and delivery. I’ve continued to use the same approach I took with that NVL project.
First, I express (in words and writing) the outcome that I would like to see at the project’s completion, and then establish which steps to take to get there. This includes determining which stakeholders to reach out to and getting buy-in from them. In the end, the NVL project allowed us to carry out activities with the support of local mentors who could provide connections and/or immediate guidance. I now follow this collaborative approach with my staff and colleagues I’ve worked with on other initiatives and in different professional organizations.
I still work closely with the local mentors with whom I had collaborated throughout the NVL program. Also, at each of the Aging in America conferences, I have the unique opportunity to reconnect with NVL partners from all cohort years, including mine.
I’ve been an active member of the Network of Multicultural Aging (NOMA), which allows me to contribute further to ASA’s efforts around diversity and inclusion. Plus, I’ve benefited from the wisdom of countless gifted individuals in the field of aging who continue to take important policy positions and have generously made themselves available to offer guidance or expand our networks.
There is a great deal of work to do on behalf of older adults, especially those facing great inequities stemming from racism. Leadership training programs do more than expand our networks. NVL not only helped me in my professional development and, as a result, the careers of those I supervise or mentor. It has also offered me the chance to join efforts to support the aging network in meeting the needs of older adults and family caregivers.
Grisel Rodriguez-Morales is assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and the manager of Health Promotion and Rush Generations programs; both at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.