Organizations across industries have rushed to implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and ensuing racial justice uprisings. However, many DEI programs lack clarity of purpose and/or clear outcomes, which can negatively impact their effectiveness. This article discusses how a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ elder services and advocacy (SAGE) implemented a DEI program and modified its goals to clearly address ageism and ableism in its ongoing work. The article concludes with recommendations for other organizations interested in refining or launching their DEI work.
ableism, advocacy, ageism, diversity, equity, inclusion
In the wake of the racial justice uprisings triggered by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, organizations across the United States pivoted quickly to incorporate programs focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into their long-term operations. Though the inequities laid bare by Mr. Floyd’s killing are, in the American context, not new, the barbaric and very public nature of his Calvary seemed to convince business leaders across sectors that, no matter our profession, we all have a role to play in healing our society’s long festering social fissures.
In the years since, the political winds have again shifted and an increasing number of pundits, media personalities, and politicians have levied vociferous attacks targeting DEI as a concept. A slew of think pieces have been published by right-leaning publications and authors in recent months that characterize DEI as a Pollyannaish and/or untenable collection of “elitist” mores that are unrelated at best and detrimental at worst to realizing most businesses’ core raisons d’être (Butcher, 2023; Maranto et al., 2022). Some commentators went so far as to blame DEI initiatives for the rapid collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in early 2023 (Kessler, 2023; Otten, 2023; Qiu, 2023).
While many of these critiques are rooted in unqualified political bias or outright racial animus, I believe there has been a fundamental flaw in the way many organizations have approached the creation and development of their DEI departments. In the summer of 2020, DEI programs were assembled in such haste that many companies seem not to have given themselves time to figure out which specific problems those programs would solve. This has led to the creation of many DEI departments that suffer from a lack of specificity in their objectives. DEI encompasses a wide breadth of work and the term—because it has become common parlance—can mean very different things to different stakeholders. Specificity is key, and before creating a DEI department, organizations need to have a concrete sense of which issues they are looking to address.
SAGE’s Incorporation of DEI Work
At SAGE, we have engaged in a multiyear, organization-wide analysis of where we sit as an organization on matters of equity, representation, and belonging. Through that analysis, we identified specific areas where we can deepen how we work on behalf of and in solidarity with oft marginalized communities including Native Americans, transgender people, and LGBTQ+ elders who live in rural parts of the United States.
While recognized as a thought leader on matters pertaining to the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ older adults, SAGE’s introspective process brought to light that there is more we can do to specifically combat the scourges of ageism and ableism, which represent significant barriers to LGBTQ+ older adults living the lives they want for themselves. In this article, I will share details of the steps we are taking to make an anti-ageist and anti-ableist focus a central part of our work on behalf of and in solidarity with the communities we serve.
‘It is also important to identify the root of the issue you are seeking to address.’
As is the case at many long-standing nonprofits rooted in community, SAGE’s external-facing operations cover a wide range of business areas. When seeking to incorporate a new equity-centric lens into the scope of any organization’s work, it is imperative that there be clarity on how this new focus will manifest within each of that company’s departments.
It is also important to identify the root of the issue you are seeking to address. If you hope to incorporate an anti-racist perspective into your organization’s functioning, you first must determine where you will apply this new lens. That is to say, you need to decide whether you are seeking to address racially prejudicial behavior as it manifests internally among staff or to combat racial bias as it affects your constituents. At the end of the day, you may endeavor to address both areas, but the journey to incorporating an anti-racist framework into your operations will differ depending upon whether your focus is internal or external.
At SAGE, given the inward-facing equity work we have undertaken in years past, we opted to align our anti-ageist and anti-ableist efforts with our external-facing operations. Thus, our approach to deciding what shape our outward-facing anti-ableist and anti-ageist work would take began by engaging with leadership from our SAGEServes, National Initiatives, Marketing and Communications, Advocacy, and SAGEVenture departments.
Our SAGEServes team oversees the provision of programmatic offerings to SAGE constituents primarily in and around New York City, whereas our National Initiatives department leads our organization’s research, grant-making, non-NYC housing, and partnership work. Our Marketing and Communications team manages all of SAGE’s public-facing messaging and branding, while our Advocacy team works in concert with organizations across the country to push for policies and legislation that positively impact the well-being of LGBTQ+ elders. Our SAGEVenture program directs SAGE’s mission-based social enterprise activities.
The many branches that form SAGE differ markedly in their area of focus. Thus, seeking to incorporate a new equity principle in ways that do not reflect the nature of our teams’ work would almost certainly prove unsuccessful in the medium to long term.
For our Marketing and Communications team and the research arms of the National Initiatives department, adding an anti-ageist and anti-ableist lens to their work means ensuring that the language in their publications and research instruments avoids terminology that may patronize or otherwise ascribe negative connotations to aging or elders and those with disabilities. With respect to our federal- and state-level advocacy initiatives, we need to analyze where ageist and/or ableist policies infringe upon the human and legal rights of older adults. For SAGEServes and SAGEVenture, anti-ageist/anti-ableist work can examine the assumptions and structural barriers that may prevent certain LGBTQ+ elders from engaging with our programs.
