A New Voice at SAGE

A New Voice at SAGE

Lambda’s Michael Adams assumes reins at leading elder advocacy group

While an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, he played a critical role in an unprecedented updating of New Jersey public policy that made that state the first to allow joint adoption by gay and lesbian couples.

For the past five years, as part of the senior management team at Lambda Legal, he directed the education and public affairs efforts of the largest LGBT legal advocacy group at a time when the nation’s attention to gay civil rights—specifically marriage equality—has never been keener.

Now Michael P. Adams, 44, takes on his biggest professional challenge—steering SAGE, the nation’s leading provider of social services and political advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors, at what he said is a critical time for the community’s elders.

“I think the aging issue is sort of where the LGBT youth issue was 10 or 15 years ago,” Adams said in a May 18 interview with Gay City News, explaining that with the oldest baby boomers hitting 60 this year, the gay community might finally be ready to seriously embrace and address the needs and aspirations of those approaching retirement.

“We’re the first generation with significant numbers of out people and we are getting older,” he said of those born in the two decades after World War II, who came of age just before or in the decade or so after the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. “The need is tremendous.”

Earlier this month, Adams assumed the executive director position at SAGE, an organization that for many of its 28-year history was known as Senior Action in a Gay Environment, but several years ago updated its official name to Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. Adams takes over from Terry Kaelber, who helmed the organization for the past nine years.

Despite the fact that SAGE is quite nearly a household word in New York’s gay community, the organization is relatively small, focuses most of its work here in the city, and performs a broad array of services with a relatively lean staff. The annual budget is roughly $2.3 million, which supports a paid staff of 25, housed in two offices around the corner from each other near 27th Street and Seventh Avenue, in space at the LGBT Community Center, and in shared quarters in Harlem.

Although there are a sprinkling of affiliates across the nation—most prominently in Queens—those have only a loose relationship to the organization Adams now runs.

Historically, SAGE’s activities have fallen into three major areas—direct social services, most provided through professionally-run case management; volunteer activities that include social events, outreach to homebound seniors, and efforts managed by staff to empower clients to act as advocates within their home communities; and advocacy efforts aimed at the city, state, and federal governments and at the private sector, including senior housing facilities and developers and nursing homes.

Roughly 400 SAGE clients receive direct case management. The most typical scenario is the assignment of a staff social worker to assist a senior in accessing all the government services—Social Security, Medicare, disability, welfare, housing assistance, and the like—for which they are eligible. SAGE aims to serve these clients by providing one-stop shopping—if not in actually accessing the benefits, at least in learning precisely what they are due and how to go get it.

Psychotherapists are also available to provide counseling, both individual and group, to seniors facing an array of developmental and emotional issues—from losing a loved one, to adjusting to their advancing age, to coming out late in life. According to Adams, it is not unusual for SAGE to assist a person in their 60s, 70s, or even 80s first coming to grips publicly with their gay, lesbian, or transgender identification.

Additionally, on a limited basis SAGE provides cash stipends to indigent seniors and it also organizes a free legal clinic at the LGBT Community Center staffed by volunteer attorneys.

Volunteerism plays a dual role in the organization—providing clients and members with services, but also affording them an opportunity to engage more deeply in the community. Some of the organization’s events—dances, theater outings, and trips among them—are completely volunteer-driven, and draw from the roughly 350 people who give their time to serve a membership that Adams estimated includes 3,500 households across the metropolitan area.

Fifty volunteers participate in a special outreach effort to provide support, deliveries, and companionship to homebound LGBT seniors. Of all the volunteer efforts, Adams said, this is the one that draws on the most diverse range of ages, providing seniors who are alone much of the time with contact from others both young and old.

One relatively new program that spans the categories of volunteerism and advocacy is SAGE’s push in Harlem. There, two dedicated staff members operate a program aimed at training and developing community advocates from among seniors living in the neighborhood. The program takes place in a facility that SAGE shares with other organizations and has access to on two days each week.

“There are the really powerful activists,” Adams said, referring to self-starters ready and able to initiate community change on their own. “But most people need some kind of structure in a community or group to do that.”

SAGE’s program in Harlem aims to provide that stimulus and space.

Advocacy is the area where Adams sees the strongest opportunity for near-term building. Currently, he said, SAGE is the primary, often solitary, voice advancing issues of concern to LGBT elders nationwide. In many cities—even one as sprawling as Chicago—there are essentially no advocates working specifically on gay senior issues. In San Francisco, Adams said, there are two small organizations, both volunteer-run, that engage the senior community.

As a result of this paucity of resources, the burden of leadership falls on SAGE. Last fall, Kaelber, accepting a surprise invitation from the Bush administration, attended the fifth White House Council on Aging Conference, though he and other progressive groups came away disenchanted with the unwillingness of those leading the event to open it up to pressing questions of economic and social equity. Still, Adams is happy to see SAGE playing at that level, despite the frustrations that likely will persist through the rest of the current administration.

He was quick to acknowledge, however, that his group’s efforts can’t take place in a vacuum. Instead, SAGE must leverage off the lobbying know-how of larger LGBT, social justice, and elder concerns groups.

