Personally Motivated, Professionally Determined

Editor’s note: The John A. Hartford Foundation, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and The SCAN Foundation fund the Aging and Disability Business Institute, led by USAging. As partners in the Institute, ASA and USAging are collaborating on a series of webinars and articles in Generations Now profiling diverse organizational leaders who are working in cross-sector collaborations.

Denny Chan was a recent law school grad in 2014 when he applied to what was then known as the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC). He knew he wanted to work in public interest law. He had little experience with the laws often used at NSCLC and “even less” in healthcare, yet the nonprofit hired him to join their health team in Los Angeles. What he did know was that the NSCLC fought on behalf of low-income older adults and that was 100% aligned with his desired work, which must have come through in the interview.

Still amused that what is now Justice in Aging (JIA) hired him, Chan is Managing Director of Justice in Aging’s Equity Advocacy team, responsible for developing and leading JIA’s Strategic Initiative on Advancing Equity, with a primary focus on race equity for older adults of color.

The Personal Connection

What really pushes Chan are stories like his grandmother’s. She is 90, emigrated more than 30 years ago from Hong Kong, speaks Cantonese and embodies a typical JIA client. She is dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, receives SNAP benefits, lives in low-income senior housing, has mobility challenges, is limited English proficient and hard of hearing.

“In so many ways she checks a lot of the boxes of the people who we’re fighting for, and I think about that every time I get a chance to see her, and visit with her, when I witness firsthand how the systems we have built work for her or sometimes don’t work, and that drives my passion,” said Chan.

‘When I witness firsthand how the systems we have built work for her or sometimes don’t work, that drives my passion.’

Several years ago his grandmother needed some dental work and found it less expensive to (with a family member), fly to China, stay there a couple of months while getting the work done and fly home, than it would have been to have the work done in Washington State where she lives.

“It was cheaper, she could get it in a language she understood and that was how she was able to get her needs met,” said Chan. Clarifying, “of course not everyone even has that choice.”

Equity Work at Justice in Aging

Justice in Aging has purposefully zeroed in on race equity in their work as “we continue to see the ways in which systemic racism plays out and how decades of racial discrimination has played out in the lives of older adults of color,” said Chan. “Secondly, we think it’s a really powerful way to begin to understand other forms of discrimination—how they work or how they are different.”

When pushed on the question of which population may be most in need of advocacy, Chan, always cautious with his words, said it’s important to employ an intersectional model, to get policymakers and lawmakers to think holistically about inequities. Data is often broken out by age, race, gender and language, but that doesn’t tell the story of the older adults’ real-life experience, he said. His grandmother, for instance, stands at the intersection of multiple categories.

The Equity Initiative

JIA’s equity initiative was borne out of the feeling Chan had that sometimes JIA’s policy work or legal work felt too distant from their older adult clients, especially those from communities of color. “This is an effort throughout our organization to ensure that all parts of our work are really centered on the older adults who faced systemic discrimination,” said Chan. “Because we, as an anti-poverty organization, know the ways in which poverty and discrimination are linked and intertwined.

“If we want to see tangible changes for our clients, we need to focus on systemic discrimination, and the way it creates structural barriers for the people we’re fighting for.”

One way JIA goes about this is to employ an equity tool that helps its attorneys and advocates think through any equity implications of the work they’re doing, whether it be a legal case or a policy or a new topic they may be embarking upon. The tool has seven or eight questions for JIA staff to address during each project. There are ways to practice working with the tool and recommendations for how to talk to colleagues about it as well.

And there’s a capacity-building cohort, wherein through a partnership with the National Center on Law and Elder Rights, a group of legal services providers working with older adults meets for 10 weeks in the summer, to focus on ways to improve their service delivery for older adults who face discrimination. Chan feels this program is unique to JIA, as he said, “I’m unaware of any other group that is running this sort of an equity-focused cohort for legal services work for older adults.”

Another new push at JIA involves older adults who are leaving the jail and prison system and re-entering the community, which came out of JIA attorneys noticing a lot of interest and opportunities to change policy for this specific population. The project uses a cross-team approach to address policy and legal needs of such elders who face challenges with healthcare, income security, housing—a multifaceted group of needs all at once.

‘If we want to see tangible changes for our clients, we need to focus on systemic discrimination, and the way it creates structural barriers for the people we’re fighting for.’

Older immigrants also are garnering close attention from JIA’s equity work. The Trump Administration penalized older immigrants for applying for and accessing public benefits programs, which had the impact of scaring older immigrants and their families away from seeking critical services and benefits. JIA challenged the ruling and filed multiple amicus “Friend of the Court” briefs in federal court.

In the end, JIA and Chan would like to see more policies and lawsuits and legal victories centered on the needs of low-income older adults who face structural discrimination. “I want to see those barriers I talked about with my grandma go away,” Chan said.

And he advises anyone working in the equity space to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. “It’s a process, and we’ve learned a lot from trying different things. Our equity initiative isn’t us saying we’ve figured it all out, it’s us saying we want to try different things to see if it makes a difference in fighting for equity for older adults.”

Moving Forward

January 2023 saw mass shootings of older Asian Americans, a group that has been disproportionately targeted since the beginning of the pandemic. Chan says that although he knows such anti-Asian hate always existed, there are many more documented incidents of violence than there had been in the past, primarily result of the “xenophobia linked to Covid-19.”

The issue of anti-Asian hate, especially targeted against older adults, “requires lots of different solutions, it requires legal and policy solutions (which need to be culturally competent) that make it easier for people to report issues that they experience and requires a culture shift in how we think about and address hate and bias incidents,” Chan said.

And he mentioned that at the community level Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) might partner with other community-based organizations working in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to address their holistic needs, and AAAs might also collaborate with organizations focused on restorative justice to bring about change.

“What’s true in our elder justice work generally is we do not think the answer is always more police and more law enforcement, it requires intergenerational solutions, it requires collaboration, and coalition-building, and all that has to be done with a focus on equity and a focus on restoring community safety,” said Chan.

To hear more about equity work in aging from Denny Chan, sign up for the USAging Webinar on March 8, 2023, “Policy-related Barriers to Equity in Aging.”

Alison Biggar is ASA’s Editorial Director.

Photo caption: Denny Chan speaks at the California for All Ages & Abilities Day of Action in September, 2022. 

Photo: Courtesy of Denny Chan.