Leading AARP, With No Plans to Retire

Jo Ann Jenkins / Guerin Blask for The New York Times

By  – After decades of government service, Jo Ann Jenkins could have stopped working and enjoyed her pension. Instead, she set about bringing AARP into the modern age.

Jo Ann Jenkins could have called it quits. She had worked in various posts in the federal government long enough to qualify for retirement, and she would have enjoyed a comfortable life unencumbered by a day job.

Instead, like so many of her contemporaries, she kept working. After working at the Library of Congress and the Departments of Agriculture and Transportation, Ms. Jenkins joined AARP in a senior role in 2010, and took over the organization in 2014.

Ms. Jenkins, 61, made the choice to keep working. But she knows that for many aging Americans, retirement is not an option. Since becoming chief executive of AARP — which dropped the word “retired” from its title more than two decades ago — she has refocused the group’s work to serve low-income and vulnerable populations. In many ways, it was a return to AARP’s roots; it was founded in the middle of the 20th century after a school principal discovered a retired teacher living in a chicken coop.

In recent years, Ms. Jenkins has worked to combat ageist marketing, educate seniors about fraud and reduce the number of older adults going hungry.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Alabama in a little place called Mon Louis Island, about 16 miles southwest of Mobile. Today it’s connected by bridges to other islands. But when my mom grew up there, they used to have to take a boat to the other side. Everyone on this little island was my relative. My great-great-grandfather owned the property, and then he left pieces of the land to his descendants.

I had two brothers and one sister who were eight, nine and 10 years older than me. My brothers and sisters went to the black Catholic schools in the city, because during that time it was segregated. But when I came up eight years later, I went to the schools closest to our home, which happened to be the historically white public schools there, and I actually was the president of the student council.

How did you find your way to Washington after college?

I went to Washington in my junior year of college and interned for the Republican National Committee. I was one of the first African-American interns they had had. I worked that summer there in the voter outreach section, getting people registered to vote, came back home, graduated on a Sunday and started working Monday morning at Alabama Power. But I only worked there about a month or two, got my first or second paycheck, then went back to Washington to visit friends, and they offered me a job working on the Reagan campaign. I’ve been there ever since.

How has Washington changed during that time?

The big difference is the communication across party lines. I can remember the days when Tip O’Neill was the speaker of the House and he would have those public spats with Reagan, and then they would play cards together or have a drink and settle it. Back then, you had Democrats and Republicans rooming together in apartment buildings. You just don’t see that level of friendship or communications that you did some 30 or 40 years ago.

What were some of the highlights from your 15 years at the Library of Congress?

After 9/11, the State Department sent out a news announcement that they were looking for Farsi speakers. We have people who work at the Library of Congress who read or speak in over 260 languages, and we lent 11 Farsi-speaking staff members to the State Department to interpret telegrams.

Around the same time, I headed the renovation of the Jefferson Building. The Capitol was reviewing how do we deal with security issues, and they installed tunnels under the Capitol complex, so you could go through security on one end, whether you were in the House or Senate buildings, and go to the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court without ever even going through another security challenge. The building of that underground tunnel and the renovation of the building was my project.

Why did you join AARP?

I’ve always said, “I know I could run anything.” I mean, at the Library of Congress, the budget was well over a billion dollars. I was the chief operating officer. We had seven overseas offices in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. There was the complexity of that, and working with the executive branch and the legislative branch in doing all that.

One of my greatest gifts is my ability to simplify what needs to get done so that everybody understands their roles and responsibilities. So I would always meet all these people, whether it was donors or politicians and think, “I could do that.”

“I’ve always said, ‘I know I could run anything.’”— Jo Ann Jenkins

What did you do when you took over?

When I came, we were doing too many nice things for very little impact. So we did away with almost 80 programs that were all very nice and helpful, and started to focus on serving the low-income, vulnerable people in this country. We set the vision of solely focusing on hunger, housing, income and isolation, and how all four of those things fit together. If one of those had a weak link, then somebody might fall off what we called the disparity cliff in terms of being able to live their best life.

We changed our messaging and our fund-raising, and we went from 800,000 donors to two million donors in less than 18 months, simply by refocusing on the low-income and vulnerable and saying to donors, “This is how we’re going to spend your money.”

Was that a big change for the organization?

Our founder, Ethel Percy Andrus, was the first female principal in the state of California. She went to visit a teacher in Los Angeles who she heard was ill, and she knocked on the door and asked for this teacher, and they said, “Oh, she lives in the chicken coop in the backyard.” Dr. Andrus found this retired schoolteacher living in a chicken coop structure with no insurance.

Dr. Andrus founded the National Retired Teachers Association in 1947 and was turned down 40 times by insurance companies until she found one that would offer insurance to teachers. In 1958, she expanded the group and it became the AARP. So from our beginning, we’ve been involved in providing access to safe and affordable health care.

What are your priorities when it comes to policy?

Making sure that Social Security is there not just today but in the future, and that it’s adequate. So many people are working in jobs that don’t pay them a livable wage, or they’re working two or three jobs to be able to do it. How do we make sure that Social Security is there and adequate in the future, but that people don’t think that Social Security is going to be enough for them to live off?

And then in that personal fulfillment area, it’s really about how do we help people live their best lives. How do we make sure they’re not isolated, that they’re not hungry? People used to be worried about making sure that they had the right to retire. Now people want to continue working, not just because they want to, but because they have to, because they can’t afford to retire.

How is the aging population in this country changing and adapting to these new realities?

People who have meaning and purpose in their life live seven to eight years longer than people who don’t. Part of my time as the C.E.O. at AARP has really been focused on changing the whole perception of aging. People are wanting to live and work longer. In fact, AARP dropped the name American Association of Retired Persons 20 years ago.

Do you ever think about retiring?

We have to reframe the word retirement. I can absolutely see a time when I’m ready to leave AARP in the future, but I don’t think of it in the way that the word retirement has been used over the last 20 or 30 years, that you’re going to go home and not do something. I can’t imagine that. I will always be doing something.  For more info on this article

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