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    Shireen McSpadden: Openhouse Adelman/ Gurevitch Founders Award 2022

    By Dr. Marcy Adelman–

    After a 2-year delay due to COVID, the Openhouse annual Spring Fling event is back and in-person and with it the presentation of the Openhouse Adelman/Gurevitch Founders Award. I initiated the award in 2008 to celebrate the city’s final approval to renovate and develop 55 Laguna, Openhouse’s hub of affordable housing and services, and to gratefully acknowledge those individuals who had made a significant contribution to Openhouse’s mission and LGBTQ older adults. Former Mayor Art Agnos, who had been a key advisor to Openhouse from its inception, was the inaugural awardee. The last awardee in 2019 was Kate Kendell, former Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, for her work in advancing the rights of LGBTQ seniors and her generous support of Openhouse.

    This year it is my honor and a privilege to present the Founders award to Shireen McSpadden, current Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and former Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging (DAS). Shireen’s dedication to making life better for older adults and people with disabilities and her commitment to equity have been central to her more than 30 years of service.

    Shireen is a woman of color and member of the LGBTQ community. She grew up in San Francisco in a family where religion mattered. She is the daughter of a Methodist minister. As a woman of color, she had many opportunities to experience and observe inequities. But her parents and her faith taught her to stand up to injustice. Shireen brings her full self to the work that she does and that brings insight other people don’t have. 

    During Shireen’s tenure as Executive Director, from 2016 through the current budget year, LGBTQ program funding increased exponentially, by 3 million dollars or 162 percent. Many people helped to make this significant step up in funding possible, but it never would have happened without Shireen’s leadership. Because of this increase in resources, Openhouse and other LGBTQ senior serving nonprofits have been able to reach hundreds and hundreds more people in our community.  

    As an advocate for more and better programs for LGBT older adults, I know the ongoing challenge of securing funding. There are never enough resources to provide all the programs and services our community needs. To be clear, it is a challenge to get most funding sources to include LGBTQ seniors at all. That makes Shireen’s achievement all the more remarkable.

    I first had the opportunity to work with Shireen when I served on the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force. Shireen’s door was always open to anyone who wanted to talk.  She is a thoughtful listener and quiet observer who takes in a lot of things before she speaks. She remembers everyone’s name, is quick to acknowledge people’s contribution, and believes in giving people the space to do what they do best. 

    The Task Force was one of the most successful city task forces with the implementation of 8 out of the task force’s 11 recommendations. One of the key factors in the task force’s success was its partnership with DAS and Shireen’s smart leadership. She deftly coordinated the relationship between the task force and the department by providing the task force with DAS staff who helped to keep us on track and significantly enhanced our operational capabilities. 

    Shireen also took the lead in supporting robust research both by the Task Force and in general by the department. During Shireen’s tenure as DAS Executive Director, the department has had the best record by far of collecting sexual orientation and gender identity data than any other city department. Shireen understands that data matters. It is essential to designing and funding effective programs.  

    A hallmark of Shireen’s tenure as DAS Executive Director was her practice of bringing consumers, community advocates, and nonprofit community organizations into the conversation. Two examples of this kind of partnership are the Reframing Aging Campaign and the San Francisco Interfaith Council Online Briefing for Faith Leadership.

    The Reframing Aging Campaign is a collaborative effort to increase awareness of ageism, disrupt negative stereotypes of aging, and connect San Franciscans to senior resources and supports. You have probably seen the campaign’s advertising at bus stops and on signs around the city. In 2020, Shireen was recognized for this anti-aging campaign by Time magazine and was named as one of 16 people and groups fighting for a more equitable America. As is always her practice, LGBTQ and BIPOC older adults are well represented in all aspects of this campaign.

    Another innovative partnership/collaboration is with the faith-based community. In 2016, Shireen had DAS reach out to the city’s faith-based organizations. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she knew that clergy are often the first individuals whom many people will reach out to about the challenges of taking care of a family member or to whom an older congregate will speak with about a health problem or concern. Shireen understood faith leaders could be of greater assistance to their congregation if they were more informed about the city’s affordable social, wellness, and nutritional programs and how to access them, and that the city, in turn, would be a more informed and better provider of services to address the issues and needs the clergy was seeing in their congregations.  

    In an exchange of emails with me for the San Francisco Bay Times, Shireen wrote: “I feel fortunate for the opportunities I’ve had to learn from others, whether it’s the child welfare work I did in Baltimore, the direct service work I did with older adults in the Bayview, and the work I continue to do with LGBTQ+ and BIPOC led community organizations. Without centering the experiences of the people we’re serving, we’re not effective leaders, and ultimately, we are not successful.”

    Our community and our city have been truly blessed by Shireen ‘s work on behalf of San Francisco’s older adults and adults with disabilities.

    Dr. Marcy Adelman, a psychologist and LGBTQ+ longevity advocate and policy adviser, oversees the Aging in Community column. She serves on the California Commission on Aging, the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California, the California Master Plan on Aging Equity Advisory Committee, and the San Francisco Dignity Fund Oversight and Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Founder of Openhouse, the only San Francisco nonprofit exclusively focused on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ older adults.

    Published on May 19, 2022