ASA RISE—An Invaluable Segue into My Second Chapter

Editor’s Note: The John A. Hartford Foundation is collaborating with ASA to advance equity in aging by supporting ASA RISE, a 20-week social justice and leadership program for rising leaders of color in aging, and via the development and dissemination of equity-related, partnership-based thought leadership through ASA’s Generations platform. This blog post is part of that series.

I won two spelling bees in elementary school. The second win was somewhat controversial as I changed the correct spelling of “exercise” to “excercise” just as time ran out. A voracious reader, even decades later I still recall the excitement I felt when I came into the classroom and saw the Scholastic book order stacked on my desk.

Years later, it would surprise no one that I changed my college major from business to English. I've enjoyed a 30-year career as a professional communicator with expertise in employee and executive communications. In addition to working as an independent consultant, I've served on teams alongside a dedicated group of professionals responsible for these functions at large companies, such as Kaiser Permanente, Visa and USAA.

Then two unexpected but related events occurred. My father passed away quite abruptly in September 2018; he was the only one in our family who had earned a doctorate. Also, I spoke with a co-worker pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership. Because I, too, am interested in the psychology of organizations, I looked into similar programs.

In honor of my late father, I returned to school, and in January 2019, I became a member of cohort 13 at USC's Rossier School of Education Organizational Change and Leadership program.

It was a rough three years being a student and working full-time, compounded by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a doer, I found it disconcerting to be reading case studies and learning about organizational change and leadership theories when millions of people around the world were dying.

The pandemic taught us many valuable lessons about social distancing for the good of others and the value of digital connectivity and fluency for accessing resources such as the COVID-19 vaccine, to order groceries, and to stay in touch with family and friends. For those who had no digital access, the necessary tools or limited tech abilities, these experiences were challenging at best.

Advocating for Older Adults' Digital Inclusion

The gift that emerged from sticking with my academic program (thanks to everyone who supported my journey and encouraged me to keep going) was that I discovered one of my life's most meaningful purposes—advocating for older adults and their digital inclusion.

Upon earning my degree, I realized this couldn't be the end for me and my research and advocacy work; it had to be the beginning. But my career as a professional communicator has little to do with directly advocating for older adults. That said, I consistently speak up for the 2.9 million members, ages 65 and older, who receive insurance and financial services from my employer, USAA.

In January 2022, I launched Silver Scaffold, Storytellers & Advocates for Older Adults. Since then, I've continued researching, writing, and advocating in my spare time. I shoot brief video interviews of older Americans to tell their story on social media and elevate their voices. But are these efforts enough to push equitable strategies and solutions and catalyze change?

‘Given our society's penchant for youthfulness, I suspect that those advocating for older adults often feel angry, alone and defeated.’

I freely share insights and recommendations with anyone willing to listen. Such perspectives come from interviewing older adults about their tech experiences and what I learned from those who train older adults in technology. I partnered with San Antonio Oasis to send a news release inviting reporters to observe older learners gaining proficiency on smartphones, a skill that comes naturally to many people. I tried again to get media interest when the National Digital Inclusion Alliance held its annual conference in San Antonio. I competed in a women-led datathon at work focused on better serving our older members as they used USAA’s app. I’ve sent countless emails and LinkedIn messages to strangers and subject matter experts. In many cases, I get no reply. Thankfully, I am persistent and don’t give up easily.

I've been trying to get people’s attention on critical topics that will affect all of us one day. With the speed at which technology is changing and our increased reliance on technology solutions, being tech-savvy today is no guarantee of being tech-savvy tomorrow. I remind others of the benefits of being inclusive and involving older adults when developing technology solutions.

Even with introductions by “insiders,” I've been refused entry to have a conversation. I'm not selling anything; I'm giving all my data and recommendations away for free. Isn't everyone interested in a more just and equitable society? Doesn't everyone have older friends and family members they care about?

I recognize that our ageist society prefers shiny and new over vintage and antique. And given our society's penchant for youthfulness, I suspect that those advocating for older adults often feel angry, alone and defeated. I know I have experienced all of these emotions. I'm a relative newcomer to the field of aging and can only imagine how those who have been at this work for decades must feel.

As a member of the third ASA RISE cohort—also known as the Catalysts, I realize how fortunate I am to have been selected and to have the endorsement of credible sponsors as I segue into my second chapter. We were all assigned a mentor, and I am lucky to have Jarmin Yeh, an expert in social justice and quality of life issues for older adults, as my mentor.

I am grateful to the American Society on Aging, The John A. Hartford Foundation, the Archstone Foundation and the RRF Foundation for Aging for their sponsorship of the program. Fourteen of us from across the United States benefit from this 20-week leadership and social justice program for leaders of color in aging. It was affirming meeting each other at On Aging, where we were immersed in age-related topics and best practices with 2,300-plus attendees who care deeply about older adults.

An Uplifting Experience to Be Surrounded by Other Passionate BIPOC Leaders

It has been an uplifting experience to join forces with other passionate BIPOC leaders in the aging space. ASA’s Patrice Dickerson, Cynthia Banks, and Victoria Ruiz guide us through thoughtful and candid discussions about equity, leadership, power and more. They see and empower us in a manner that I suspect is foreign to many of the fellows. ASA RISE has been the vitamin boost I needed to continue advocating for older adults with even more passion, power and a community of believers backing me.

Kim Nguyen, EdD, is the founder and principal of Silver Scaffold. She is looking forward to leaving the heat and persistent mosquitoes of South Texas and embracing the mountains of Colorado.

Photo caption: ASA RISE Fellows from cohorts 1, 2, and 3, as well as hosts from a group visit to the Chinatown YMCA during San Francisco City Day, sponsored by Metta Fund.

Photo credit: Keri Vogtmann