Empowering Diversity: A Call for Inclusive Leadership in Aging

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.

Entering the field of gerontology was not the easiest path for me, but certainly it has turned out to be the most rewarding. As a minority professional navigating the field of gerontology, the path was often fraught with obstacles, moments of doubt, and the challenges brought on by deep-seated biases embedded in our society. But it also is a story of resilience, empowerment, growth and knowledge, which I’m happy to share.

Overcoming Barriers

While I was growing up, discrimination—overt and subtle—was a constant, if unwelcome companion on my journey.

In 1972 when my family immigrated to the United States, knowing very little English, I quickly became marginalized. The sting of being called a “wetback,” having tires slashed, and being closely monitored while shopping, left a lasting impression. Even encounters with law enforcement lacked justification, highlighting the systemic issues ingrained in our society. These experiences of overt discrimination left an indelible mark on my psyche, fueling my determination to defy the odds.

But the discrimination didn’t stop there. I witnessed firsthand the ageism prevalent in society when my father, after dedicating more than 30 years of his life to a factory job, was unceremoniously let go. His dedication was met with callous disregard, leaving him in an economically fragile state. Unfortunately, his story is not unique; it echoes the struggles faced by countless individuals from marginalized communities, where systemic biases intersect to perpetuate inequalities, underscoring people’s economic insecurity as they grow older.

It's easy to see why California ranks second in the nation for the prevalence of poverty among older adults, a distressing reality that contributes to heightened levels of food insecurity and homelessness. Around 20% of individuals ages 65 and older in California find themselves living below the poverty line.

Diversifying the Aging Sector

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma and heart disease, when compared to their white counterparts. This alarming disparity underscores the urgent need for investment in health equity programs. Investing in programs such as diabetes prevention and Community Health Worker initiatives is imperative to address these disparities and ensure equitable access to healthcare for all older populations.

As a Black, Indigenous and Person of Color (BIPOC) leader in the aging sector, I have personally experienced and witnessed the impact of systemic inequalities on the aging population. This reality underscores the urgent need to increase representation among leaders of color in the field. We cannot tackle the challenges ahead alone; we need more leaders of color in the field of aging, and we need sustainable leadership programs to support them.

‘Finally I had an opportunity to implement a vision inspired by my own lived experiences.’

That is where the ASA RISE fellowship program comes in. It is a vital launching pad for the next generation of BIPOC leaders in aging. By providing mentorship, education and networking opportunities, RISE fellows are equipped with the tools and resources they need to make a meaningful impact in this industry.

But ASA RISE is not just about creating individual leaders, it is about creating a diverse pipeline of leadership that reflects the communities we serve. We need BIPOC leaders at all levels, from the local to the national, to drive change and improve policies and programs in aging. I began my career as a staff person on the U.S. House Select Committee of Aging, where I led congressional hearings and wrote reports advocating for health, improved aging and equity. One significant achievement was reaching diverse communities and collaborating to amplify our impact, particularly benefiting the most vulnerable populations.

Quickly I came to understand the power of relationships and the importance of finding allies who shared my commitment to equity and inclusion. I transitioned in my career to roles in community organizations and worked tirelessly to build trusting relationships and create opportunities for collaboration with those who advocate for the disenfranchised.

Eventually I became the first BIPOC CEO of a century-old health and social service agency—a significant milestone for the organization and personal accomplishment for me. Finally, I had an opportunity to implement a vision inspired by my own lived experiences. My priorities focused on better serving and advocating for marginalized communities and uplifting their voices in the decision-making process. I helped establish partnerships with local organizations to expand our reach and impact, furthering our mission of equity and inclusion.

Throughout my journey, resilience has been my unwavering guiding light. I have embraced each challenge as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. It is through these trials that I have come to appreciate the profound significance of effective communication, the cultivation of meaningful relationships, and the amplification of voices through purposeful action.

Skills Necessary to Succeed

The field of aging demands adept communication skills, which are important for articulating the needs and concerns of marginalized communities with clarity and conviction. Whether advocating before policymakers or collaborating with stakeholders, the ability to effectively convey our collective vision for improving the well-being and rights of older adults has to be paramount.

Equally essential is the cultivation of relationships grounded in trust, respect and mutual understanding. Building bridges across diverse communities enables us to forge alliances, garner support, and effect tangible change. Through genuine connections, we will cultivate spaces where voices once marginalized are not only heard but also empowered to shape the discourse surrounding aging and equity.

Through all my trials and triumphs, I have not walked this path alone. Mentors and allies have been beacons of guidance and encouragement, offering invaluable insights, wisdom and support. I encourage everyone to find those who believe in their potential or to mentor those just starting their careers. We also should look to diversify the workforce and advance into leadership positions more BIPOC professionals who already work in the field.

As I continue along this path, I am reminded of the profound impact that these guiding principles have had on my personal and professional growth and of what truly matters—creating impact and effecting positive change in the lives of older adults. With California being home to almost 6 million people older than age 65, our work is more important now than ever.

Making the Right Investments

In addition to the rate of diabetes and the benefits of using Community Health Workers, another concerning pattern is emerging: people ages 50 and older constitute the fastest-growing demographic among the homeless population in select regions throughout California. Homelessness experts anticipate that the median age of homelessness will continue to climb, this escalating crisis highlights the urgent need to address systemic disparities within our communities.

Through my personal storytelling and dedication to positive change, I strive to inspire others to stand up, take action, and lead with compassion. Together, we can transform the landscape of aging, ensuring dignity, respect and belonging for every individual on their journey of growing older.

Rigo J. Saborio, MSG, is VP of Programs, Equity and Community Impact at The SCAN Foundation in Long Beach, Calif.

Photo caption: Rigo Saborio, left, speaks at On Aging 2024.

Photo credit: Stuart Locklear