An activist inside government

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Stuart Rosenthal

Laura Newland, executive director of the D.C. Office on Aging, poses with pickleball players at a Senior Games event. An attorney with a background in nonprofit advocacy, Newland directs an agency with responsibilities not only for residents 50+ but also for those with disabilities over the age of 18.
Photo by Selma Dillard, D.C. Office on Aging

Before Laura Newland became executive director of the D.C. Office on Aging (DCOA) two years ago, the Georgetown University law graduate had worked in public interest law and nonprofit advocacy, representing victims of domestic violence, consumer fraud and other issues.

A project she spearheaded at AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly led to the creation of a new D.C. Ombudsman in 2014, and to legislation reforming the District’s policy regarding foreclosure on homes of residents owing taxes.

After years of advocacy in several nonprofit settings, what led Newland to switch sides, as it were, and become director of a D.C. government agency?

“In the advocacy community where I worked for years, when you’re on that side, you tend to think of [government] as ‘us vs. them.’ You think, ‘If you guys wanted to do the right thing, you’d be doing it already.’”

But Newland had a mentor who helped her see that many government employees are really invested in making things better. “My experience has been that the government is filled with people who are advocates,” Newland discovered.

In fact, she’s recruited some of her former coworkers to the D.C. government by inviting them to “come advocate for people and make the change happen within government.”

Having a conversation

Newland incorporates that advocacy mindset in directing her staff. She tells them: “District residents drive our programs and services....We’re not telling them what they need. We work to meet the needs they express.” 

In an attempt to better understand those needs, Newland and her staff have conducted town halls at the DCOA’s Senior Wellness Centers, health-oriented activity centers serving older residents of Wards 1 and 4-8. Since all the programming there is for seniors, it’s Newland’s view that the users should dictate the focus and choose the priorities.

At the same time, she admits that “it was kind of scary at first, having to go out and talk to people” and ask for their comments and criticisms.

As might be expected, a few outspoken individuals tend to dominate the conversation at town halls, so she also conducted a variety of smaller community listening sessions and “walk-throughs” where individuals could come up and talk with her one-on-one.

She describes the feedback they got as “eye-opening,” but declines to specify where it will all lead. She calls it “just the beginning of the conversation.”

Making some changes

At the same time, concrete changes are being made to address some of the more common complaints.

For example, LGBTQ seniors let the agency know it needed to do better. Rather than smarting from the criticism, Newland said her staff looked at it as a challenge.

They instituted sensitivity training for staff, and brought LGBTQ entertainment into all their centers. Also, they held workshops where people could have an open conversation about sexuality in a safe environment.

Another topic about which Newland heard many complaints was the food served at lunch.

At one center, she brought the meal provider in for a town hall just about the menus. They took votes on a variety of issues: what menus to keep and which to ditch, how to make the cooked vegetables better (change the seasoning!), and whether to allow seconds for those desiring.

Even more significant, the DCOA decided to rebid their catering contract for the centers. They invited representatives from all eight wards to participate on a tasting panel and score a number of potential vendors. (The winner has not yet been announced. Stay tuned.)

Haves and have-nots

Meals are actually an important element of the DCOA mission. Nutrition is one of its three core services.

Thousands of meals are home-delivered every week, there are 50 weekday community lunch sites throughout the District, and for very low-income residents, a free box of groceries is provided each month.

While the daily lunches are open to all without charge (though donations are accepted and invested back in the program), some other DCOA programs do have income restrictions, Newland noted.

What she calls “the Mayor’s signature program for seniors” is one of them. The Safe at Home program provides up to $10,000 per residence to modify the homes of older adults (and those age 18 to 59 with disabilities) to reduce risk of falls and improve accessibility.

For example, people who qualify can get entrance ramps built, grab bars and shower seats installed in bathrooms, bathtub cuts, stair lifts, handrails and more.

“In terms of scale, financial commitment, and number served, this is unlike any program in the U.S.,” Newland said. She’s particularly proud that DCOA just won an innovation award from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging for the program.

Some services are limited to, or prioritized to, low-income individuals or those residing in certain wards considered underserved, such as 7 and 8. These include some supplemental food programs, some transportation options, and some services intended for those with Alzheimer’s.

