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AARP Moves to Increase Black and Latino Membership

Black Press USA.com, News Report , Pharoh Martin Posted: Jul 09, 2009

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - As the American population continues to brown, an increasing number of organizations are making calculated strides in an effort to ensure that the diversity of their membership mirrors the diversity of the nation. One such organization is AARP, the premier advocacy group for older Americans.

The largest of its kind in the country, AARP ironically has a membership base that is 88.5 percent White. Realizing the need for more color in their member ranks the organization has appointed two executives that reach out to Black and Latino communities and spearhead initiatives that will increase Black membership.

''Last year, our executive team recognized that it was going to take an above and beyond effort to realize the growth in membership that we want.
So they restructured and created new positions to be able to accommodate those goals.'' says Edna Kane-Williams, vice president in charge of African-American outreach. Kane-Williams counterpart, Raquel Egusquiza, heads the Latino outreach campaign.

''We've always done diversity but these roles are different in that the two vice presidents for African-American outreach and Hispanic and Latino outreach have a really organizational-wide responsibility. So it's not just membership and it's not just communications, Kane-Williams says.

AARP is apparently serious about diversifying. In April, the organization hired the first African-American CEO in its 50-year existence.

Addison Barry Rand is a staunch supporter of civil rights and diversity in corporate America. In his 30 years at Xerox Corp. he helped the global document management company one of the most diverse companies in the Fortune 500 before leaving as executive vice president for worldwide operations to become president and CEO of Avis and one of the first Blacks to chair a Fortune 500 company.

If you look at his history he's brought awareness, renewed interest and just robustness to the organizations that's he's led previously, Kane-Williams says. So we expect that he will be more than supportive in making sure that we have the resources and capabilities to really deliver on this promise of growing our membership of African- Americans and Hispanics. He sees that as the future of the organization because that is where the demographics of the country is going and we want to look like America.

The corporate veteran now heads one of the most powerful lobbiers of issues concerning the aging but very few of the members look like him. In fact, less than 5 percent of AARP's 40 million card-carrying members are African-American, according to Kane-Williams.

[A. Barry Rand] almost becomes a billboard for our efforts, Kane-Williams said. We are trying to engage him as a spokesperson. He's a CEO that happens to be African-American. He's not the CEO of the African-American community but certainly him being African-American helps us make the point that AARP is an organization that cares about the African-American community and that we are ready to work hand-in-hand to improve the quality of lives of older African-Americans.

In order to increase African-American membership above the 2.5 million it currently has, AARP is focusing on an ''on-the-ground'' approach in 11 key communities, includng Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans. The organization is partnering with community organizations and media and hope the on-the-ground engagement with the African-American community will help build membership.

Kane-Williams said that their research shows that the way to grow African-American members is to get them engaged with the organization. AARP is working with their state offices in those communities to field a community presence.

The advocacy group has two areas of emphasis when reaching out to African-Americans. They are financial security and health and wellness. Kane-Williams said that because of the recession people are losing jobs and homes so they have less income. They are trying to target their programming and informational resources around financial security.

Kane-Williams says the other area of emphasis came about because of the enormous health disparities that exist in the African-American community.

This is kind of complicated but we have excess morbidity and mortality for any number of diseases, she said. We get sicker and die sooner of primarily preventable diseases. There are things like exercise, behavior, food diet, smoking, alcohol abuse and we feel like we can impact and help improve wellness within the African-American community.

A major part of the AARPs escalated outreach to African-Americans is a new partnership with the National Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. The organizations wire service, which serves more than 200-Black-owned newspapers, has hired a full-time journalist, financially sponsored by AARP, who will focus largely on issues of the aging as well as work as a general assignment reporter and national correspondent.

Other on-the-ground and media strategies include a web page dedicated specifically to African-American members and targeted print advertising. AARP is also trying to create unique events and also take advantage of preexisting events. They organized and kicked off cultural events called LiFestivals (pronounced Life Festival) for both African-Americans and Latinos where AARP was the sole sponsor. They held LiFestivals in San Antonio for the Hispanic market in May and in Chicago in early June for African-American market.

In Chicago, we pulled in about 4000 folks and we had Tom Joyner, we had NFL commentator James Brown and Mellody Hobson, who's a financial adviser, and that was our own unique event, Kane-Williams said.

But also, we're going to have a presence at the Essence Music festival in New Orleans over the July 4th weekend and we were at the Sisterhood Showcase, which is a major African-American women event that pulls like 20,000 women each year so we have an event strategy, a media strategy and a community-based strategy- where we are working with community organizations to create more volenteer oppurtunities for African-Americans and more oppurtunities for them to participate in programs.

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