I Am a BIPOC Older Adult Rising with ASA RISE

Editor’s Note: The John A. Hartford Foundation is collaborating with ASA RISE to advance equity through a series of blog posts in support of the development and dissemination of equity-related, partnership-based thought leadership through ASA's Generation platform. This blog post is part of that series.

ASA RISE is a 20-week social justice and leadership program for rising leaders of color in aging. The John A. Hartford Foundation, the Archstone Foundation and RRF Foundation for Aging co-fund the program.

Those who know me, know that I have eclectic interests. I love music, theater, shopping, walking, traveling, but most of all evolving. My goal is to continue to evolve until I can’t. Knowing that there are seasons in life, this season of Older Adulthood brings joy, stress, growth and intentionality that draws upon all I have learned in prior decades.

When I started in the aging arena some 21 years ago, I really did not have a clue that aging, and working in the aging field, would define me. I also did not realize that being a Black female in a white female–dominated profession was an asset and a challenge. I had given no thought to the inequities within the various populations of older adults and at the beginning thought AAA meant the Automobile Club!

Quickly after taking on operations for the second largest Area Agency on Aging (yes, that AAA), in the nation (Los Angeles County), I was made aware of the vast number of different older adult factions Los Angeles County embraced and the cultural subtleties of each. It was daunting. How was I to ensure those cultural differences were met, with limited funding, and in ways that felt authentic to them and to me?

How to be true to myself? I came of age when being Black meant being proud of my Blackness, not to the exclusion of others but emphasizing Blackness. Some self-introspection was necessary to determine how to honestly serve from my heart. As part of my leadership journey, I needed to understand how to present myself to the world and to better address the needs of all of those who were part of the Los Angeles older adult population.

‘When you know who you are, you can fight battles, you can take risks, and growth occurs.’

I was fortunate, for the most part—people accepted me as the leader of the organization and showed me respect, and in many instances deference. I had the wonderful opportunity and privilege to participate in Chinese Dragon Dances, sitting shiva, Black History Month celebrations and many other cultural events. But the question always lingered, how can I be authentically Black and be a part of the world in which I lived and worked?

There were times when I questioned my hairstyle or the bright colored clothing I chose to wear. Was it too “Black”? Who do people see when they look at me?

During that season, I came to the realization that I could not be anything other than who I was. I had to get comfortable with that, which was not easy. It took time and soul searching about who I was as an individual, a boss and a colleague. When I realized that I could walk into a room and not feel uncomfortable about who else was in the room and how I fit in, I knew I had crossed over from wearing a mask to full exposure of the real me.

It didn’t happen 100% of the time (and still doesn’t), but most of the time it did and that was enough. There was a sense of freedom and quite frankly, sassiness! When you know who you are, you can fight battles, you can take risks, and growth occurs.

The Not Really Retired Retirement

Then I retired. Would the growth stop? I certainly didn’t want that to happen. What I thought I wanted was to be an executive coach to share what I had learned through my 46-year career journey with other executives, to define the rules by which they would play. I wanted others to find the freedom I had found and to thrive.

As with many plans, mine took a detour. While planning to begin the training for a certification in executive coaching, I got a call that has now changed the way I view retirement and my life as a whole. The call brought an offer for me to become the Interim CEO of ASA. Surprised, honored, and curious, I eagerly said yes, thinking that 6 months would allow for a transition to what I really wanted to do. Five years later, I am still working with ASA and still evolving.

During those five years, I have been Interim CEO, Chief of Staff spearheading the development of ASA’s first set of DEI principles, and now consultant for the ASA RISE experience. I call the ASA RISE fellowship program an experience because after engaging with it, you are never the same! The 20-week immersive social justice and leadership program for rising leaders of color is what I needed 20 years ago.

ASA RISE has helped me increase my knowledge of who I am as a BIPOC person and as a leader. Engagement with the RISE fellows has allowed me to think deeply and reflect upon how to share my experience. I am grateful and feel blessed that retirement did not proceed as I had planned.

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!!!’ ”

Thus far, I’ve had a great ride! And I now know with certainty that I will continue to evolve, and to RISE.

Cynthia D. Banks is a consultant for ASA RISE, was both interim president and chief of staff at ASA, and prior to that director of Los Angeles County’s Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services, where she oversaw its AAA, the second largest jurisdiction of older adults in the country, as well as LA County’s Adult Protective Services, among other safety net programs. She chairs the Board of Directors for the Archstone Foundation and is an appointed member of North Carolina’s Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging. Banks lives with her husband in North Carolina.