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Remarks by Assistant Secretary for Aging and ACL Administrator Kathy Greenlee at the n4a Answers on Aging Conference

July 26, 2016

July 26, 2016, San Diego, Calif., Remarks as prepared

Good morning. It’s great to be with you again this morning. I have been looking forward to today for many reasons. The n4a conference and my remarks have always felt to me like my own personal “State of the Union.” When I see you again, it means we’ve made “one more trip around the sun,” to quote Jimmy Buffet.

I gave Sandy a heads up several weeks ago that this would be my last speech as Assistant Secretary. I wanted to complete the cycle and I wanted a chance to see you one more time. I know this isn’t the Academy Awards but there are a few people I want to acknowledge today:

  • First, Sandy Markwood
  • Next, Edwin Walker
  • Also, my predecessors who are here today, Fernando Torres Gil, Josefina Carbonell
  • My ACL staff—those here today and those who are in DC and our regional offices.

My goal today is to talk more about the future than the past. We have a wonderful panel of colleagues who will come up after my remarks and give you a good sense of our forward progress. Those of you on the panel, thank you. To me, the panel feels like a cross between “Kathy Greenlee’s Greatest Hits” and a roast.

We will all have a future. I want to continue to be hopeful and forward looking. And, I don’t want this morning to be overly sad. We will all carry on.

There’s a highly acclaimed book about the Vietnam War called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This concept of what we all carry intrigues me and prompted me to read the book. It’s an amazing piece of literature. The author begins by describing what soldiers physically carried and how their physical possessions revealed who they were as individuals, as well as their particular role in the war. O’Brien then moves on to talk more metaphorically about the other things they carried. The non-physical. Their pasts, their futures, their fears, their hopes and dreams. These other things each of us carry make us ourselves. It is that aspect of the book that is the most compelling to me. The work we do isn’t the same as fighting a war. But, we all carry things, every day.

I’ve been thinking about what I will carry and you will carry as we move forward into a new administration and a future that will unfold every day.

I told Edwin a few weeks ago that if someone were to ask me what I’m most proud of, I would say “I’m most proud of my attitude.” The attitude I carry and you carry is “Let’s Try.” We’ve been willing to try. I am not afraid to fail. I am most afraid of not trying and living to regret my aversion to taking a risk. I want to try.

I remember the speech I gave at n4a in the summer of 2010, just a few months after passage of the Affordable Care Act. I came to the n4a conference with a list of ACA opportunities and as I began to read my list, you started to take notes. It was obvious from the stage. That speech became a training curriculum for the network. N4A liked it so much that if you completed your conference evaluation, they would send you a DVD of my speech for free.

We all decided to try. All of you, all of my staff, our various allies and supporters and me. And it worked. We made progress.

Because of our ATTITUDE, we can demonstrate innovation. Because of our ATTITUDE, we have developed new business opportunities and new business partners. Last year, I spoke to you the day following the White House Conference on Aging. I talked about “Who Will Pay Us for What We Know.” This is not a topic any of us could have anticipated in 2009 when I began this job.  But in response to the opportunities of both the Affordable Care Act and managed long-term services and supports, we have made significant changes in our own models of community-based care. We have stepped up and never backed down.

As I think about our programs and the people we serve, I’m always mindful of the values that run deep within us. I think we carry Dignity as well as anyone I know. The fundamental understanding and acknowledgement of the dignity and worth of every human being is core to our mission, at ACL and at your organization, in your work.

Our ability to carry the value of Dignity has been emboldened by the creation of ACL, by the co-location of programs that serve older adults, people with disabilities and their families. I believe the intrinsic dignity of an older person has been a core value in the field of aging. But I have also witnessed the more succinct focus on this value as the world of aging has crossed the bridge to the world of disability.

“Nothing about us without us.” The clarion call of the disability rights movement. This charge lead to the creation of Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law 26 years ago today. Nothing about us without us makes us stop and realize there are people missing in many of our conversations.

We can’t make good policy about people who are victims of abuse unless we make a concerted effort to include survivors in our work. We cannot develop appropriate support for people living with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia unless we talk to those people—and follow their lead.

There are many examples of how dignity is embedded in our work, as it should be. In our conversations about guardianship reform. In our discussions about services for victims of elder abuse. In our conversations with people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. As we do outreach to diverse communities and families.

