This issue of Generations Journal is not an academic exercise. It’s personal, it’s professional, and it’s political. Which wouldn’t surprise anyone who has met its Guest Editor, Josephine Kalipeni. The idea of caregiving for Kalipeni is not an abstract one, but an issue she has been fighting for for years, and one that personally impacted her while she was acting as Generations Journal Guest Editor.
Her personal and professional journey is reflected in the makeup of the issue, as these articles jump off the page in their insistence to be read. Kalipeni doesn’t have an in-your-face personality, yet one stops and listens when she talks, as she speaks from a place of lived authority.
Just weeks prior to the issue’s publication Kalipeni was named Executive Director of Family Values @ Work (FV@W). She describes FV@W as an organization that has partners in twenty-seven states, and is “working to build power through leadership and organizational development, culture change, and policy change to win an equitable care economy that works for all.”
FV@W came about when its leaders recognized that “valuing caregiving and enabling people to be good providers and good family members is key to achieving racial, gender, and economic equality.” They saw the need to fundraise nationally for grassroots groups to push for state and local paid leave policies.
Kalipeni began her career in direct service and social work, connecting families in crisis to needed supports, programs, and services. She then spent eighteen years in advocacy and grassroots organizing, and seven years in political campaign development and advising. Currently she sits on the boards of the American Association of Caregiving Youth, the National Academy of Social Insurance, and the Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women; and she is often found speaking publicly on issues around care and inequity, as well as writing papers and building toolkits on those topics.
But her personal experience also played into this Journal issue, as her father (who in 1989 emigrated, with his family, from Malawi to the United States) died during the pandemic while she pulled this issue together, and without her or most of her immediate family seeing him before he died.
‘There is an underlying belief in Malawi that we are interconnected and responsible for each other.’
When you read her poignant introduction to the issue, you’ll learn that despite being a professor in the United States, her father felt a need to retire to their native Malawi because here, he could neither afford caregiving nor healthcare. And her mother, who was still in the United States, couldn’t take the time off from her work for to care for him, either.
So there it is, the classic tale of how the “care infrastructure” in the United States is really just a reliance upon women, mostly women of color, to take care of anyone who gets sick or is too young to attend school.
Kalipeni says that in Malawi, the culture of care defaults to communal and familial care across generations. “While still disruptive to economic stability, primarily for women, there is an underlying belief in Malawi that we are interconnected and responsible for each other.
“I have seen the care infrastructure of Malawi and of the United States and the underlying failures they carry for the marginalized, usually women in low-wage work. Transforming care and caregiving will lead to a more just world, where everyone can age and thrive,” she adds.
Building a care infrastructure in this country that supports both aging and caregivers would be a critical step toward disrupting generational poverty, “in a way that centers gender and racial justice,” says Kalipeni.
She would like to see the aging advocacy community on board with this idea, as a deep commitment to solving such issues at the intersection of how families experience them could “catapult us toward the changed world we want to see.”
These are complex issues and we’re a very long way from achieving economic justice and racial and gender equity in the United States. But Kalipeni firmly believes that if we listen to those at the core of these issues—the people doing the work on the ground, the people with the lived experience of caring, who are the experts on what is needed for meaningful solutions—we would stand a chance of getting closer to solutions.
“Communities that have been traditionally marginalized in our social infrastructure are also often left out of solution and policy-making rooms,” says Kalipeni.
“Our idea of aging has to consider the full scope of our humanity and the many forms in which our systems are failing aging communities of color and their families—from the aging incarcerated to the aging Sandwich Generation caregiver. The people closest to the problems are often closest to the solutions, and it is an imperative that the work we do is done with the people we claim to center.”
Alison Biggar is Editorial Director at the American Society on Aging.