By Sharon McGriff Payne
How does a city move forward when it continues to cling to its past? It’s the question we Vallejoans are grappling with as our population grows older and browner.
And nowhere is that question more important than at Vallejo’s only senior center, The Florence Douglas Senior Center.
A sobering reminder of how our city is changing has played out in recent months as local groups have questioned how older African American men have been treated by FDSC leadership.
Here’s where a little Vallejo history might help explain the senior center’s present struggle. The center opened in 1977. It was the brainchild of Vallejo’s first woman mayor, Florence Douglas and countless other Vallejo seniors.
More than 50 civic and service organizations met at the early center; however, few, if any, people of color were involved. Many center participants were retired Mare Island Naval Shipyard workers. My African American parents, and their friends who were age eligible to belong to the FDSC when it opened in the 1970s, rarely spoke of the senior center. The message was clear – they felt unwelcomed at the center.
Fast forward to 2015. Vallejo’s population consists of 74 percent people of color. Yet the FDSC continues to function largely under white leadership. This is the same leadership that authorized FDSC director Peter Wilson to sell the gifted CC Sabathia pool table and approved the hiring of an armed security guard “just in case” following the sale of the pool table.
Like the FDSC, our elected city leaders seem to be clueless regarding our senior population. In 2009, the city quietly disbanded the Commission on Aging claiming lack of participation.
When the news first broke in December 2014 about the removal of the pool table, city leaders stayed silent. When pressed about the issue, some city council members said they had no jurisdiction over the FDSC, which is a non-profit agency.
On April 14, city council members voted 4-3 to not sponsor a study session to deal with citizen concerns about the senior center. Mayor Osby Davis said any intervention by the city council would be “very dangerous.”
While some of our city leaders seem more comfortable with their heads in the sand regarding this and other issues pertaining to seniors, we can partially take the blame for what seems their lack of interest.
Vallejo’s seniors, including me, have not advocated for our issues and concerns in recent years. While we seniors vote in large numbers, rarely do we ask for anything in return for our vote. We have Gray Power, yet we are not using it to our advantage.
It’s time for our senior center to recognize that the population that dominated the center is, in the words of FDSC director Wilson, “dwindling.”
Instead of seeing that as a negative, it’s time for center leadership to cast their nets wider to a thriving, more vibrant senior population that reflects our city’s diversity.
If the present FDSC leadership chooses to stay in the past it will guarantee the decline – and possible end – of Vallejo’s only senior center. And what a shame that will be.
Sharon McGriff Payne is a longtime Vallejo resident, author and historian.
Note: All opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Vallejo Independent Bulletin