A Call for More Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement

Group of business people

On October 1, 2013, Governor Jay Inslee hosted an Aging Summit. About 100 people were invited to participate, including key cabinet officials, selected legislators, community leaders and issue experts from across Washington state. The purpose of the summit was to focus on preparing for the demographic "age wave" while exchanging ideas and exploring strategies state government can take to create an age-friendly environment, reduce pressure on state budgets, and jumpstart the work of the Joint Legislative Executive Committee on Aging and Disability Issues.

I was honored to receive an invitation to represent my agency and community, and I participated in the event. Later I was asked to share my impressions of the summit as part of a panel presentation to the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) Advisory Council and State Council on Aging members. I shared my hope that we will all practice more inclusive outreach and public engagement when discussing aging issues in the future.

Although I am not an expert, I have participated in inclusive outreach and public engagement trainings offered by the City of Seattle's Office for Civil Rights as well as trainings under the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), a cross-departmental effort to end institutionalized racism and race-based disparities in City government. The RSJI began in 2005, building on the work of the civil rights movement and the ongoing efforts of individuals and groups in Seattle to confront racism. Its long-term goal is to change the underlying system that creates race-based disparities in our community and to achieve racial equity.

King County residents of color comprise 19 percent of the population age 60 and older. This figure illustrates the overall racial composition of King County’s elders. For more information, see the Area Plan on Aging 2014–2015 Update for Seattle-King County.

In addition, the Older Americans Act mandates AAAs to target older adults in rural areas; with limited English-speaking ability; and with the greatest social and economic need—with particular attention to low-income minority individuals, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults, a largely invisible population.

Since participating in RSJI trainings and leading outreach on King County's Area Plan on Aging, I've become more sensitive to recognizing who's in the room, at government-related meetings and public events, as well as who is not in the room. Given that 10 percent of the state's 60-plus population represents communities of color, my first thought about the summit was that there could have been better representation.

Summit participants were asked to read several articles in advance to prepare for the discussions. The pre-reads were very informative, but I think summit organizers missed an opportunity to include information about issues specific to vulnerable older adults. While many issues are the same for all older adults, the impact on older adults of color is often greater due to racial disparities by income and health.

Governor Inslee opened the summit and Dr. Laura Carstensen, Stanford Center on Longevity, presented the age wave from an historical and evolutionary perspective. She described how changing demographics have impacted our public services and supports, demonstrating a mismatch between the culture of the past and the reality of today. I appreciated their comments but left feeling the summit would have been an excellent venue for a presentation about older adults from communities of color.

For a summary of the Aging Summit, click here.

How to engage communities

For more information about the historical, scientific and social ideas of race, visit the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit at Pacific Science Center, which runs through January 5, 2014.

The City of Seattle produced its Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide in 2009 as a resource for all City staff. It contains essential strategies for inclusive engagement, key elements of effective and inclusive public engagement, and tools for achieving them.

Recently, the Seattle Human Services Department Community Engagement Team was charged with developing a complementary guide for human services professionals that will further strengthen equity and reduce disparities within the marginalized communities we serve. Although the draft department manual is currently under review, following are key points to think about when developing strategies and activities for meaningful, inclusive public participation:

  1. Determine the appropriate level of engagement, ranging from dispersing important information to building strong and long-lasting relationships and partnerships. In fact, relationship building is the key to success at every level.
  2. Take time to analyze community needs so you can effectively focus your community engagement activities. This involves selecting and reviewing relevant and reliable data.
  3. Develop a public involvement plan that identifies potential barriers, such as access, childcare, language, low literacy, and lack of trust, and ways to overcome them.
  4. Be open to doing things differently.

Author Karen Winston is a planner with Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. Her work includes coordinating the Area Plan on Aging for Seattle-King County and assisting with coordination of chronic disease self-management programs and falls prevention awareness.