This article was originally posted on Senior Housing News: https://seniorhousingnews.com/2023/01/06/w-lawson-founder-inclusion-and-belonging-a-matter-of-survival-for-senior-living-operators/https://today.cofc.edu/2020/01/16/alumnus-has-a-retirement-plan/amp/
Across the country, many senior living operators still have not devoted real time and resources to tackling diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations. But the clock is ticking — and operators that don’t act soon might find themselves struggling to stay afloat in the years to come.
Those are the beliefs of Marvell Adams Jr., the former Kendal Corp. COO who last year created W Lawson, a new firm dedicated to tackling racism and boosting inclusivity in senior housing and the wider community. Underscoring his beliefs are rapid demographic changes underway in the U.S., chief among them the rise of the baby boomer generation.
One need only walk through the halls at any industry conference to see that operators are well aware of the demographic changes at hand. But Adams stresses that if inclusivity is not part of their strategies for meeting those changes, it could leave operators “flat-footed” or even threaten their survival altogether in the not-too-distant future.
“The census data is showing us that we’re going to go from currently 50-something million older adults to 81 million older adults in about 18 years,” Adams said during an appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast Transform. “When you look and peel apart those numbers, most of that growth — over half of it — is coming from Black, indigenous and people of color.”
Adams’ viewpoint also is rooted in personal experience. In 2021, at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting, another attendee made a racist comment that left him feeling unsafe.
While Adams is still putting some of the pieces together at W Lawson, his “moonshot” is to create 10,000 new or revitalized housing units and/or memberships for not just older adults, but marginalized people from all walks of life.
Highlights from his podcast appearance are included below, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to Transform on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.
On leaving Kendal Corp. and founding W Lawson
It’s been a chapter in my career almost a couple decades in the making. I’ve served two really respected organizations, one being University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York; and the other being Kendal.
Part of my founding of W Lawson was that I realized, for the work I wanted to do of developing communities of inclusion and belonging, I would need to start from scratch, and that it really was a bottom-up kind of approach. And so that’s what I did.
There are a ton of great things that our providers out there bring to the field for older adults. But I also recognize that within that is a bit of a status quo, and that’s just not what I was reaching for any longer. Part of that change really is, how can I make this next chapter my career truly focused on inclusion and belonging? I realized that the best way for me to do that is to start my own company.
Our mission is to create community and do good, which is simple by its very nature because that’s our aim. The objective is not just to create housing and community, but instead to look at where we are in our demographics as a country for older adults and in the changing fabric of our country. Part of that really comes down to how we create community that is inclusive, meaning across age lines, across socioeconomic lines, across race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. How do we do that in an industry that is mostly serving older, white adults?
The company itself is focused on a couple different areas. One is around how we bring to scale housing supports and services to older adults, that one, improves the equity in that space; and two, brings to the forefront the fact that we have a ballooning population of older adult homelessness as well. So this just isn’t about senior living, and this isn’t just about middle-market or low-end affordable. You’re talking about across the spectrum.
There are challenges to all seniors, because even if you can afford some of the higher-end affluent products, it does not mean that you’re going to bed feeling that, if you fall on the floor, someone’s going to be there in a second to help you. That sense of security is still something I think many older adults are looking for. So from our perspective, that is objective number one. How do we bring to scale housing supports and services for older adults that removes the barriers from a socioeconomic standpoint, as well as from an ageism eradication standpoint? And how do we do that in an intergenerational way?
Part of that is coming from community building and actual bricks and mortar, but the majority of our work is going to be right where people are. And we’re listening to the fact that most individuals are saying over and over again, I don’t want to leave my home. Now, you could challenge that and say, ‘What if we created communities that were more like a community and less like a siloed, behind-closed-gates type of community?.’
From our perspective, we believe that our strongest case is to say to folks, ‘We want to serve, and we want to serve in a way that is led by your ambitions and your wants and your interests.’ And we think that it not only speaks to the boomers, but also speaks to Gen X, which are the adult children that are even more interested in this conversation because one, their parents; and two, because they’re kind of stuck in the middle of caring for older adults as well as their kids.
