“Only when you look back on your life do you realize how many transferable skills you’ve accumulated,” Brenda Lambert said. She was speaking of the influence of her work experience on OLLI course development. For three years she has facilitated an African American literature course for each fall, spring and winter session.
A St. Louis native, Brenda spent the first five years of her working life as an elementary teacher. A move to California prompted a succession of jobs that led to an impressive career with Capital Group, one of the world’s largest investment management companies. “My work dealt chiefly with corporate insurance, involving lots of numbers, but it proved ideal for developing skills in analysis, decision-making, and future-planning,” she said. “And, since I was usually the only woman and the only minority around the conference table, I had to be verbally adept to get my views heard.”
Upon retirement, Brenda returned to St. Louis, where she looked for senior adult courses with an academic emphasis. After finding OLLI online and attending Show-Me OLLI, she signed up for a course in architecture led by Karen Sterbenz. Soon hooked, she found herself joining Karen as co-facilitator of a short-story course. “That’s when I realized that literature could fill my educational need,” she said.
As a facilitator, she hit her stride with what has become a great love, African American literature. “Although I attended an all-black high school, there was little emphasis on African American literature in those days. The field has really opened up.” She built her first course around writer James Baldwin. And because she could find no single text with a survey of Baldwin’s essays, novels and plays, she created her own course booklet.
Since then, the venerable works of Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison have shared Brenda’s course roster with contemporary writings. Included in the latter are Toni Morrison’s novels, Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, Isabelle Wilkerson’s nonfiction work “The Warmth of Other Suns” and Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad.” For spring, her offering is Rachel L. Swarms’ “American Tapestry,” about Michelle Obama’s ancestry.
While facilitating one course, Brenda simultaneously plans future courses. To select a book to feature, she reads through multiple possibilities, taking notes and keeping files. Although she sometimes goes solo, her co-facilitators have included Bettye Dew, Cindy Turner Johnson, and Susan Bromberg.
“I like to say my classes are like the old Burger King slogan ‘You can have it your way,’” she said. “Come for social enjoyment only; come to participate in the discussion; or come for something deeper, perhaps to present a report, calling on your own skills.”