Sometimes the limitations are imposed under the terms of federal programs such as Medicaid, or federal or local grants underwriting the programs.

When Newland has to tell a resident they don’t qualify for a program, she tries to explain the budget situation and asks for their understanding.

“If you have the resources, we’re going to ask you to use those resources...This is about community, About taking care of each other. I think people understand when there are programs they’re not eligible for.”

But there are many programs open to all, she reiterates: gyms, exercise classes, computer rooms, and the like. Even Adult Day Care centers charge no fee (though they encourage donations).

What seniors think

The interview for this story took place on a weekday morning at the DCOA office, located on the top floor of the Hayes Senior Wellness Center at 500 K St., NE. Downstairs are, among other things, the well-equipped gym, an exercise room and a computer room.

D.C. residents filled several of those rooms that morning. In the gym, Martha Byers said she tries to come three days a week to work out and attend her favorite exercise class.

“I was overjoyed to find out about this building and the services offered here,” Byers said. “I had been sick, and exercise really helps me, so I’m really happy this is here.” She bikes from her home to the center.

In the computer room, Maxine Davis said she’s been coming to the center for two years. She said if she didn’t have this place, which is about a mile from her home, “I’d be home sleeping, doing nothing.

“This is a place where I can exercise, eat, use the computer, socialize, take classes on nutrition, sign language, cooking. These are all things I participate in,” Davis said.

She also likes the Club Memory, “where you can learn some tricks to employ when you notice weakness in that area. It has helped me.”

Any complaints? Davis doesn’t like the fact that the soda machine is in the computer room. Why? She points to the sign that says “No eating or drinking in the computer room.”

“To me, that’s a contradiction,” she said. “I asked that they move the machine. Instead, they made a larger sign!”

Facing criticism

Some D.C. residents have harsher words about D.C. Government services, or what they perceive as the lack thereof.

A group of seniors in wards 2 and 3 feel their neighborhoods are overlooked when it comes to providing services.

Their chief beef is not solely with DCOA, but also with the Department of Recreation — in particular, with the lack of a wellness center, senior lounge, computer room or sufficient senior programming in their neighborhoods, and particularly at the Chevy Chase Community Center.

Jay Thal, a community activist who recently testified before the D.C. Council on the issue, feels it’s the general wealth of the community “west of Rock Creek Park” that leads the government to spend few resources there.

“Just because of where we live, we’re assumed to be rich. But many of us are living off Social Security and meager savings, and we also need the services seniors elsewhere in the city are getting,” Thal said.

So how does Newland, the former activist, feel when she finds herself on a less familiar side of the “us vs. them” attitude?

“I come from a litigation background. I’m a very vocal person, a strong advocate and always have been. I think it’s great when people talk about their experiences, use public forums, attend our town halls,” Newland said.

“I tell them ‘I want to make sure we’re addressing your concerns. There might be some very specific things we can do to make you feel more valued.’ Ultimately, that’s my job.”

Seeking Ambassadors

Then there are the members of the community who come to DCOA not asking for anything, but offering their services. They want to give back to the community.

And Newland is ready with a program for them, too. The Ambassador program trains volunteers both about the many services and programs the department offers, and how to relate to seniors in the community. Then they go out and spread the word deep into communities.

Ambassadors “help connect us to those we wouldn’t otherwise reach,” Newland said. “Our job at DCOA is to build and support a framework for community. But we are not the community.”

“It’s a matter of trust, in part. Neighbors know their neighbors. We need community involvement to start a relationship and reach others.”

Ambassadors also learn about emergency preparedness and help make sure people are looking out for their neighbors, and know what to do in an emergency.

Newland said she often hears, “I didn’t know you guys offered this! How do I sign up?” There is room here for improvement, she admits, and Ambassadors are only part of the solution.

What she likes to tell seniors is, “call us so we can have a conversation.” There may be programs they are eligible for, and programs they aren’t. There may be programs offered by other D.C. agencies that DCOA can refer them to.

She tells her staff not to focus on what they expect to hear, but to “be open to the surprise. You may find a big unexpected need. We have to be willing to see, accept and meet that need” if we can, Newland said. “If we think we know what we’re going to see, we might be blind to what’s really happening.”