In the past year, I traveled to New Mexico and Montana to talk to tribal elders and meet the wonderful program staff who serve them. On both occasions, I was deeply moved by the dignity and stature of older American Indians.

Dignity. We must carry it forward and never lay it down.

The Leaders of our expansive network have brought us this far and will carry us forward. Leadership is with us. Leadership is us. And by leadership I am not talking about managers and bosses. I am talking about people with intellect and heart and vision. We have them at every level of government, in every community and we need them in every organization.

We must recognize, cultivate and reward leadership. Good leaders don’t have all of the answers. I certainly don’t. Good leaders are willing to follow other good leaders. Good leaders take risks, good leaders fail. I do both. Not every idea of mine is a good idea. I often ask my staff, “What do you all think? Is this idea any good?” Some aren’t.

As we carry Leadership into the future, we have some challenges and I would like to call them out. First, we need more leaders who are competent in both the fields of aging and disability. The future of ACL will be brighter if the Assistant Secretary eventually carries one title instead of two. When we create an Assistant Secretary for Community Living that everyone can embrace as their Presidentially appointed leader. That step must come from you and our colleagues in the fields of disability. I believe true authority is granted by others. There is no leadership without consent to be led.

As you look for future leadership, as you consider who might be a good Assistant Secretary for Aging, I implore you to do one thing: You must talk to your disability peers. The future Assistant Secretary for Aging and Administrator will have a greater opportunity for success if the groundwork is laid before an appointment is made

The second challenge is also significant and represents a threat to our future work. The field of aging lacks diversity. Very specifically: we are not doing enough to promote and support inclusion of and leadership by people of color.

A year ago, Edwin and I helped the White House put together a short list of key leaders in the field of aging for a meeting the White House wanted to convene. We listed the rotating chairs of the Leadership Council of Aging organization, the executive directors of the biggest national organizations, etc. As we got to 12 or 15 people—most no racial or ethnic diversity on the list. For that reason alone, it was the wrong list. You and I must pay attention. If you look around a room and everyone looks the same, you aren’t having the right meeting. The racial and ethnic minority population age 65 and over is expected to double from 10 million in 2014 to 21.1 million in 2030. We cannot serve people of color appropriately if all of the people making the decisions and running the programs are, frankly, Caucasian. We will not do justice to the people we serve.

Also, I want to talk directly to some of you in this room. If you:

  • Are less than 30 years old
  • Are a person of color
  • Grew up poor
  • Are a first generation immigrant
  • Are a first generation college grad
  • If English isn’t your first language
  • If you have a disability
  • If you are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender
  • If you feel like you are somehow “other” in any way

If you carry these attributes, am talking to you. We need you to lead. You are not exempt from this conversation. I, personally, do not want you to think you can pass. I want you to know that you can lead.

I have a final item on my list of things we carry: Each other.

This is the last and most important item. We are an amazing group of talented, caring people. We have each other’s backs. We share ideas and inspiration. We give hugs and pep talks. We brainstorm and vent. We laugh together, cuss together and sometimes we cry. We get frustrated. We pick ourselves up and try.

We have attitude, dignity and leadership. We ARE the complete package.

The best part of serving as the Assistant Secretary for Aging and Administrator is that I have had the chance to meet, work with and advocate for thousands of people in this country and abroad.

It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the President of the United States. Regardless of your political outlook, I encourage you to serve. Public service is an important calling and an essential part of our democracy.

The transition in Presidential administrations is the natural order of how things work. My job is designed to be limited in term. In this regard, I accept very much that the time has come for me to move on, move home. And, yes, it makes me sad. More than anything, I am sad to leave my staff at ACL (those of you here and all the rest) and my colleagues at HHS

I am also extremely proud. 

Amazing is my current favorite word.

I have had amazing opportunities 

And done amazing things

We have had amazing success together.

I have given you my very best. And while my job is expiring, I am not. I do believe I will see you again.

As I carry on and carry forward, I will work toward a new goal.

I want to become an amazing former Assistant Secretary for Aging.

Thank you for everything you do.

And thank you for your heartfelt support of me these past seven years.

Last modified on 05/06/2020

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