A few weeks ago, I had a chance to sit down with a former classmate who is a racial justice advocate in our hometown on the occasion of our 40th year high school reunion. Over glasses of Uncle Nearest straight—no chaser, he described some of the grassroots organizing he’s involved in and the strategic questions he’s grappling with.
Surprisingly, he described himself as a weary activist, unsure if he could recapture the momentum he once had for what he called “joyful, sustainable activism.” His experiences were a powerful and urgent reminder of the strength and perseverance it takes to lead systems change–focused initiatives, and the need to cultivate collaborative space(s) for social justice changemakers, especially leaders of color, to process events and imagine new strategies to tackle the root causes of complex social problems.
This is top of mind because we are closing out the second year of the ASA RISE fellowship program and preparing to welcome the third cohort of 16 fellows in January. In the first two cohorts, ASA RISE has trained 46 racially diverse leaders from across sectors to deepen their work disrupting structural racism and creating conditions for anti-racist allyship in the field of aging.
It has been a remarkable, challenging and humbling experience being the ASA RISE program director. The lessons we’ve learned will help us provide a more powerful experience for our future fellows and may be useful to others seeking to support social justice work.
Evolving Aims for the Program
When I first envisioned what ASA RISE could be, I was myopic in scope—the task was simply to create a leadership development program. I wish it were that simple, but it turned out to be much more intricate. Two years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from ASA RISE, now I ask far more specific questions in my dialogic engagement with the program than I did back then.
I thought ASA RISE would result in a training program for people trying to improve aging organizations, and assumed there would be a methodology behind it—a “how-to” guide of sorts. To some extent ASA RISE has done both, but not with your run-of-the-mill leadership-development manual. It’s full of pointed questions that thoughtful leaders in aging should ask themselves about their work and what is required to lead with equity in an increasingly diverse aging society.
What I did not know two years ago that I do today, is that while many organizations are focused on capacity-building through BIPOC leadership development, few are thinking about how to support these leaders to connect, learn, lean-in, and collaborate with others who are similarly motivated but are working for change in different ways and in different communities and contexts. With a bit of serendipity, what we ended up creating with ASA RISE is brave space—a community of practice—for emerging leaders from different backgrounds and perspectives on racial equity to share ideas, build connections, and collaborate. We knew this would be difficult and complex, but the challenges were even more daunting than we expected.
Leaders in aging should ask pointed questions about what is required to lead with equity in an increasingly diverse aging society.
After spending the long Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend in restorative reflection (because the work of dismantling systems of oppression is exhausting), I realized that what was key to moving ASA RISE forward was a willingness to face conflict and differences squarely and to learn from them. As social justice activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson, says, we need to get into “proximity” with things that make us uncomfortable and perspectives that are difficult to hear.
We weren’t perfect, but when we succeeded at stepping in and having courageous conversations, it resulted in a transformative experience for the three alumni classes—the Accomplices, the Co-Conspirators and the Disruptors. I took away two major lessons that have changed me and have made ASA RISE a stronger program.
First, we needed to focus the fellowship experience on imagination and future-building, rather than on critique and deconstruction. This doesn’t mean discarding an analysis of our histories and experiences of oppressive inequality and inequitable exploitation. But focusing only on current-day realities can distract us from creating new visions and strategies for the future. The grounding principle behind ASA RISE is to help leaders who are working to dismantle racist oppression grapple with roadblocks so that they can construct audacious visions and effective strategies for change. Racism is one of several structural forces that have shaped and distorted our societies, and we see it and the promises of “anti-racist, anti-ageist” future as an important entry point to achieving a larger vision of justice, dignity and compassion.
Building Upon Lessons from RISE Alums
But how do we engage in addressing deep racial inequalities and inequities while imagining a future that includes all of us who are aging? Our fellows have taught us that ASA RISE needs to be more than a space for analysis and collaboration rooted in resistance. We need to support leaders in forward-looking thinking and build a self-sustaining network of resources and expertise the field of aging can tap into for years to come. This has required rethinking the sequence and content of the ASA RISE curriculum to build in more time for inquiry and reflection on possibilities.
Secondly, in creating a space for ASA RISE Fellows to engage and collaborate, we learned how difficult it is to bring together people who are socialized in different experiences, cultures, and ideologies, even when they are united by shared motivations. We hadn’t anticipated the complexity of building understanding across different points of view and the designs needed to make it work.
A pro-humanity world is one in which all of us flourish in the full complexity of who we are, with capacity to grow, learn, and change.
So often, opening up ourselves to other points of view can feel compromising. Why should those of us directly impacted by racial oppression care about understanding the perspective and experience of people from historically dominant groups or those who hold different ideological positions? There are several reasons this is important. Practically speaking, broad-based alliances and allyship are necessary to achieve the larger change we seek. Another reason is that it matters to our own humanity. It’s not surprising that the trauma of inequity, injustice, and diminishment shapes how we engage with others. But seeing the humanity in others and seeking to understand them, even when we disagree or have been hurt, is crucial to building a world shaped by joy, possibility and potential. Because a pro-humanity world, in all its intersectional manifestations and differences, is one in which all of us flourish in the full complexity of who we are, with capacity to grow, learn, and change.
This realization led us to focus ASA RISE on dialogue as a core instructional method. We understand dialogue not as agreement, but as a process of learning from and teaching one another across differences, which is essential to achieving our social justice goals. It also has meant building greater capacity within our program for facilitative leadership and restorative practices that build connection and understanding among the diverse perspectives the fellows bring.
Our first two years taught us some basic—and difficult—truths about what it means to live our values. In responding to our fellows and to the moment, we have learned something that applies to all social justice efforts past and present: listening to and learning from conflict and difference is vital for growth. It is also vital to building a bigger, more transcendent vision of the world we want and the strategies to get there. Our growing pains in ASA RISE have advanced a deeper and richer fellowship experience that better meets our vision and mission and the expectations of our fellows.
As I think back to my whiskey neat with my high school classmate, I had no answers for the strategic questions he faces. I hope, though, that ASA RISE can be the kind of space where social justice leaders in aging can find answers to important questions like his. We need social justice warriors for equitable aging. And that’s what ASA RISE creates.
Patrice Dickerson, PhD, is ASA’s director of Programs and Thought Leadership and ASA RISE program director.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Denis Belitsky