ASA RISE: The Funder’s Perspective

When I think of ASA RISE, a particular moment stands out—the Welcome Luncheon for the inaugural cohort members during ASA’s 2022 On Aging conference. After months of online sessions, it was their first time meeting one another. The room was lit with joyful laughter and so much energy!

As I took my seat and looked around, I felt amazement to be in the moment, this long and carefully planned for moment. I leaned back in my chair and thought, “Now, this, this is what we need.” And by that, I meant the collective “we” that makes up the field of aging. This field needs visibility, opportunity and belonging for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and People of Color (BILPOC) leaders.

Foundations, including RRF Foundation for Aging (RRF), which concentrate efforts on improving the lives of older adults, play a pivotal role in shaping the future of our aging population. As a mid-sized funder, RRF looks for opportunities to contribute to systems-level change through making investments that are larger than our normal grants. A standout example of that is providing seed funding for ASA RISE.

As our society becomes increasingly older and the number of BILPOC and LGBTQ+ older people rises at the same time, it is imperative that foundations prioritize funding for leadership development and mentoring initiatives designed for BILPOC leaders. Their unique perspectives and experiences are essential for building more inclusive, effective and responsive organizations. For RRF, supporting ASA RISE is a strategic investment in the well-being of older adults and the promotion of social justice.

‘Foundations can empower leaders of color to advocate for changes that can benefit older adults who have long been underserved.’

ASA RISE alumni make a substantial and positive impact on our aging population by addressing health disparities, fostering intergenerational connections, advocating for inclusive policies, leveraging their cultural competence, and challenging “isms.” As an example, ageism and racism are deeply intertwined issues that affect older adults from BILPOC communities. By speaking out against the harmful effects of ageism and the deleterious and lasting effects of racism, BILPOC leaders create a more inclusive and accepting society for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The creation of a national, cross-industry network of peers and thought leaders is a powerful way to encourage collaboration and innovation. By bringing together professionals from various sectors, ASA RISE facilitates the exchange of ideas and the development of new approaches.

Leadership development and capacity-building programs for emerging leaders of color, like ASA RISE, provide an opportunity to foster cultural competence and sensitivity. These emerging leaders bring with them an intimate understanding of the cultural nuances, traditions and challenges faced by older adults from diverse backgrounds. Their insight is invaluable in tailoring programs, services and outreach efforts to be more culturally sensitive and, by extension, more effective. By funding leadership development, foundations can empower leaders of color to advocate for changes that can benefit older adults who have long been underserved or overlooked.

At the 2023 ASA RISE Celebration Luncheon, I had the pleasure of being seated with two ASA RISE alumni who shared their stories with me. One had just entered a doctoral program in gerontology. The other had just negotiated a promotion and raise, elevating both her role and the importance of her work with older adults within a large hospital system. The accomplishments of these two leaders, along with those of their fellow ASA RISE alums, are transforming their individual communities, organizations and the field of aging as a whole.

Action to expand diversity in the field of aging is still very much needed. ASA RISE provides education and training, mentorship and a national peer group. Beyond these leadership development and capacity-building efforts from ASA, employers in the aging sector, including foundations, should examine their recruitment and promotion practices to identify and eliminate biases. When barriers to BILPOC leadership exist, organizations can take proactive steps to overcome them through education, mentorship, equitable practices and accountability.

With an investment in programs like ASA RISE, we actively contribute to dismantling barriers and promoting equity which, in turn, can inspire younger generations of leaders from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in the aging field, creating a self-sustaining cycle of diversity and inclusion.

Serena Worthington is senior program officer and director of diversity and inclusion at RRF Foundation for Aging in Chicago.

Photo caption: A gathering of ASA RISE Fellows and funders at On Aging 2023. 

Photo credit: Kay Link