Inside Presbyterian Villages of Michigan’s 30-Year Journey Toward Greater Racial Equity

Many senior living providers say they stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, recognize the need to address systemic racism and are committed to increasing diversity, inclusion and justice within their companies. But having the fortitude to keep pursuing such daunting goals over a period of many years is a serious challenge.

Senior living organizations that have been committed to these goals for years can provide examples of what has worked, share advice and encouragement, and point toward the progress that still has to be made. One such organization is Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM), a nonprofit based in Southfield, about 15 miles northwest of downtown Detroit.

PVM is not a flawless example of how to achieve racial inclusivity and equity, President and CEO Roger Myers is quick to say, but he is happy to discuss how the organization has made strides in areas such as partnering with Black-owned businesses and community organizations, increasing the diversity of its workforce and creating a more inclusive culture.

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PVM has done a good job over the years of “keeping diversity and inclusion at the forefront of our mission and vision,” Interim Director of Human Resources Nicole Banks said — but a hard path lies ahead, not only for PVM but the senior living industry and the nation.

In particular, the Black Lives Matter movement — for all its promise — also stokes painful personal memories of injustice, discrimination and oppression for Black people, Banks said. She and other Black members of PVM’s leadership team and staff are trying to lead while processing that pain themselves, and trying to find ways to support employees.

“It’s more difficult than people can really realize,” she said.

A long road

Today, PVM operates about 30 locations throughout Michigan, offering independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, memory care, and respite services. It is one of the largest senior living providers in the city of Detroit.

The situation was different about 30 years ago. At that time, the nonprofit was called Presbyterian Village of Detroit, but actually had no communities in Detroit. That changed in 1993, with a plan to develop senior living in the city — and, concurrent with that plan, the organization changed its name to Presbyterian Villages of Michigan and embarked on a push to increase diversity and promote racial justice, Myers explained.

The decision was driven in part by necessity. Nearly 80% of Detroit’s population is Black or African-American, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. So, PVM recognized that expanding its presence in the Motor City could only be done if the organization had real credibility with Black workers and consumers.

A crucial decision was to co-develop senior living communities with organizations that have predominantly or entirely Black leaders and members, Myers explained. One example is The Village of Brush Park Manor Paradise Valley, which was co-developed with a combination of three Black fraternal organizations and a community development corporation. Another example is the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, one of the largest Baptist congregations in the country, which partnered on PVM’s first market-rate community in the city of Detroit, Hartford Village.

Simply working with these types of organizations is not sufficient, Myers said. Racial injustice is perpetuated by entrenched power structures, and so partnerships must truly be equitable. PVM has forged 50/50 ventures or taken a minority position in co-development deals.

Some colleagues in senior living have raised their eyebrows at these structures, Myers noted.

“Occasionally somebody will say, ‘That’s great, I’m glad it’s worked out, but if you did get into some difficulty, it could be problematic to work it out,’” he said.

PVM trusts its partners to address conflicts in a spirit of cooperation, Myers said. And, Presbyterian Villages of Michigan was not making concessions from a business perspective, given the benefits of working with its partner groups.

“It definitely enabled PVM to accelerate development, because we were working with groups that had a lot of social capital and political capital that PVM didn’t have,” he said.

Occupancy is higher and staff talent is easier to attract as well, given that prospective residents and workers feel that PVM is a positive contributor to the community and working with respected organizations.

Just as PVM has worked with community groups on its development pipeline, the organization has relied on outside experts — including the Michigan Roundtable on Diversity and Inclusion and the Opening Doors program of Michigan State University — in its efforts to expand workforce diversity.

“I think organizations and executives need to be willing to be uncomfortable as they’re beginning the journey,” Myers advised. “Some of what will be experienced takes people out of their comfort zones and what they know. It forces individuals to deal with hard questions and issues within themselves in terms of prejudices, biases, issues of inequity. But, by addressing that and even confronting it, you’re able to grow and learn.”

The mission to increase diversity got a boost in 2013, when the board of directors created a diversity and inclusion council and adopted a formal statement articulating these goals. Today, the PVM board as well as the governing boards for each individual community are “much more diverse” across a range of categories — race, gender, religion and others — compared with seven years ago, Myers said.