“That work is not going to be done by SAGE alone,” he said. “The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is interested in aging and was involved in the White House conference. It’s going to take an organization that has a D.C. presence and a capacity to work in Washington that SAGE does not. We will have to partner with groups like the Task Force.”

Advocacy closer to home has proven smoother for the organization.

“I think at the state and local level we’re quite close to the table. We’re at the table,” Adams said, noting that 40 percent of the SAGE budget comes through state and city social service contracts.

That’s not to say that two public dollars out of every five, with the other three coming from foundations and private giving, represents the optimal way to finance the organization. As SAGE prepares a new strategic plan that looks to the next four years, Adams said, “Certainly one of the questions is going to be funding and funding sources. We are just scratching the surface. I worry about the capriciousness of government money… Foundation funding tends to be somewhat predictable… [but] I want to focus on increasing the individual giving because that is the least arbitrary source of funding.”

Along with securing the stability—and growth—of SAGE’s future funding, Adams is concerned with amplifying its advocacy voice. One way is through providing technical assistance to other local, grassroots efforts nationwide looking to champion the same issues.

“If you look at the need still in New York City and beyond and you look at the kind of track record and expertise that SAGE has, a real logical evolution of the organization is to first strengthen the foundation of the work it does here, but then use that expertise to help replicate similar programs around the country and to build that advocacy voice,” he explained. “Over time I see SAGE growing, hopefully from right now having a primary platform of service delivery and some advocacy work to ultimately what I would see as a three-platform organization of service delivery and support for replication of those services in other parts of the country and to strengthen advocacy.”

Another key component of enhancing the reach of its advocacy, Adams said, will come from the recognition that the public sector is but one part of the universe impacting the lives of seniors.

“There is a lot of action that’s going on in the private sector that’s not public policy per se but it may be that SAGE can have more impact there, especially at the moment, than in the government arena,” he said, emphasizing particularly current difficulties in Republican Washington. Adams specifically mentioned the emergence of privately developed retirement communities serving the LGBT and LGBT-friendly population.

“I want to make sure that we don’t only think about federal government policy,” he said.

Housing opportunities—and the attendant services to allow people to live comfortably where they wish—pose a particular challenge for the elder LGBT community. According to SAGE, 67 percent of gay seniors live alone, twice the percentage of their straight peers. Currently, 90 percent of them have no children (a statistic likely to decline significantly in the future), while that is only true of 20 percent of heterosexuals. And 80 percent of today’s LGBT seniors have no partner, 2.5 times the rate among straight elders.

Advocacy—and creative solutions—across the full range of housing options, from planned communities to the so-called NORCs, or naturally occurring retirement communities, often found in dense urban and suburban settings, are clearly special challenges facing the LGBT community.

SAGE spends time thinking about how to influence and shape the mix, availability, and quality of those housing options. Clearly, developers building ambitious new retirement communities are folks the organization should be talking to. But the more prosaic demands of reaching out to private sector institutions that shape the lives of gay seniors are issues SAGE is already working on. The group does trainings with hospitals and nursing homes—places where gay seniors currently often feel the need to re-closet themselves and where they may well be required to live separately from their partner—to enhance staff sensitivity and bring about changes in policy. SAGE also works with trade associations that serve the elder care industry.

That sort of on-the-ground advocacy has an inevitable ripple effect. Once one institution receives such input and alters its operating procedures, the demand by competing and complementary facilities grows.

Adams hopes that the changes his group is pushing someday become standard parts of facility and professional staff accreditation programs, but is cognizant of the fact that progress will only result from “build[ing] the willingness of institutions to open up their eyes and see that this population has needs.”

Building organizational capacity at SAGE, securing its finances, replicating its example across the nation, and establishing the infrastructure for advocating change in the public and private sectors—these are challenging executive demands on an attorney who for 16 years after earning his law degree from Stanford (with government and Latin American studies degrees from there and from Harvard) focused his career on gay civil rights litigation.

Why the change now?

At this point in the interview, Adams talked about several different impulses in his life.

“It’s bringing me back to a part of me I haven’t been as connected to for a long time,” he explained, talking about two job stints during college, when he worked at a Massachusetts school for developmentally disabled adults and one that served blind students. His recognition of the importance to him of that sort of service work was reawakened in the past several years when he shared in the challenges faced by his elderly grandmother who recently died and similar circumstances faced by his partner’s aunt and uncle.

“I developed a very personal interest,” Adams explained, adding a little later, “Maybe it’s my background as a Catholic.”

He also talked about the arc of his work life: “I feel that I am at a point in my career that I want to take responsibility for an organization as the executive director. I’ve been thinking about that for a couple of years.”

As a professional, as a person interested in social justice, and as a trained advocate, for Adams, SAGE fit the bill.

“I could not be satisfied in a purely service delivery organization,” he said. “This is a service organization that has developed really creative models of service delivery, that is part of a community that I love, and is tied to great models for other communities and to advocacy.”

Adams lives in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, with his partner of eight years, Fred Davies, a Presbyterian minister by training who heads up Public/Private Venture, a non-profit group that works to improve social policies and community resources for youth and young adults, and formerly worked for Mayor David Dinkins and as deputy Manhattan borough president for Ruth Messinger.