Consulting Program by and for Older Detroiters


This article profiles a program in Detroit, MI, funded by the National Institute on Aging, called the Michigan Center for African American Aging Research and its key offshoot the Healthier Black Elders Center (HBEC). Board members of its Community Advisory Board weigh in on key programming and offer perspectives and recommendations on health and social issues. The HBEC Consulting Program is a blend of formal volunteering and paid work through consulting fees. The article also outlines next steps for HBEC.

Key Words:

Healthier Black Elders Center, Community Advisory Board, health equity, older African Americans


“We are involved in so many areas, so many creative and relevant topics, that will inspire others to want to learn from us in the future.”

—JoAnn Smith, Community Advisory Board member for more than 20 years, Healthier Black Elders Center, Detroit, Michigan

Since 1997, the National Institute on Aging has funded the Michigan Center for African American Aging Research (MCUAAAR) to promote health equity among older African Americans and mentor emerging scientists interested in African-American aging research trajectories (Chadiha et al., 2011, Lichtenberg et al., 2011). Through the Community Liaison and Recruitment Core of MCUAAAR, the Healthier Black Elders Center (HBEC) emerged as a key part of this program and continues to engage more than 1,100 members (see

Partnering with local organizations, churches, and community groups has established a trusted relationship and deep commitment between older African Americans and the HBEC. HBEC Community Advisory Board (CAB) member JoAnn Smith explained, “This program has been a viable service for health awareness in the African American community for over 20 years. The Healthier Black Elders Center works because of the people, the coordinators, staff, the board members, researchers, and of course the Lunch & Learn professional presenters, and our seniors. There has always been a harmonious team effort to work together for the benefit of the community which we serve.”

A 16-member CAB oversees all HBEC programming by offering perspectives and recommendations on health and social issues relevant to older adults in Detroit (Mitchell et al., 2020). CAB members are older adults who relate to the concerns of HBEC members, such as caregiving, disease prevention, chronic illness, and the city’s infrastructure and financial challenges. The CAB meets regularly and gets involved in many aspects of programming, including member outreach, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic (see Rorai & Perry, 2020; Rorai et al., 2021), and programming specific to social determinants of health called Critical Crossroads (e.g., applying for FEMA funds, the possible impact of a federal shutdown).

While 2020 brought a global catastrophe that challenged the older adult community in Detroit (Archambault et al., 2020; Perry et al., 2021; Harris et al., 2023), HBEC launched a consulting program involving CAB members and Center faculty and staff. Each consultation is unique, designed to meet the needs of the client. Some consultations are a one-time meeting with a specified number of CAB members to get feedback on study materials, while other consultations are multiple meetings over a period of time.

Coordinated by the HBEC Coordinator Vanessa Rorai, and HBEC Faculty Leader Dr. Tam Perry, the consulting program works with researchers and organizations to provide consultation on individual research projects (such as design, materials, disseminating results, protocols, and more) and public presentations on best practices to engage older adults in research (such as workshops, conferences, symposiums, and podcasts). The consulting program builds upon the strengths already present in the HBEC, which has been serving the community for more than 2 decades and understands the community’s needs and wants. CAB members note that HBEC can “get the pulse of the community easily,” as needed.

The program works with researchers and organizations to provide consultation on individual research projects and presentations on best practices to engage elders in research.

While the HBEC CAB are active members of their community, we believe the consulting program is unique in its approach. Many CAB members are involved in other volunteer capacities with their churches, block clubs, and local corporations. They are accustomed to sharing social and health information within the Metro Detroit community, participating in research opportunities through HBEC’s research registry, and they have been part of research dissemination via presenting in numerous venues. The consulting program brings a professional approach to providing input. Long-serving CAB member James Bridgforth notes, “We have a chance to put perspectives from the older adult African-American community point of view and have an opportunity to have influence over the outcome of projects.”

HBEC Consulting Outcomes

Since 2020, the HBEC CAB, related faculty, and staff have completed 17 consultancies with a wide range of outcomes. Almost half of them have directly affected research design. Projects focused on enhancing caregiving support, adapting technology for older minority adults, promoting adherence to glaucoma medication, and designing a protocol to appropriately reveal results in Alzheimer’s research.

Another important consultancy offered guidance to a national foundation on funding priorities that would benefit older adults. This consultancy took place in advance of the foundation issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) to nonprofits in several major U.S. cities.

In addition to consulting on specific projects, the program provided perspectives to multiple audiences. Often, in these projects, staff, faculty, and CAB members co-present to demonstrate HBEC’s commitment to best practices in community-based research (Israel et al., 1998) and equitable ways to work with community advisory boards to promote engagement (Mitchell et al., 2020). Audiences have included students, junior and senior faculty, older adult community members, grant funders, practitioners serving older adults, and companies considering ways older adults interface with technology.

The remaining consultancies were public presentations at webinars, symposiums, workshops, and a podcast interview. These presentations focused on best practices to engage older minoritized adults in research, recruitment strategies, promoting the value of community-based work, and developing and using advisory boards. Proceeds from the program are allocated to support the HBEC program, CAB members, and HBEC leaders who participate in each consultancy.

Contributing to Health Promotion for Older Adults

This program’s innovative approach coincides with the long-standing mission of the Healthier Black Elders Center, which is, “To work to improve the health and well-being of elderly minorities by encouraging research that will produce knowledge focused on understanding the aging process, disease and disability prevention, health promotion, healthier lifestyles, and successful aging in Detroit and beyond.”

