02/06/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

A Force to Be Reckoned With

"There's a lot of legislation that blocks progress. I didn't know what to do about it." --Deborah Taylor, 62, a fellow of the Aging Justice Project.

Deborah describes herself as, "a disabled mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother." She has survived heart failure, a kidney transplant and a stroke. Although she suffers from arthritis, a certain calling propels her to action each day. "If I can get up and move, then I can make a difference," Deborah says.

Deborah is a community organizer. While her long-time passion has been fair housing, Deborah realized that her neighbors and friends were facing the physical challenges of aging as well as restrictions within the Medicaid system. Tired of hearing about these issues, Deborah decided to take action. "I thought I should advocate on behalf of my community and other seniors like me. I wanted to interact with legislators, work with the people writing laws and be the voice of seniors," Deborah said.

Deborah is a fellow in the Aging Justice Project. Now in its second year, the Project aims to equip older women, their allies, and their organizations with the capacity to advocate successfully for policies that allow older women to age in place with dignity, economic security, and access to affordable health care. The Project accepts 20 fellows who participate in nine training retreats. The fellows also work on hands-on-policy projects throughout the fall and winter.

The project was replicated from the Women's Policy Institute in California at the Women's Foundation of California and created by the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and the Midwest Academy. The innovative multi-generational approach strengthens women from different generations to unite and organize for seniors.

In 2012, nearly half (48.0 percent, roughly 19.9 million) of the elderly population (adults 65+) in the United States were considered to be "economically vulnerable." The recent release of Report on Illinois Poverty from the Social IMPACT Research Center highlights the continued vulnerability of seniors -- senior women and senior women of color. The report indicates that 10.6 percent of senior women are in poverty in IL compared to 6.5 percent of men.

A deep connection is why Nora Gaines, 37, a policy associate signed up for the Aging Justice Project. Nora was looking for an opportunity to grow professionally and connect with other women of color who value social justice issues. "I liked the idea of the program because I identify with what the Project is fighting for. And, I wanted to look at policy from a different angle," said Nora.

Nora co-leads the group of Aging Justice Fellows who are advocating for the Illinois Family Care Provider Act to expand benefits of the Family Medical Leave Act. Expansions would include job protected leave for grandparents raising grandchildren and grandchildren caring for grandparents. This issue hits home for Nora. "After landing my first job out of college, I learned my grandmom was suffering from dementia. I took a leave of absence to care for her, but eventually lost that job," she says. At that time, FMLA did not cover caring for an ailing grandparent.

Both Nora and Deborah recently traveled to Springfield for two days to tour the capitol, understand the legislative calendar, meet legislators and aides and observe a session. Next, the women will begin working directly with legislators to advocate for their bills.

"We are hoping that this program becomes an advocacy force to be reckoned with here in Illinois," said Kate Barthelme a trainer at the Midwest Academy. "This program challenges both younger and older women to think outside the box while encouraging each other to be civically engaged."

It may take years for Nora, Deborah, and the Aging Justice Project to reach their policy goals, but it is more than a worthwhile investment. When they make it, they not only succeed in improving their own lives, but they fortify the foundation upon which our entire community stands.