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Renaissance Society hosts free summer program celebrating diversity and untold stories

Sacramento State's Renaissance Society is offering a free summer program at Sac State that includes engaging speakers on many timely and important topics. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Dolores Eitel, 87, was on a mission to educate her generation and other “mature adults” about pronouns.

“My goal was to teach people my age that male and female are not the only genders people are born with,” she said. “Hence the terms cisgender, gender fluid, nonbinary … and I wanted to teach them what these pronouns people are using are about.”

A woman takes notes in class.
The Renaissance Society provides a full catalog of forums with guest speakers as well as seminars taught by fellow members and volunteers. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

During the spring, Eitel taught a 10-week seminar on “Gender Identity, Sexuality and the Human Condition” through Sacramento State’s Renaissance Society, a lifelong learning program for older adults featuring University staff and faculty speakers.

“The speakers did such a wonderful job telling their honest stories that word got out how good the class was,” Eitel said.

The Renaissance Society has launched a free 2023 summer program at Sac State celebrating diversity and untold stories. Every Friday through July 28, the public is invited to hear guest speakers on topics such as the demise of Sacramento’s Chinatown and Japantown, the Black roots of rock-and-roll and local multicultural businesses.

The series ends with a gospel choir performance at St. Andrews AME Church in Sacramento.

The Renaissance Society formed in 1986 when two Sac State professors came up with the idea of a lifelong, peer-to-peer learning program, according to Deborah Seiler, the Renaissance Society’s president.

“They didn’t want to quit teaching, and they didn’t want to quit learning,” Seiler said.

They approached then-University President Donald Gerth, who gave the group $2,500 in seed money, and started with four seminars.

Now the Renaissance Society has a full catalog of forums with guest speakers such as California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, and seminars taught by fellow members and volunteers on topics including how the pyramids in Egypt were built, gardening, movies, travel and technology basics for seniors.

“We have people from all walks of life talking to us about every conceivable topic,” Seiler said.

During the academic year, Renaissance Society members can be seen on campus every Friday going to their classes or grabbing lunch in the Union.

Shared interest groups also offer opportunities for members to socialize outside of their classes.

“The Renaissance Society is awesome. They’re super into collaborating and they want to get connected with students.” -- Rachel August, Psychology professor at Sac State

The group also provides significant student support, annually donating thousands of dollars to Sac State students through scholarships and contributions to the Associated Students Inc. Food Pantry.

In 2022-23, members contributed over $22,000 in addition to donating food. For two consecutive years, the Renaissance Society took home the Golden Plate Award for giving the most food baskets during the Thanksgiving food drive.

Every year, the group gives out $3,000 scholarships to seven Sac State students. Since 1993, the Renaissance Society has awarded $269,000 in scholarships.

At its peak in 2019, the Renaissance Society had more than 2,300 members.

“But when COVID hit, we had to completely pivot to Zoom, and we did lose quite a few members,” Seiler said.

By spring of 2023, membership had dropped to 1,700. But the organization’s reach also grew to include members living in Maine, Texas, Oklahoma, and Washington.

So when the campus reopened to students, the Renaissance Society went hybrid, offering Zoom classes Monday through Thursday, and in-person sessions every Friday at Sac State. Several Friday classes also were streamed on Zoom, Seiler said.

Many members living in the outlying parts of the Sacramento region prefer Zoom classes to avoid traffic, or the hassles of parking on campus.

“But we also have members who are passionate about coming to campus and interacting with students and feeling a part of this wonderful community,” Seiler said.

Registration to join the Renaissance Society is now open, and leaders hope to add more people and increase diversity.

“We want our membership to be more reflective of the Sacramento area and be more reflective of the students on campus, who are a very diverse student body,” Seiler said.

Dora Dugars joined the Renaissance Society during the pandemic to keep busy after the volunteer programs she participated in shut down. She helped organize this year’s summer program focusing on diverse stories, bringing her experience as one of the few Black women working in the information technology industry in the 1980s.

“You’re never going to understand each other if you don’t participate,” Dugars said. “I look at it as trying to understand people and helping them understand me. I have six grandkids, and I do what I do because I want a better world for my grandkids.”

Members of the Renaissance Society have a conversation at an outdoor table at Sac State.
Sacramento State Renaissance Society members contributed more than $22,000 in addition to donating food items to the Associated Students Inc. Food Pantry in 2022-23. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Many members enjoy interacting with Sac State students. Each year, members volunteer to be interviewed by students in Psychology Professor Rachel August’s qualitative research course.

“The Renaissance Society is awesome,” August said. “They’re super into collaborating and they want to get connected with students.”

August collaborates with the Renaissance Society to have her students conduct a needs assessment study on what the organization is doing well and how it can improve. Students interview members for an hour or more, analyze the information and turn in their reports.

“In the beginning, my students are pretty nervous,” August said. “These are people who are multiple generations out from them, and we are in such a different world now than the world the people they’re interviewing grew up with.

“But in the end, they say it was so much easier than they thought it would be.”

In addition to helping August’s students fulfill their research requirement, Renaissance Society members mentor gerontology students.

“We also give up our aging bodies to the Physical Therapy Department,” Seiler said.

Doctoral candidates put the seniors through their paces by taking their blood pressure, measuring fat content and testing whether they can sit in a chair and touch their toes or climb a flight of stairs without using the handrail.

“We do squats and they see how far we can walk in six minutes,” Seiler said. “It’s another opportunity for us to connect with students.”

Eitel, who doesn’t have grandchildren, likes being around young people.

“I ask them a lot of questions because I like to learn from them,” Eitel said.

Renaissance Society members also volunteer to be ushers at University performances. The Renaissance Society will hold an Orientation and Open House in the University Union Ballrooms at 10 a.m. Aug. 18.

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About Jennifer K. Morita

Jennifer K. Morita joined Sacramento State in 2022. A former newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee, she spent several years juggling freelance writing with being a mom. When she isn’t chauffeuring her two daughters, she enjoys reading mysteries, experimenting with recipes, and Zumba.

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