The other part of the bulk of business for us is consultation. It’s focused on how we can use an organization to help other providers create an inclusion strategy. Not many providers have awakened to the fact that the folks that we usually target, the type of individuals that populate our communities — the demographics in our country are changing so swiftly that our market will start to degrade even more so than it has in the last decade or so. So, another part of our work is really working with organizations, boards and C-suite executives around how to develop an inclusion strategy for your residents and for those that serve them; and I think most importantly, for your governance infrastructure, which is really where the tone has to be set when it comes to the culture of an organization being inclusive.
On W Lawson’s current initiatives
Some of our early partnerships are with a children’s home in Catonsville, Maryland; an actual foster home that was founded by Germans 100 or so years ago. People don’t know that Baltimore is actually a historically German town. So, the children’s home was really looking for a partnership on how to develop intergenerationally, and they have land that is expressly for the purpose of residential living.
Expanding a foster home is not something that happens nowadays anymore. So my business partner connected us with a woman by the name of Jane Rohde. She’s the principal of JSR Associates, and she created a trademarked intergenerational design approach called Live Together.
When Jane and I started talking, I realized this is exactly what we want to do. I mean, this is it to a tee. And this had been a passion project of hers for many years; to bring intergenerational older adult living on to this foster home campus and do it in a way that not only enriches the lives of the older adults there, but enriches the lives of the foster kids that are there through no fault of their own.
In addition to that, we connected several months ago with the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton, New Jersey. As you’ve may have heard me say before, I find Bayard Rustin to be an inspiration as a civil rights leader. And the center that was named in his honor, in New Jersey, they focus on LGBTQ youth and supporting them. So, the other added programmatic synergy that we’re really excited about is around LGBTQ youth who, unfortunately, are at higher risk for homelessness and entering the foster care system than others. And the children’s home in Catonsville, what was really interesting is, we really need help because we don’t know how to appropriately and best support youth that are in our community that are part of the LGBTQ community.
In addition to those partnerships, my alma mater Chapel Hill, I had a former intern reach out, and they’re doing their capstone project for their final year of their master’s program. And they have joined to make W Lawson the centerpiece of that capstone work. So I have this really cool team of five — half of them, if not more, have several years of work experience. They’re not just coming from academia. But that group of individuals also is coming alongside to bring us that intergenerational diversity from an advisory standpoint and from a learning aspect from their own particular interests; as well as bringing to the project an opportunity to build something from scratch in a way that we believe has not been done before.
On racism and other DEI failures in the senior living industry
The number one responsibility, job, task that providers have in front of them right now — particularly leaders in our field — is being open, honest and candid about the current challenges of diversity, equity inclusion within their organizations; and frankly, within themselves.
This is not an imagined thing. We have an industry that has a great deal of its diversity concentrated at direct care staff, hourly staff that we hear over and over again aren’t paid a wage that could even recruit them as well as a fast food restaurant could. And then, we have senior leadership, board governance, who are mostly white and mostly male.
That incident [in 2021 at LeadingAge] was not the first time feeling that type of aggression within a conference setting. It’s unfortunate that that kind of stuff does happen. And it’s not just because I’m a Black guy. Frankly, I’m sure women experience far more not only awkward situations, but ones that can make them feel unsafe. I offer that because I think that our field has a lot of introspective work to do. And I think that’s why it’s so uncomfortable [for leadership to discuss].
What I would offer to those that might be curious more about what took place is that I was purposeful about not calling out or saying who the person was or what identifying characteristics might be. I realized that I perhaps had done so well that no one even knew what gender the person was.
What that left me with was recognizing it was exciting for folks in not the most positive of ways to hear about it, and it was a bit galvanizing. But then it also left folks with a lot of conflicting emotions about what we should do now. I still go back to the same thing, which is that an individual who sees a historically marginalized or excluded person in a fashion where they think they could put their hands on them — well, that’s a deeper issue than just talking about race in the workplace, that’s a deeper issue than talking about diversity, or the fact that your team might be homogeneous.
