Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72, PhD’76 | 2020 Recipient of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award

Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW'72, PhD'76

Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72, PhD’76, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. He is the director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also serves as professor of social welfare and public policy at the Luskin School of Public Affairs. An internationally renowned expert on the politics of aging, Torres-Gil’s research also encompasses health and long-term care, disability and entitlement reform. He has served presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, in addition to appointments to various state and city advisory committees, and he is currently advising the Biden campaign. Heller Board of Advisors member Deborah Kaplan Polivy, MSW’72, PhD’78, who nominated Torres-Gil for the award, interviewed him about his multifaceted career, spanning the academic, professional and policy arenas.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy: Good afternoon, Fernando, my friend from so many years ago! Congratulations on being named winner of a Heller Alumni Award!

Fernando Torres-Gil: Thank you! It is an honor and especially because you nominated me.

DKP: What is your fondest memory of your Heller days? And what was the most important lesson you learned?

FTG: There were just so many great, wonderful memories of the teaching, the scholarship, the learning—it was something I could never have imagined. It just upped the standard of what I wanted to do and be. I can just give you two examples: Roland Warren—I really came to appreciate the skill, the competency of conceptualizing, of taking disparate issues, connecting the dots, and creating a conceptual framework. 

The other was Robert Binstock, who became my chair. He taught me the value of logic and the logical flow of one's writing where one idea builds on another idea. That really amplified he creativity and the effectiveness of my writing and I will always be grateful to that. He worked me hard. I had to stay an extra year, but my dissertation was approved without any revisions. We became the closest friends—many years later, his daughter became my student in our MPP program at UCLA—and I thank him for not giving me an easy way out.

DKP: Throughout your career in the politics of aging, would you say there was one big question you were or maybe still are trying to solve? If so, what is it and why does it motivate you? 

FTG: I've always been fascinated by demographic changes. In particular, the aging of our nation, diversity, and what happens when the United States by 2050 becomes majority-minority, along with the doubling of its older population. Those have propelled my research, my advocacy, and my professional work. It all began in Heller in 1971, when Dr. James Schulz invited a number of us to go to the 1971 White House Conference on Aging. That was my first exposure to gerontology, to aging, and advocacy around the myriad issues of an aging society. I combined those interests and studied the politics of aging in the Hispanic community.

That became my dissertation, my first book, and, from that, over the years, it expanded to diversity in aging, then to public policy issues, and then, ultimately, diversity demographic changes and aging. My most recent book is “The Politics of a Majority-Minority Nation: Aging, Diversity, and Immigration.” Over the years, I have integrated immigration reform along with aging and diversity.

DKP: How have you had an impact on aging policy over the last four decades?

FTG: Currently, I'm co-chair of a committee for the National Academies of Medicine, Science, and Engineering on issues of aging, disability, and long-term care. I co-founded the first organization dedicated to Hispanic elderly, the National Hispanic Council on Aging, which led towards my appointment by President Carter on the Federal Council on Aging, the youngest member at the time. I’ve worked for many presidential administrations since then.

In the Clinton administration as the Assistant Secretary on Aging, I proposed that we consolidate programs at the federal level that served older adults that provided home and long-term care, as well as the disability community. It was not successful at the time, but at least brought awareness to the importance of integrating, consolidating these kinds of programs. In the Obama administration, as vice chair of the National Disability Council and working with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Obama folks, we finally succeeded in creating the Administration for Community Living in HHS, which brings in the administration on aging, administration for developmental disability, and a host of other programs. So, at least in terms of programs, efficiency, and integration, I felt very good that I was able to leave that as one legacy.

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Here’s another example. While I was a White House Fellow during the Carter administration, Secretary Joseph Califano put me in charge of immigration and refugee affairs. Then, in August of 1979, while Secretary Califano and his group were in China on a fact-finding mission, we faced the boat crisis of people fleeing Vietnam. The question was, do we rescue them? When the United States accepts refugees or rescues them, the U.S. is responsible for the resettlement, and that comes under the purview of HHS. One day I get a call from the White House, which needed someone to come address this major policy crisis.