As CAB member Brenda Evans, explained:

“This consulting program is unique in the way it actively recruits CAB members of varied experience and expertise. Thus, bringing a centralized pool of older adult partners to the table for dialogue and input on varied research projects and programs early in the process and throughout their implementation where indicated. In our roles as consultants, CAB members focus on the multifaceted ways that researchers can safely incorporate African Americans from metro Detroit into research. This is important to add applicability of findings to a more diverse population as well as increase diversity from the paltry 5% or less typically seen.”

Deepening Trust

In addition to serving clients’ interests, the HBEC Consulting program has allowed others to become more aware of the work being done at the HBEC and the Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology. At HBEC events, there is often opportunity for attendees to meet African American researchers and professional African American presenters, as well as scholars of many backgrounds who are examining racial differences including access to healthcare and chronic diseases and Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD). As another key goal of the MCUAAAR is to mentor scientists, it is important to have opportunities for community members to meet some of these scientists who often have involved members in their studies.

At HBEC events, attendees can meet African American researchers and professional African American presenters, as well as scholars.

While HBEC hosts many events in the metro Detroit area for older adults (e.g., Lunch & Learns, booths to recruit new members), this program has invited other sectors (funders, technology) in addition to research teams to learn about the work of the HBEC and the experiences of older African Americans. Two consultancies resulted in two community education events for HBEC members with clients presenting the outcome of their projects. The presentations highlighted the benefits of CAB members’ involvement consulting on their projects, while also sharing pertinent health information on memory changes and the use of technology. These are noted examples of how a consultancy has led to benefiting HBEC programing and deepening the trust with HBEC members when they hear about CAB’s input on designing projects.

Promoting Productive Aging

In line with this special issue focused on “Promoting Long, Healthy, and Productive Lives for Everyone,” the HBEC Consulting Program is a blend of formal volunteering and paid work through consulting fees. As CAB member Adelia Cooley said, “I am not only offering my recommendation and expertise, I am also gaining knowledge and awareness that I may not have otherwise acquired. I consider my HBEC Consultancy role as a two-way street—I gain understanding and I give understanding. Both of which I trust to be valuable.”

This blend is part of the next phase of activities of the HBEC contributing to health promotion for older adults, deepening trust, and promoting engagement. We hope that this example shows the level of intensity of the contributions made by HBEC Consulting productive. For more consulting examples, go to HBEC-Consultancies_forwebpage.pdf (

A CAB member for more than 20 years, James Bridgforth aptly describes the blend of how his formal volunteering directly draws upon his previous professional experiences. He brings work experience in management, working with people/clients, being accountable for budgets, outcomes, and projects to the consulting program.

He also brings more than 20 years of working in the community as a leader and CAB member of various organizations including the HBEC CAB. He has contributed to HBEC in many roles including on the Critical Crossroads Social Determinants of Health committee and the COVID-19 Telephone Outreach Project committee. He sees this program as, “an opportunity for CAB members to share their past professional expertise/skills in new settings,” and notes his response to being part of the program. When asked how his voice and perspectives have been perceived, he said, “positively,” as evidenced by “being encouraged to continue and the group reacting positively to my input.”

HBEC CAB members feel strongly that not all CAB members need to bring professional expertise to the consulting program, as their experiences aging as an African American are valued regardless of previous work history and education levels. The ability to contribute both professional and personal experiences lies at the heart of this program.

Call to Action

We propose the following calls to action:

  1. Recognize and value the contributions of older adults to the planning and implementation of projects from many sectors.
  2. Involve older adults in research projects as mentors.
  3. Document more older minoritized examples of productive engagement in the academic literature, and in resources produced for older adults and practitioners serving older adults.

We would like to acknowledge all the faculty and staff involved in the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research, as well as the RCMAR National Coordinating Center (Principal Investigators: Robert J. Taylor, Peter Lichtenberg, Joan Ilardo). We also would like to thank all the members of the HBEC who shared their experiences and voices by participating in so many HBEC programs and pertinent research studies.

And we would like to thank former CAB members, some no longer with us, who worked so diligently to make this program what it is today. As HBEC consulting has developed, we would also like to thank Lucia Renken for her design contributions. This project is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, P30 AG015281, and the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research.

Tam E. Perry, PhD, MSSW, is an associate professor at the Wayne State University School of Social Work and a co-leader of the NIH-funded Community Liaison and Recruitment Core of the Michigan Center for African American Aging Research. Vanessa Rorai, MSW, is program coordinator for the Healthier Black Elders Center (part of the Community Liaison and Recruitment Core of the Michigan Center for African American Aging Research) and a research assistant at Wayne State’s Institute of Gerontology. JoAnn Smith has been a Detroit Community Advisory Board (CAB) member for more than 20 years, served as a benefits outreach coordinator and a MMAP volunteer coordinator/certified trainer for the Detroit Area Agency on Aging for 14 years. James R. Bridgforth, MBA, has been a bank loan advisor, commercial credit analyst, and an auditor and manager as well as a CAB member for more than 20 years. Adelia Cooley, MS, is a retired health service director and has a combined three years as an active CAB member and a dedicated Healthier Black Elder Research Assistant Wayne State’s Institute of Gerontology. Brenda F. Evans, a retired family nurse practitioner, joined the CAB in Spring 2022. Jamie Mitchell is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, and a co-leader of the Community Liaison and Recruitment Core of the Michigan Center for African American Aging Research. Kent Key directs the Office of Community Scholars and Partnerships at Michigan State University’s Division of Public Health at the College of Human Medicine, and is a co-leader of the Community Liaison and Recruitment Core of the Michigan Center for African American Aging Research.

Photo caption: Three Healthier Black Elders Center Community Advisory Board members are pictured attending a Lunch & Learn event in August 2023 on the Aging Brain in Detroit, MI. From left to right: Gwendolyn Swain, Josephine Redd, and JoAnn Smith. 

Photo credit: Courtesy Healthier Black Elders Center



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