Building Community through Lifelong Learning at the Kenwood

Ruth Anne Olson and Anthony Morley

Anthony and Ruth Anne have a busy life outside the Kenwood, so they typically don’t join a lot of the offered activities. But they do love the breakfasts, and the ability to sit down with any resident and be guaranteed to have an interesting and informal conversation.

Ruth Anne and Anthony have lived in Minneapolis for 50 years. Ruth Anne grew up on the West Coast, and work brought her to a variety of experiences in Chicago; The Philippines; Madison, Wisconsin and then finally to Minneapolis, all the while working in the field of education. Anthony grew up on the East Coast and was an Episcopal priest in St. Louis, Missouri, bringing together a diverse congregation of Black and White families. He also worked in education, and after experiences in New York City, was recruited as principal of the Southeast Free School in Minneapolis. Then, for 13 years, he served on the editorial staff of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, until his retirement in 1999. As Ruth Anne says, they started on opposite coasts and met in the middle. Married in 1978, their love of learning is one of the things that brought them together.

Ruth Anne and Anthony enjoy getting to know people with life experiences different from their own. Through their church, in 2007 they became involved with the town of Bigonet, Haiti. Knowing the Kenwood Retirement Community would be interested to learn more about Haiti, and would want to join in this friendship, the couple has nurtured this connection. Teachers and church leaders from Bigonet have several times visited the Kenwood, sharing their life stories and the rock sculptures for which their village is well-known. Kenwood residents donated sewing supplies (which often has sat unused in their closets for years), to help Bigonet’s K-9 school start a tailoring class — and later a keyboard and recorders that led to new music classes in Bigonet.

Even during the pandemic everyone thought it was important to connect, so the principal of the school came to Minneapolis. It wasn’t possible to meet in person, but the Zoom gathering was full of enthusiastic Kenwood residents happy to see their long-time Bigonet friend.

But it isn’t always necessary to travel to meet people with different life experiences. For at least a decade, Ruth Anne had been thinking of a way to explore the variety of life experiences of the staff and residents at the Kenwood. Anthony points out that the staff is an essential part of the Kenwood community. After the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was killed, the idea took on a special urgency for the couple. They approached Jennifer Volkenant, Executive Director of the Kenwood, and proposed “The World on Our Doorstep,” a monthly program featuring planned conversations with residents and staff so that they could learn about each other.  Anthony interviews the featured guest, and then opens the discussion to everyone present. And Ruth Anne provides an informational sheet suggesting further reading, films, and other related resources. So far, the conversations have highlighted experiences of a staff housekeeper from Brazil, a resident former chancellor of the University of Minnesota – Morris, and a member of the food-services staff who is Native American. Varying the presenters across gender, staff/resident, and different life experiences, Ruth Anne and Anthony intentionally put race in the forefront so that the discussion of racism does not get forgotten. Growing in popularity, nearly half of all Kenwood residents is now involved.

By bringing their Bigonet friends to the Kenwood, and by creating a forum for sharing life experiences with “The World on Our Doorstep,” Ruth Anne and Anthony have created their own Lifelong Learning Institute at the Kenwood.