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A “Life Course” Approach Breaks Down Silos to Strengthen Social Justice

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Older woman reading with young girlI am just concluding almost a month working from Atlantic’s offices in Ireland.  Among the many terrific experiences I’ve had was a visit to the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), where last week my colleagues and I met with the faculty of the Life Course Institute.  The Institute, established with Atlantic’s support, is an innovative effort to advance an integrated approach to research on policy and services for older people, children and families, and people with disabilities.

By looking at disadvantage through the lens of a life cycle, the Institute can find synergies among traditionally siloed groups.  For instance, improving a building to make it more accessible for older adults will often make it more accessible for those with disabilities and for children, too.

Projects like the Life Course Institute are incredibly important because they are not just about “treating” disadvantage in old age or in youth, but about breaking down the structures that institutionalise disadvantage for a lifetime for some of the most vulnerable in our societies.

What that often means is that a look at structural disadvantage and inequality reveals that it has no single source.  It’s not like an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, in which the forensic scientist discovers that the victim was poisoned before being dropped off a building.  Instead, we often find that multiple factors come into play; those in academic or political circles call this “intersectionality”, the interplay of race, gender, class, disability and other factors.

As one of the world’s leading funders of programmes dealing with ageing issues, Atlantic sees that the people we prioritise come to old age carrying a lifetime of disadvantage, manifested most starkly in chronic illnesses and earlier death.  Roughly half of those in Ireland who are over 65 have no more than a primary school education. (source) In the United States, 78 per cent of Americans age 55 and older are dealing with at least one chronic health condition like diabetes, heart disease or arthritis, and older adults living below the poverty line are more likely than those at higher income levels to have multiple chronic conditions. (source)

This kind of understanding and connection plays out in Atlantic’s programmes on ageing, children and youth, human rights and health all the time.  One morning last week I visited the Barrack Street housing facility for older adults in Dundalk, Ireland, operated by the Nestling Project out of the Dundalk Institute of Technology.  It is state-of-the-art purpose-built housing for older people with sinks and stoves that can be lowered for wheelchair users and other features that make it easy for the disabled to navigate, along with all kinds of high-tech gadgets that facilitate living and provide security.  I was very impressed, and ready to sign a lease myself.

But I also thought: why can’t we have this for everyone?  Throughout the countries where we operate, low-income older adults are often the least well off.  Age, health issues, disabilities and economic disadvantage often combine to create significant challenges and vulnerabilities.  But if we can make strides toward establishing places like the Barrack Street units as the norm for older people, it can yield enormous benefits for others with special needs and expand the rights of everyone.

By the same token, in our work to tap the potential of older adults in the United States, we’ve found that many older adults are seeking ways to make a local difference for others.  But we’ve also found that most communities lack the supports and structures to inform, mobilise and engage them.  The Community Experience Partnership is working with 30 community foundations throughout the United States to engage older adults on issues that will improve the lives of everyone in their community, ranging from food advocacy to creating green spaces to promoting literacy.  The initiative is not only about improving the lives of older adults, but is instead about engaging older adults to improve entire communities.

We live in a world where, especially in economically challenging times like these, there runs the risk of conflict among those struggling for their piece of a shrinking pie.  With Social Security cuts on the table in the U.S., this could disturbingly take the form of a kind of generational warfare.  Younger earners who don’t believe the social safety net will last long enough for them to access it in later years cast a cold eye on the benefits their elders receive.  In such a world, we need to build bridges where disparate groups and interests can find solidarity with others and find a common cause in social justice.

This sort of effort is evident in the Strengthen Social Security campaign, a coalition of more than 60 groups representing more than 30 million Americans, which launched this week in an effort to push back and demand that Congress not make any benefit cuts.  Recognising that protecting Social Security is not just an issue for older adults, the campaign is composed of a multi-generational coalition of unions, human services groups, veteran disability groups, women’s groups and children’s groups.

The ageing and the young have special bonds that can be turned into assets capable of improving the well-being of both.  Some years ago, we introduced Barnardos, an Irish children’s advocacy organisation and a Children & Youth Programme grantee in the Republic of Ireland, to our Ageing Programme grantee Experience Corps in the U.S., which focuses on improving the quality of life for seniors by engaging them as literacy tutors for young children.  Taking the same idea from a children’s perspective, Barnardos created Wizard of Words – in this case primarily targeting better reading outcomes for the vulnerable children they serve with older adult volunteers.

This same sense of solidarity and mutual respect can be used to forge other alliances between the generations – in advocating for better childcare, or even in advocating for the rights of vulnerable children to be protected and nurtured and for those rights to be enshrined constitutionally, one of Atlantic’s leading campaign priorities in Ireland right now.

Justice is not a zero-sum game in which what one group achieves comes at the expense of others.  It is a world of interdependence, where the civil gains of blacks – and the careful strategies that achieved them – are building blocks for the gains of women and gays; where immigrants are viewed as a source of national strength, not as a social problem.

At risk of sounding like a mobile phone advertisement, it is really all about connections.  To use the current buzzword, we’ve become too siloed in recent years.  Government agencies compete and overlap, and the lack of a coordinated effort impairs our ability to address the deepest social challenges, which typically extend beyond the jurisdiction of one particular department.  Universities too often are bastions of fiefdoms and turf wars.  Foundations, too, usually organise themselves in ways that work against collaborative approaches and mystify and confound grantseekers, who must shop around the funding institution as if in the aisles of a supermarket.

At Atlantic we have worked hard in the last few years to change that.  We have moved more of our funding into cross-programme initiatives and taken significant organisational steps to strengthen our ability to address cross-cutting national challenges in cross-cutting ways, to see the whole forest and not just the individual trees of issues or constituencies.  At the same time we have strengthened our capacity to make global connections, to take advantage of the huge store of learning that a foundation operating in a number of countries can accumulate.

NUIG and the Life Course Institute, which has risen above departmental and discipline silos to create something much greater than its individual parts, and worked in close partnership with community and civil society actors, is a paradigmatic commitment for Atlantic in the context of our strengthened emphasis on social justice.  It, and other cross-cutting initiatives like it, is about sustaining the change we seek by understanding all the factors involved and strengthening social movements that will advance and protect the change long after Atlantic and our dollars are gone.


Gara LaMarche

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