PVM’s executive team includes Black people in a variety of positions, but the leadership was more diverse as recently as last fall, when a few people chose to move on to other opportunities, Myers said. In filling positions, the organization does not have a “prescriptive” process — for instance, one that dictates that a final group of candidates must include a person of color. But PVM actively seeks to promote people from its diverse frontline and community-level workforce; this is a practice that the senior living industry as a whole can greatly improve, in Myers’ estimation.

“I’ve been in this field for over 40 years now, and I think there’s been incremental movement — but far short of where it needs to be,” he said.

Listening and connecting

Nicole Banks first joined PVM about six years ago, as a human resources manager. In January, she became interim director of HR — just in time for Covid-19 and the momentum around Black Lives Matter.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” she told SHN.

Having joined the organization one year after its diversity and inclusion committee was formed, Banks believes that PVM has done a good job of communicating and living its values in this area. There is more to be done, of course, with Banks zeroing in on issues such as improving career advancement for all levels and positions.

“If I’m a dining services assistant, what do I see for myself?” she said. “Do I want to go to school to be a chef, and is there room for me at PVM?”

However, while these sorts of initiatives are valuable and important, listening and connecting with people is of the utmost importance right now, Banks said, speaking candidly about her own experience over the last several weeks.

“It took me a minute to realize that in my role, I need to have a larger voice,” she said. “What I’m saying is, I think my response time in reacting to the racial unrest and [seeing] what PVM can do was somewhat delayed, in that I was processing this for myself. It was very difficult.”

She likens the experience to grieving the death of a loved one while at the same time being expected to uplift others.

In speaking with the human resources team, she emphasized that they need to do more and asked for their pardon for her own delay, explaining her experience as an African-American in processing the often deeply troubling and disturbing news and history surfaced by BLM. In an effort to grasp what actions Presbyterian Villages of Michigan should take, Banks reached out to an officer on the diversity and inclusion committee.

“And lo and behold, she had to process it her way, as well,” Banks said.

So, while Black Lives Matter is creating momentum for change within society at large and particular organizations such as PVM, discussions and initiatives related to policies and systems are contingent on processing what this moment means to individual people — and these are hard topics to discuss.

“What do I say to an African-American employee? Are you okay? I could say that,” Banks said. “If someone came up to me and said, hey, are you okay, I don’t know what my answer would be. When I tell you no, I’m not okay, what do you do with it?”

In other words, listening to Black colleagues means going to uncomfortable and personal terrain, where there are no clear steps to take or words to say to alleviate distress. Rather, listening in this context means understanding the scope and persistence of the problem and its effects on people; perhaps, this type of listening will lead to a more tenacious effort to alter a status quo that has persisted for too long.

“Dealing with the death of a loved one, you can hug [someone], you can console them, you can give them kind words, you can check on them, and you know that with time, it may get a little easier,” Banks said. “Unfortunately, with this, it never got easier. It got pushed back or was covered — so, now, if you look at the past, you can’t say, well, maybe in a couple years it’ll be better.”

In describing PVM’s journey toward greater racial equity, Myers said that he and others in the organization “learned and continue to learn about the importance of listening to each other.”

As Banks makes clear, that process is far from over. But she and Myers are listening and working with PVM leaders on where the organization goes next.

For example, Erica Thrash-Sall, executive director of PVM-affiliated McFarlan Villages in Flint, recently wrote an email to that community’s board, as well as Myers and Banks, expressing her pain and anger but also her determination to lead in this moment.

“As an African-American leader the past month has been extraordinarily difficult,” Thrash-Sall wrote. “The murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have left me with profound feelings ranging from anger to fear for my children.”

After asking herself, “What am I doing with my seat at the table,” Thrash-Sall resolved to be more open with her colleagues about her personal and professional experiences with racism and unconscious bias.

“I also think it is important to create many more seats at the table for people who haven’t traditionally had them,” she wrote. “I believe that we can only begin to dismantle systemic racism if there are more decision makers who are BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color].”

To that end, she has proposed a paid internship program to be funded by the McFarlan Charitable Corporation, through which two high-performing students of color would be housed and work 35 hours a week on a “significant project for McFarlan or seniors in Flint,” and travel to the LeadingAge conference.

Plans are on track to implement the program, and PVM has looped in LeadingAge leadership, in hopes that other providers may follow suit with their own similar initiatives.

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