Encore Innovation Conversations: Engaging Diverse Communities

Engaging multicultural, immigrant communities in the encore movement is critical and traditional Western approaches will fail, according to the winners of the Encore2016 Fast Pitch Judges’ Award, Asha Chandra and Suzanne Shenfil, of Fremont, CA’s, Community Ambassadors for Seniors Program (CAPS).

For this inaugural “Innovation Conversation,” highlighting new encore ideas and best practices, I spoke with the Fremont officials about how CAPS builds a safety net “for older adults, by older adults” in their own languages and within their own cultural norms, essential requirements in a community as diverse as Fremont.

KAREN SUGHRUE: Help us understand a little about what makes Fremont unique.

SUZANNE SHENFIL, Director, Human Services: Fremont is a city of 214,000, the fourth largest city in the San Francisco Bay area, and has undergone amazing changes in the last 20 years, including an influx of new folks from overseas.

In our community, nearly 50 percent are foreign-born and 60 percent speak a language other than English in their home. Our senior population (12 percent of residents) resembles a mini-United Nations – white, Chinese, Indian, Latino, Filipino, Afghan – and many faiths: Muslim, Christian, Sikh and more.

This has created a lot of challenges, especially [for] immigrant seniors who do not understand how to locate benefits and resources. We knew our old top-down model of offering the same thing to everyone wouldn’t work. We needed a fresh idea.

ASHA CHANDRA, CAPS Program Manager: Immigrant seniors don’t think of city government as the first place to come for help. They typically turn to the places they congregate, their temples, churches and community centers. We contacted those institutions and started doing focus groups, 14 of them in nine different languages.

We asked seniors what we could do to work with their respective communities. We learned so much from them, especially that they are not only the recipients of care, but can truly be a strong force as part of the solution!

We built relationships with leaders we identified from multiple organizations. Key to our success was letting the leaders actually design plans that matched the norms of their communities – something that appealed to one group might not work for others, for example.

The leaders went back to their organizations and recruited volunteers, who were trained by local experts. More than 150 volunteers have been trained so far to do outreach at places where seniors meet, in their own languages and with sensitivity to social and cultural norms.

Many of our volunteers are have lived here for decades. Others are new immigrants themselves, who came as refugees. Some have professional backgrounds as doctors, lawyers, even a few former government ministers.

KS: How do you suggest diverse communities can learn about the encore idea, and engage in encore roles and in the larger movement?

AC: First, you need to be aware that encore work or volunteerism is not as prevalent in other countries as it is in the U.S. The idea is sometimes foreign. But these individuals really want to give back, and sometimes they don’t know how.

One of the things we’ve done is connect them to something larger. We’ve created a “contract” that they sign, that says “You’re a volunteer, it’s a one-year commitment, here are the number of hours we expect, the meetings you need to make.” (Be aware that immigrants often go back home for extended periods of time, so ‘vacation’ can be five or six months.)

All this makes them feel what they are doing is important. And they really, really love that they are connected to the city. It adds a lot of credibility and prestige; they feel very proud that they are a city volunteer. We give them badges, business cards, brochures. We give them tablecloths for their outreach events. We give these new immigrant volunteers a sense of connection to the place they now live.

SS: The key is to build relationships up front. With immigrant groups, it’s often very different from the western “Let’s get down to business” model. It may be having tea and asking how many kids you have.

AC: Every time I have a CAPS meeting with volunteers, I build in extra time, because I spend an hour at the end talking to them about families and personal stuff.

One last thing: All people congregate around food, but for immigrant communities, food is big. Both food and recognition are very important.

Watch Asha’s full Fast Pitch video here

Learn more about CAPS here.