Wisconsin's Senior Statesmen: How Citizen Advocates Can Effectively Impact the Aging Agenda

By Sykes, James | Aging Today, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview
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Wisconsin's Senior Statesmen: How Citizen Advocates Can Effectively Impact the Aging Agenda


Sykes, James, Aging Today


David Brooks, in a June 25 New York Times editorial, "The Power of the Particular" (www.nyfimes. com/2012/06/26/opinion/brooks-thepower-of-the-particular.html), said he would like to "pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don't try to be everyman. Don't pretend you're a member of every community ... Go deep into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible."

That advice rings true with my experience in Wisconsin 40 years ago. As chair of the newly established Board on Aging and the convener, with Ken Scholen and John Shier, of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups (CWAG), we collaborated to plan a way to influence policies affecting elders in Wisconsin. With Scholen's intelligent leadership and aid from community advocates, we developed Wisconsin's Senior Statesman program. Our mission was to identify citizen advocates who could make the case for programs that would improve the quality of Wisconsin's elders' lives.

Going Back to Community

Armed with facts and focused on three critical issues- property tax relief, senior center support and transportation grantsthe Statesmen returned to their communities to gain the support of influential people, particularly older persons, and the attention of their representatives. The Board on Aging and the fast-growing CWAG found a groove: they developed a reputation for focusing on issues that promised results and made their case with facts presented by informed older adults.

The scheme was simple. Invite about 20 concerned, dedicated elders- one or two from each region of the state- to enlist in the Senior Statesman program. In Madison, the Statesmen connected, developing deep friendships strengthened by a common purpose. The training was intensive and highly interactive, pertaining to the issues and strategies for effective advocacy.

Our Statesmen identified with their communities and communicated with their representatives. They identified with the "geography" of their past. They were distinct and credible. They were bolstered by knowing, firsthand, what community organizer Saul Alinski called "felt need."

They presented their case with evidence that specific programs would be not only effective but also within the capacity of their communities and the State to deliver. After three days of intensive workshops and visits to legislators, they developed the leadership skills to organize others, and to find platforms and venues to make their case. They embodied the principle of grassroots leadership. Elected officials listened because Senior Statesmen spoke with authority and with the authenticity of a constituent.

How to Build the Best Aging Agenda

The action agenda we promoted was based on rigorous research about the need for property tax credits, senior centers, community-based services and state support for transportation services vital to rural Wisconsin. We found answers to the State's overreliance on nursing home placement. Together, over the years, Senior Statesmen became active alumni of a highly effective and locally based aging advocacy program.

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