On Choosing Public Service

Two of my favorite quotes from the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m passionate about supporting older adults, or that those two inspiring Dr. King quotes resonate with me the most.

Even prior to having the honor of walking through the same hallowed halls of Morehouse College as Dr. King, I recall countless instances when my mother and grandmother instilled in me immeasurable life lessons, including a sense of pride as a young Black male, the concept of selflessness in the quest to help others and the desire to fight injustices.

While soaking up these life lessons (and at times learning the hard way), I vividly recall two childhood memories that I believe guided my path to the Aging Network. My mother and I would eat dinner with my grandmother several times a week. Most evenings before we left my mother would ask me to visit my grandmother’s older neighbors and offer to take out their trash. As a kid, I wanted to get home before dark to play with my friends, and extra chores were the last thing needed as it would delay me jumping on my bike for the last few minutes before the streetlights came on—the universal sign to be in the house.

One day I asked my mother why she often asked me to help the older adults in the building, and why she regularly asked them if they needed anything at the grocery store. Her loving and wise reply was “because it’s the right thing to do.” I knew she was right, and while I was ashamed for asking the question, I used this conversation as a learning experience.

The second vivid memory happened when my grandmother’s health started to decline. Despite working in social services supporting behavioral health consumers, I did not have the supports at my fingertips that could have helped her sooner. After she passed, I promised myself that I’d never be in a position again where I couldn’t help a loved one navigate the difficult road to understanding the long-term services and supports system.

These conversations and experiences with my mother and grandmother influenced my desire to give back and support my community, and more specifically, influenced my desire to advocate for the rights and interests of older adults.

Laying a Path Forward for More Change

Today, I have the honor of working with the staff and collaborative partners of Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA). The past year’s events—a global pandemic, civil unrest due to social justice issues and economic instability—have marked another milestone in my refusal to be complacent when others need assistance. As the Area Agency on Aging for Philadelphia County, part of PCA’s mission is to “improve the quality of life for older Philadelphians and individuals with disabilities.”

‘Who and what do you envision when you think of a public servant?’

However, community-based organizations must not stop at program administration and service delivery to improve quality of life. It is also our responsibility to “refuse to be silent about things that matter” and fight “injustices anywhere.”

This includes increasing efforts to serve diverse and underserved populations, improving our ability to address social determinants of health, supporting person-centered practices, strengthening safety and protection efforts, and using data-driven and evidence-informed strategies to improve business decisions. Many of these focus areas are included in PCA’s 2020–2024 Area Plan on Aging, to plot our path forward, strengthening our impact in the community.

What was your path to the Aging Network? Was it the belief in public service, and that one person can make a difference? Who and what do you envision when you think of a public servant? Do you think of people like Dr. King or Gandhi, or can you look in the mirror and say, “I, too, make a difference!” We all can make a difference.

As part of the Aging Network, we support people who want to remain connected to the community, we assist those who need help to stay safe in their homes and communities and we advocate for the rights and interests of those who are at risk. We enable people to age with dignity and help build better communities—the types of communities we want to be available for our loved ones and for us, if we one day need assistance.

Najja R. Orr, MBA, is CEO of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and serves on ASA’s Board of Directors and Generations Editorial Advisory Board.

Photo (top) courtesy of Najja Orr, shows Mr. Orr as a young boy with his mother and grandmother.