It’s like saying all politics are local. If you aren’t recognizing for your staff, your board and your residents that there are challenges for you around diversity, equity inclusion, then you really haven’t started the journey yet. What I say for our field when I reflect back on those moments, is that I think the approach that isn’t working is to say ‘Yes, we have events that have diversity at the top in the name, we have inclusion in job descriptions, and we do all these different things.’ But at the end of the day, I can tell you … there aren’t diverse committees doing recruitment, either, out there. I would even go as far as to say there’s not too much diversity amongst the recruitment firms that are out there. There are some exceptions.
So, when I talk about the field itself needing to become a more welcoming and inclusive place, what I’m really referring to is that it’s not just a single person. So that’s why that person, it didn’t matter specifically to them. It really is systemic. And so when you talk about eradicating systemic racism, or ageism or homophobia, all of it is really coming down to an organization deciding, ‘We’re going to start to tackle these uncomfortable topics. And we’re going to come from a place of knowing we don’t know, the best next step, and that’s okay.’
What’s not okay is refusing to figure it out, or pretending that you figured it out or giving window dressing or hiring a single person for a multimillion dollar organization to be in charge of diversity. It’s a great first step. But it’s a step backwards if there’s not an inclusion strategy attached to that. And that’s why I go back to some of the work that we’ve begun in W Lawson, because my perspective is that strategy, for our future in our field, is an inclusion strategy if you’re going to survive.
On the need for senior living organizations to prioritize DEI:
Soon, I don’t think it will be a choice. Or at least it won’t be a choice where you have great options to choose from. I think operators that don’t make space for the work being more inclusive are going to get caught flat-footed sooner than they think.
Even a cursory look at the demographic change in the census data is showing us that we’re going to go from currently 50-something million older adults to 81 million older adults in about 18 years. That is essentially the life of my kids growing up and going off to college. By the time they’re in college, which feels like it’s getting closer and closer every day, we will have 30 million more older adults. And that’s just counting 65 and older. We know that the market really for older adults is younger than that. When you look and peel apart those numbers, most of that growth — over half of it — is coming from Black, indigenous and people of color.
Then we look at individuals identifying as a member of LGBTQ; again, doubling in the number of individuals that are identifying as LGBTQ, even though we know that that’s underreported. So in my opinion, for the providers that are right now saying we don’t have time for this, you didn’t have time for Covid, but you had to deal with it. You didn’t have time for the Medicare rate exchange, but this is something you have to tackle. You are feeling the effects undoubtedly already, because that diversity that has held up and kept our organization going for all these years, is starting to question, ‘Where do I fit in? If I’m a Gen X or Gen Z or millennial, where do I fit into this company culture?’ And they’re starting to see, ‘If I don’t fit in the middle-management, upper-management, senior management or board, then I don’t want to fit in anywhere else.’
Around 2040 is when we really see this kind of peak that happens amongst older adults. We see there’s really only one group whose population starts to decline within that older adult cohort, and it’s older white men. In fact, to give you a sense of just how much the diversity dynamics are changing, in less than 20 years, you will start to see a decline in about a million older white men each year. That exact same number, 1 million, is also the expected increase of individuals that are older adults identifying as two or more races; so, a one-for-one swap in the demographic census data showing projections in less than 20 years. Just look at the data. Look at the fact that, if you are building a community and designing a community right now, the first repositioning you do for that community is going to depend upon way more historically excluded and marginalized individuals than this first opening will.
I would say that the smart money would be on the changes we’re seeing, the minority that we’re seeing, is not going away. And the conversation is changing to a point of, ‘What are we as a field, as an industry, going to do to speak to them; to reach out and provide services that are sensitive to and understanding of; and recognize, ‘Hey, we, as an industry have really fallen down, we have not done our homework for many, many years. And now it’s really coming back to bite us.’
