ASA RISE: An Anti-Woke Remedy

More than three and a half years ago, I started my role as CEO of the American Society on Aging. During the first 90 days, I cancelled our annual conference, managed a new team remotely while sheltering in place, and navigated the new business uncertainties of the pandemic. Looking back, I realize those early trying experiences made me a more resilient leader.

But it was the overwhelming and long overdue racial reckoning that took place after George Floyd’s murder in Spring 2020, that made me a better human. It is the reason the ASA RISE program was born. And for that I will be forever grateful to ASA. But fast forward three and a half years and our country’s willingness to tackle systemic racism is wavering. ASA’s resolve to continue ASA RISE will not.

Back in 2020, solving ASA’s immediate business problems due to the ongoing pandemic was a top priority. And I knew I had to use my privilege as a white man and my platform as CEO of a national organization to commit ASA to supporting greater equity. In June of 2020, I co-authored an Op-Ed with then–ASA Board Chair Michael Adams, where we explained:

One in five older adults in this country is a person of color; in 20 years, that number will grow to one in three. Because of systemic racism, many Black and brown older Americans are prevented from thriving. They enter their later years with the highest rates of poverty, the lowest incomes and the most severe health disparities of all older people in this country.”

‘We needed to center rising leaders from these communities to advance the field of aging.’

While I had ideas for how ASA could contribute to the national racial reckoning through an aging lens, it was listening to our members from historically marginalized communities that informed the framework for ASA RISE.

They not only shared their lived experiences, but as professionals in the field of aging, they also shared that aging in the United States has never been an equitable experience across the barriers of economic and social justice. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that those who can best drive the change we need are often the people who were raised, live and work in the communities most affected by these inequities. And so, much too often, the same inequities and lack of justice that require our response prevent the most qualified people from having access to lead that response.

It became clear to me that we needed to center rising leaders from these communities to advance the field of aging. Given its longstanding inclusive history, ASA had to continue leading by example by doing the work needed to advance equity in aging. I took the lessons of prior leadership programs, like New Ventures in Leadership (NVL), and intentionally sought to combine them with elements of a modern social justice program. But I couldn’t launch ASA RISE alone.

As any nonprofit leader starting a new program will tell you, you need funding to get your idea off the ground. Fortunately for ASA, national aging funders were gracious and eager to answer my calls and step up to help. They understood the role philanthropy and business play to create a more just and equitable world in which all of us can age with dignity.

One after another they joined ASA as partners—not just to fund ASA RISE but to ensure its long-term success. ASA RISE funding organizations included Archstone Foundation, CVS Health, The John A. Hartford Foundation, and RRF Foundation for Aging, AARP Foundation, and Matz Blancato & Associates.

After putting in the work we hired talented staff, including former Chief of Staff Cynthia Banks, who shared her lived experiences and curated the lessons learned from our membership, current interim-CEO Dr. Leanne Clark-Shirley, who contributed to developing the framework and came up with the name “ASA RISE” and Dr. Patrice Dickerson, who was hired as its director and supercharged the curriculum with her professional and lived experiences. On Jan. 25, 2022, we launched ASA RISE. As I explained in Generations Now announcing the program:

“ASA RISE is a launching pad for the next generation of aging leadership. Our vision for ASA Rise is that it will lead to improved well-being across an increasingly diverse aging population by creating a BIPOC leadership pool that improves policies and programs at the local, state and national levels. While these ASA RISE fellows will gain knowledge, new relationships, and a deepened appreciation for the unique dynamics that come with being a BIPOC leader, I hope they will generate support for each other and re-orient the field through their leadership and ideas.”

My hopes have become reality. After just two cohorts, ASA Rise is a flagship program for ASA. Its alumni have contributed to scholarship, books, conferences and trainings. The friendships and network have blossomed beyond my wildest expectations.

‘My hopes have become reality. After just two cohorts, ASA RISE is a flagship program for ASA.’

Inaugural cohort alum Kelly Loeb got a new job at the University of Kansas Medical Center Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center; Lauren Garcia was chosen to be the Student Scholar at the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative’s Health Equity Scholars Program; and Ryann Hill was appointed Vice President, Legislation at the Federation of American Hospitals. Plus, 18 RISE fellows presented at On Aging 2023.

In September, RISE alums Jennifer Horn, Norman Jackson, and Julia Yarborough lectured the Society of Professional Journalists on “Telling Impactful Stories at the Intersection of Aging, Equity, Caregiving, the Environment and Advocacy.” Seven RISE alums serve on ASA committees and advisory councils, and Zaire Sims received a letter of recognition from the Mayor of Cincinnati, lauding her work supporting older adults in Ohio.

As ASA prepares to launch its third cohort of fellows, it does so in a climate very different from just three and a half years ago. The Supreme Court, businesses and politicians have turned their backs on history and overwhelming evidence of systemic racism in this country. One Presidential candidate, a self-appointed leader of the “anti-woke” movement, has even passed a law in his state preventing education designed to cause students and workers to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin.

Are we so fragile that we can’t accept the lessons of history? Denying our shared often tragic past only weakens the greatest source of our present strength. We are a unique, multiracial and multicultural people, which weaves into a richly complex, and gorgeously textured American tapestry.

Instead of less, we need more programs like ASA RISE if we’re ever to rebuild our ability to trust one another, to foster ongoing difficult conversations about our experiences, and to learn from one another so we can continue strengthening our society. I’m optimistic that ASA will always remain unapologetically anti-racist and deepen its long tradition of equitably advancing the field of aging.

Peter Kaldes is the former CEO of ASA, and now President and CEO of Next50, a national private foundation powering innovation in aging.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Ievgenii Meyer