WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Since taking over in April as CEO of AARP, the nation's top advocacy group for people over 50, A. Barry Rand has been asked the same question by reporters, as well as others.
They want to know if a quintessential "grey suit" who has been long-known as a corporate America change agent and the prolific leader of a Fortune 500 company can successfully transition into somebody who can lead an advocacy group with nearly 40 million members. It even became a discussion point with AARP's executive board when they met with Rand during their search process.
''Quite frankly, I didn't understand the question when it was first asked,'' Rand marveled during an interview in his office at the AARP national headquarters in northwest Washington, D.C. ''I never thought what professional path you took would determine in your heart what you felt society should be. I am a child of the Sixties. And in the Sixties you had to be about social change.''
Unlike his predecessor, Bill Novelli, who served in non-profit leadership positions, such as president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and as senior executive at the relief organization CARE before becoming AARP's CEO in 2001, Rand hasn't worked in the non-profit sector.
Rather, before making history as the first Black CEO of AARP, the nation's largest membership organization, and before becoming one of the first African-Americans to lead any Fortune 500 company – Avis – this son of the Civil Rights era worked for Xerox for 30 years. There he rose through the corporate ranks and spearheaded Xerox's corporate diversity initiatives.
In fact, Rand's professional career began at 24 as Xerox's only Black sales representative in Washington, D.C., and nationally one of its top salesmen. After rising through the echelons to vice president for worldwide operations, Rand helped Xerox to level the playing field for minorities and women and won numerous awards as he helped it become one of the most diverse companies in the nation. But – to the advantage of AARP – his roots always remained intact.
''When I initially grew up in Washington, D.C., it was a segregated city. So up until the fifth grade my color determined where I lived and where I went to school,'' he says about the upbringing that shaped the principles that guide his life and ultimately led him to this new position. ''We were all about community building. My grandfather was a Methodist minister. My parents were all about two things – achievement and social change. That is what you were supposed to do. And the theory was that you had a better opportunity to drive social change if you were also achieving, because people would listen to you. So I was always involved in issues of that time.''
Those issues included civil rights, rights for the aging, women's rights, and rights for the poor. They are issues that were intrinsic to the diversity programs Rand set up at Xerox and are issues for which he now advocates at AARP.
''It doesn't matter what you called it; we were opening doors to the American dream," reflects Rand, who also serves as volunteer chairman of the Howard University Board of Trustees. "What you were doing professionally was only half of your brain. The other half of your brain is to what do I do to change America, and your heart was 100 percent what do I do to change America.''
The tall, mild-mannered CEO smiles reflectively, sitting in his spacious office above Washington's populous downtown area. He has a direct view to the U.S. Capitol, where AARP fiercely lobbies.
Headquartered in D.C., AARP is powerful not only because of the sheer number of members that it has, but also because – at 51 years old – it represents a demographic that is one of the most active and sought after voting blocs in politics.
If AARP achieves its mission, then it will have helped achieve the American dream for millions of Americans, Rand says.
''We happen to be in a business that if we get put out of business then America would be a better place,'' he smiles. ''Our real challenge is demographics. If you flash forward, 40 percent of the population will be people of color. And so, we have to make sure that we are relevant and supportive. We must continue to make sure that we listen and represent the new demographics.''
This is a precarious moment for Rand, AARP and its agenda. Financial security and health care – two issues that have always been central to AARP's existence – are now priorities for the President of the United States.
''Affordability and access,'' says Rand as he describes what he believes any viable health care bill must have if it is to be passed through Congress. ''Without those you cannot have the American dream.''
With the new health care bill just introduced on Capitol Hill last week, health care reform now dominates the conversation on Capitol Hill. This makes it a captious time for the senior lobbying group; older Americans are facing runaway health care and living costs compounded by evaporated retirement savings. With many unable to retire or get work, 50+ America is being hit especially hard by the recession.
According to AARP, a quarter of the one million Americans that filed for bankruptcy last year were aged 55 and older.
With the economy still plodding along and a new health care bill now on the table, AARP believes that the final result should be some combination of public and private coverage instead of a solely government option.
AARP has a powerful advocacy engine at the state level. It has over nine million volunteers and activists across the country and regional offices in all 50 states.
''We have some opportunity to push forward," Rand says. "As an example, most of the states control most of the long-term health care legislation, as opposed to the federal [government]. We can give more support to the states in their efforts to bring about change. The volunteer work that we have is best at the ground level, in the communities.''
While spurring social change on the outside Rand and his executive team must also address the lack of diversity that exists within its member ranks. AARP's membership is 88.5 percent White while its Black membership is less than 5 percent, according to Edna Kane-Williams, AARP's vice president of African-American member outreach.
Months before hiring Rand, AARP resolved that it must strengthen its recruiting efforts in order to attract more members of color. Kane-Williams is one of two executives who reach out to Black and Latino communities and spearhead initiatives that will increase minority membership.
"[Rand] almost becomes a billboard for our efforts," Kane-Williams said. "He's not the CEO of the African-American community but certainly him being African-American helps us make the point that AARP is an organization that cares about the African-American community and that we are ready to work hand-in-hand to improve the quality of lives of older African-Americans."
Like any change agent, Rand employs all of his life's experiences when pursuing goals – whether on the Hill, at the White House, or at the helm of AARP. From those experiences, he has devised strategies for accomplishing missions.
''If you're smart, the first thing you do when you come in is listen,'' he says as his smile breaks into laughter. ''You don't come in with an agenda. After you listen you start to get a strong indication of the culture and the diversity of opinions."
He laughs reflectively as he recalls the rapid pace by which the President has moved since his January inauguration.
"I will say that that process was a little truncated because when you look at what Obama did in 90 days - you have to do more than listen. So I was both listening and figuring out the issue of challenges.''
Those challenges are mountainous as AARP moves to diversify its ranks. "But I don't see it as an issue," he says. "I'm actually thrilled.''