And let’s be honest about the fact that there’s 100 university-based retirement communities in this country, and there are zero affiliated with historically Black colleges and universities. That is one of our primary areas of focus: How do we not only partner with historically Black colleges, universities and other organizations? How do we do that in a way that recognizes the history that goes along with being excluded, while embracing the fact that everyone deserves that access to equitable housing supports and services. And certainly, older adults that have worked hard their entire lives deserve it just as anybody else, regardless of their income.
On the senior living industry’s prospects of reaching the middle-market:
The New York Times put a story out probably a month or so ao talking about the proven benefit of people of different socioeconomic and income levels living together in community. And that’s part of our approach with creating community with W Lawson. Our model really focuses on taking a 55-plus, active adult, independent living, zoning and licensure, and creating a 100% sliding scale where it’s understood and embraced that if you are more affluent, then you pay a little more. If you have little, then you pay an amount that recognizes that your money is not the only thing of value to this community; you’re yourself as a person. What you bring as a lifelong gardener, as a craftsperson, as a builder, as a teacher; you are bringing value that is well beyond the money that you have in your bank account. And so for me, the middle-market, I don’t think it’s elusive at all. I think it’s something that we have not given justice to or thought through.
I think we have thought about how you take a life plan community and make it light and make it work for folks, or how do we take affordable housing and those very, very slim, almost zero margins and then bump that up with maybe some folks that are willing to pay private pay. But it’s missing the fact that there’s a message in there, which is that, for the middle-market to be built right now on a life plan community, they’re going to have a few million cash that they could actually devote to something of social impact. What does it mean to do that; and from my perspective, You have a duty to look and see how you can progressively expand your mission, so that you can serve individuals with lesser means knowing that the richness of your community is only made richer by diversity and inclusion as opposed to thinking ‘Let’s be more of what we are.’
On W Lawson’s goal of creating six communities of diverse intergenerational individuals seeking inclusion and belonging by 2025
That’s the downpayment on our moonshot. Our moonshot is 10,000 new or revitalized housing units and/or memberships, meaning if someone stays home, that housing is just there. That first downpayment between now and 2025 of having six intentional communities, is our expressed intent of showing that we can do this to scale.
Now we have to marry that with the fact that we have a great project that’s in pre-development in Catonsville, Maryland. But as our conversations with funders are beginning, right now, it’s really about showing that we have a model that can be brought to scale in short order in most markets. We’re not talking about just a targeted market of a certain slice of an individual, we’re talking about as many slices of individuals across the older adult spectrum and keeping it as intergenerational as we possibly can.
That really is our way of being very serious about putting ourselves on the line to say to funders, ‘This is the level of funding we’re talking about. We’re not talking about a $40 million project, we’re not talking about a $300 million project, we’re talking about billion-dollar level of investments, because that’s what we’re going to need.’
We have to have these communities come out of the ground, because not to mention, we have a growing older adult homeless problem as well. And so even if you start to peel back the onion and say how do we do this from a payer source? My perspective is, pay me now, pay me later. Because the crisis is here, the crisis of housing supports and services is upon us. And it’s only going to get worse unless we can get ahead of it. In my opinion, W Lawson is putting its money where its mouth is — or should I say, we are looking for funders to put their money where our mouth is.
We hear over and over again out there right now that ‘There’s money for ESG if you really focus on environmental sustainability. If you are a Black-owned business, a woman-owned business, there is money for you out here.’ I won’t go full Jerry Maguire, but show us where that is. Because right now, I believe to be the only Black-owned community development housing provider in the country. We look at this and say, ‘I think this is what you’re asking for. So, let’s put money on the barrel and let’s go.’ And this is not a charity case, because we can show through our performer that this does pencil out by saying to folks ‘Let’s have 100% sliding-scale and have this community be amenities for all and the wider community and not just shut ourselves behind doors.’
The future for W Lawson in 2023 and beyond, really, is — I’ve heard folks say it’s disrupting. I’m just going where the market says people want us to be, which is to meet them where they are. And our intent is to really make the case statement amongst the investors out there that this is how we are able to come to scale. And this is how we do it in a way that shows the social impact of those dollars that everybody everybody set aside — now, it’s time.