‘After establishing systems, monitoring and periodic assessment are crucial next steps.’
This ability to preemptively identify how we can improve service delivery was especially crucial in the latter portion of the COVID-19 pandemic when SAGE intentionally decided to continue to expand its suite of virtual services. We realized that while many community members enthusiastically awaited the return of in-person services, there were many SAGE constituents who felt more comfortable engaging virtually. This was especially true for transgender and non-binary elders—groups that are at greater risk of experiencing verbal, physical, and sexual harassment on public transit (Carathers et al., 2019)—and for elders who live in areas without access to reliable transportation.
Once it has been decided how each team in your organization will approach the adoption of a new equity lens, the next step is to build systems that remove as much subjectivity as possible from the process of launching anti-ageist and anti-ableist initiatives. For the Marketing and Communications team, compiling examples of affirming as opposed to ageist/ableist terms into our brand guidelines takes the pressure off staff when understanding how ageist and ableist assumptions affect how we speak about older adults and aging. The Advocacy team, on the other hand, may consider setting benchmarks for the number of explicitly anti-ageist/anti-ableist initiatives that they support or sign on to in a given fiscal year.
After establishing systems, monitoring and periodic assessment are crucial next steps. Ideally, there will be someone within your organization whose role it is to organize and track equity-related matters. This may not be needed or feasible depending upon your organization’s size, but whatever your financial capabilities may be, it is important to designate someone—as part of their official, written job description—to be the point person for concerns pertaining to equity and inclusion.
I stress the importance of ensuring that this area of work be clearly stated in their job description because expecting an employee or a group of employees to monitor for progress toward equity goals when this is not their realm of expertise, and/or when they are tasked with work in another domain that constitutes their full-time role, will inevitably lead to equity initiatives becoming deprioritized over time.
To summarize, if you are looking to establish an intentionally anti-ageist and/or anti-ableist framework into your organization’s operations, consider taking the following steps:
- Start with a team-specific approach. Make sure leaders from each department are brought in from the beginning to garner buy-in and ensure alignment between your goals and the on-the-ground realities and capacities of each department.
- Focus on systems, not just minds. Encouraging colleagues (and ourselves) to become aware of their and our assumptions around age and disability is a noble and necessary exercise, but to ensure maximum impact of any equity initiative, there must be systems in place that clearly define and incentivize equitable behaviors and praxes.
- Monitor, measure, and repeat. Once you’ve built out a system for your organization, make sure you have a method for assessing its efficacy and redesigning it as needed. This is as necessary for your IT department as it is for your DEI team. Establishing and periodically assessing progress toward any equity goal is time consuming, so make sure that carrying out this work is part of an employee’s or team’s role and not added on in a way that will ultimately prove unsustainable.
My intention in writing the above is not to overwhelm the reader with theory and the minutiae of team-centric DEI work. Rather, I have sought to demystify what may initially seem like an impossibly ambitious and unwieldy body of work in the hopes that this will equip the reader with the confidence they will need as they seek to create more inclusive and equitable spaces in their professional and personal lives.
Bringing about a society that is truly welcoming of all its members is a multigenerational project, but creating meaningful change within your organization can be accomplished with comparative ease if you operate with a clear and well-informed understanding of the challenges at hand.
Kylie Madhav, MBA, LMSW, is the senior director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SAGE in New York, NY.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Vitalii Vodolazskyi
Butcher, J. (2023, January 30). DEI doesn’t work—Taxpayers Shouldn’t Pay for It. The Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/education/commentary/dei-doesnt-work-taxpayers-shouldnt-pay-it
Carathers, J., Abelson, M., Lubitow, A., & Kelly, M. (2019, September 4). Gender minority transit riders experience violence and discrimination. Gender Policy Report. https://genderpolicyreport.umn.edu/gender-minority-transit-riders/
Kessler, A. (2023, March 12). Who killed Silicon Valley Bank? Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-killed-silicon-valley-bank-interest-rates-treasury-federal-reserve-ipo-loan-long-term-bond-capital-securities-startup-jpmorgan-bear-stearns-lehman-brothers-b9ca2347?mod=e2tw
Maranto, R., Mills, M., & Salmon, C., (2022, November 7). What do we really mean by ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’? The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/education/3718803-what-do-we-really-mean-by-diversity-equity-and-inclusion/
Otten, T. (2023, July 28). The right’s desperate attempt to blame the Silicon Valley Bank collapse on diversity. The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/post/171127/right-desperate-attempt-blame-silicon-valley-bank-collapse-diversity
Qiu, L. (2023, March 15). No, diversity did not cause Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/15/us/politics/silicon-valley-bank-collapse-woke-fact-check.html