An HHS driver took me direct to the White House and its Situation Room. There was the vice president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we went back and forth, laying out the pros and cons, all the things we learned at the Heller School—the things we can't know, the things we do know, and then, of course, the cost benefit. And finally, they went around the room and they asked everybody to vote and I'm sitting in the back trying to hide myself because I'm overwhelmed by just the magnitude of what's occurring.

They get to me and ask, “Who represents HHS?” I meekly raised my hand. “Come to the table. How do you vote?” And without any instructions or authority, I voted “yes.” That settled it, and led towards the growth of Vietnamese in the U.S., especially throughout California. Many years later, I met individuals who were rescued in the late 70’s by the U.S. Navy. I take great pride that I had a direct role, in the right position at the right time, with the decision making and the self-confidence Heller gave me to essentially stick my neck out and act on the best information I had. And so, that's just one of many things that I feel very good about.

DKP: Well, you should! Are you working on anything now in particular and why does it excite you? And how do you see your work contributing to the ongoing pursuit for social justice?

FTG: Now, I'm trying to be more local, addressing two or three critical issues which I believe are going to be important for the future of this country. 

I'm involved on various boards that are both educating, mentoring, and providing leadership training for young Hispanics. They refer to themselves now as “Latinx” and I'm on the board of what we call LA Plaza de la Cultura, which is very famous here in Los Angeles. We're promoting Hispanic/Latino culture, arts, and leadership training. One of my goals is to focus on being a mentor and one of my legacies is to do my small part to influence and create a cadre of Hispanic men and women, Latinx, that will provide leadership in the years to come when Latinos are the nation's largest ethnic group.

The second is my work on homelessness. I'm on the board of Step Up. We now have the most successful concept of supportive housing for the severely ill, mentally ill, and veterans in Los Angeles. We house over 27% of homeless veterans. We've gone throughout Southern California; we're now in the southeast. We've become one of the national models for how you provide housing, mental health services, social services to ensure that persons with mental illnesses on the street are not forgotten or left behind.

DKP: I know you've traveled around the world prior to coronavirus, doing a lot of work abroad. Please describe some of it. 

FTG: As the field of gerontology became more mainstream and as the United States recognized that we're an aging society, we also realized we're not alone; the world is aging. We refer to it as global aging. Increasingly, I’ve been sought after to go to different countries, in particular, Asia and Latin America. Certainly, Japan has been aging for a long time. But now, China, Korea, Taiwan and Latin America, which has always been seen as a young continent, are aging just as rapidly. All those countries are facing the nexus of increased life expectancy and decreasing replacement rates or fertility. That brings in the issues of home- and community-based long-term care, retirement security, health security. 

I have enjoyed tremendously being part of global aging, and working with the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics has allowed me to do two things. The first is to bring our best practices from the United States and share them with other nations. But equally important, is to learn from where this country has failed. We only have to look at the pandemic and the tragic loss of so many older adults in long-term care facilities to know that we have a lot of lessons on how not to do things.

DKP: Do you have any advice for Heller students today?

FTG: The Heller School is the absolute right place for those who want to make a difference, believe in social justice, and who seek the skills, competencies, and capabilities to operationalize those values. And that’s what I really admire about the evolution of the Heller School, as it became the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and as it brought in different programs, including the MPP and the MBA.

The pandemic demonstrates how flawed our nation is, how we have allowed social, economic, racial disparities to become so pronounced, how we have totally disregarded the importance of public health and the need for universal health and long-term care. We do not have fundamental change unless there's been a collective crisis where enough of us have been impacted. That was the case during the Civil War, the Great Depression, and during the Civil Rights era. Now, with the failure of public leadership in the White House, with all the disparities so evident, and then, of course, a pandemic, I believe that we are now on the cusp of a collective crisis, once again putting us in a position to recreate a social contract.

That's where Heller students come in. The public will want and demand that we fix all the fatal flaws this country has demonstrated in recent years and so, I want Heller students to be engaged at all levels of government, certainly at the federal level, state level, local level.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.