LLI Spotlight:  Amy Diamond, Executive Director, DavidsonLearns, Davidson, NC

By Peter Spiers

DavidsonLearns in Davidson, N.C., finished its fourth year of operation this spring. Amy Diamond has been the organization’s executive director from the beginning, when she was asked to take the position by a group of Davidson citizens who had been meeting to discuss the idea of forming a Lifelong Learning institute. Davidson is also the home of an outstanding, small liberal arts institution, Davidson College (known to NBA fans as where Golden State Warrior Steph Curry played college basketball). Amy initially approached the college to explore an affiliation but was told by college officials that learning in retirement wasn’t at the time a high priority, nor was there classroom space available.

Amy and the citizen group instead formed a 501(3)(c) and, in the fall of 2012, launched DavidsonLearns with a slate of three classes. Amy recalls great trepidation in the weeks leading up to the launch; she had posted flyers all over town but had the normal anxiety that no one would come to the party. When the first class met, she was gratified to see only five familiar faces in a room of 25 people, and knew at that moment that her outreach efforts had worked and that Davidson was home to a real community of lifelong learners. 

Four years later, DavidsonLearn’s membership has grown to more than 200, who choose from 11 or 12 courses in both fall and spring terms. Members pay an annual membership fee of $30, and class fees average $10 per session. Amy serves as the volunteer executive director, but the organization’s financial health has enabled it to hire a paid administrative assistant.

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at DavidsonLearns?

My most important role, and one that I very much enjoy doing, is fostering relations with other non-profits and community organizations in the Davidson area. For example, there’s an organization in town called Davidson LifeLine, whose mission is to raise awareness around mental health issues. After a devastating series of teen suicides here, they wanted to bring in a speaker named Kevin Hines, who survived an attempt to kill himself by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, and went on to write a book and become a suicide prevention and mental health advocate. They had a budget shortfall and we were able to create a partnership with LifeLine, our hospital’s behavioral health service and an independent bookstore in town, and contribute to the overall cost of Kevin’s appearance from our surplus. We also sponsor one of the concerts in Davidson’s summer concert series, Concerts on the Green. It’s something we strongly believe in, but it’s also a great way to tell our community that we’re here.

Working with our board of directors is another key responsibility. This group of volunteers has great passion for the organization, and it’s my job to help them focus their ideas and translate them into plans and action.

And of course there are a million details and small tasks of day-to-day management, from opening classrooms and setting up AV equipment, to managing space and spreading the word.  We rent space from and hold most of our classrooms at Temple Kol Tikvah, but also have held classes at Davidson Parks and Recreation, the YMCA, and even at a local coffee shop!  I’ll speak about DavidsonLearns anywhere and anytime, whether it’s a church group or a senior center.  My office is on my kitchen table, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of this work with our new administrative assistant.   

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Our top areas of interest are memoir writing, history, genealogy and science. All of our courses are academic — we have no special-interest groups and offer no personal development courses. We’re very lucky to have Ruth Ault and Annie Merrill, our curriculum co-chairs, who have done great work bringing in new course ideas and new instructors. Professors from Davidson and UNC-Charlotte have come to us to ask if they can teach here because they see DavidsonLearns as a place where they can present material they’re passionate about in a new way. They love older students who are vibrant, engaged, who bring a wealth of life experiences to the topic that 18- to 22-year-olds don’t have, and who never whine about assignments or grades. These professors often need a little coaching on managing a classroom full of older students who are eager to share — and sometimes overshare — their perspectives and experiences. 

Our members are very interested in writing; I think memoir writing is particularly popular because it’s about a topic they know well, and there’s a desire to shape their legacy for future family generations. Some of our past writing and poetry classes got so engaged with each other that they continue to meet years after the formal class. One of our writing students who owns a B&B in South Carolina even invited everyone from the class to a weekend reunion.

Our membership includes a mix of Davidson alums who settled here or returned in retirement, and others who live in our community. I’m constantly surprised by their interests, like when a course in ancient Chinese poetry turned out to be extremely popular. We even had some students from Davidson College sign up for a course because it was taught by one of their favorite professors. 

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

We have several extraordinary LLIs in North Carolina, most notable the OLLIs at Duke and at UNC-Asheville. I’ve spent a lot of time up at Duke and I’m in awe of the breadth of their courses, their course catalog, and their program for training instructors. And it’s lovely to think  we might someday achieve here what Catherine Frank and others have built in Asheville. 

What developments do you see in the future for DavidsonLearns or the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?

I see modest but continued growth with a broadening membership base. We’d like to expand our course count to 12-14 each semester, and build our Spotlight Series, which we open to non-members and describe as “short events highlighting performances, festivals, and other special occurrences in our region.” There’s interest in a travel program, so that’s something we’ll take a look at.

What did you do before you came to DavidsonLearns?

I taught in gifted education for elementary and middle-school children for 25 years, and have always been very involved in the Davidson community. The original organizers of DavidsonLearns saw me as someone who could bring educators and the community together.

Where would you most like to travel that you haven’t visited already?

I’ve done several Road Scholar programs, including trips to the Inca Trail, Big Bend National Park in Texas, the Arctic, and Cuba. There are really few places I wouldn’t go, especially if it’s on a higher Activity Level program. Yosemite National Park is high on my list.

Can you tell us about a book you’ve read recently that you would recommend to others?

I’m on the last book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. It’s a wonderful look into humanity, friendship and, of course, Naples. The first book, “My Brilliant Friend,” is the worst one, and I always tell people to stick with it because it gets better!