Annette Guisbond, 91

Former teacher enjoys teaching, organizing one of the most popular classes at Oasis

By Mary Beth Roach

Q. The program that you do at Oasis Syracuse — tell us a little bit about that?

It’s called State of the Union, and I’ve been doing it for nine years. I invite speakers, usually academics, and they talk for about an hour, and then there’s a break, and then there’s questions. And over the years, it has turned out to be a well-received program. Last year we had 150 people attending it. That motivates me.

Q. How does the State of the Union program run?

To me, I’m very enthusiastic about it, and there’s so many issues out there, even particularly now in this new political climate. I really feel people need information, so I’m working on next fall’s program, I’m trying to keep it to 10. Each week it’s a different issue. I call it multi-issued, mostly politics and public policy. In the past, the program focused on topics such as new tax system for America, the portrayal of race in early movies, the economic effects of climate change, and the history of conspiracy theories in America.

Q. What prompted its creation?

I discovered Oasis, and my husband and I both decided that this was something that we wanted to do. We started out taking classes. There was a very popular teacher there who did a political program. I observed him, I observed the audience. He was the only lecturer. He became sort of a guru to the group. He was good with connecting to that population. But I began to see people hanging on to this one person’s ideas. And that didn’t sit right with me. I wanted to hear more than one idea. So I went to the administration, and I said I had an idea for a program. I’d like it to be multi-issued. It was an election year. I went to the administrator at that time, Lauren Feiglin, and she said, ’Sounds interesting if you’re willing to do it.’

Q. How do you prepare for the program?

It requires a lot of emails, phone calls, and I call myself a talent scout because I’m doing this, and I read a lot, and I do stuff I get alerted to people I knew nothing of, and I love it. Syracuse I call a cornucopia of talent, as far as educators.

Q. Last year, you won the WCNY Women Who Make America Award. Were you surprised?

That was a big surprise, and it’s because of the program. It’s interesting how those things come about. Some of the people come year after year, and one of the people is a retired teacher, and she’s pretty savvy politically. She, herself, has gotten herself involved in politics. She decided to submit my name. I was one of 10 people.

Q. What have you learned?

I learned that I had to be more accepting to different points of view. I have strong beliefs and values, but in doing this, I have to be more even-handed. I learned that people who have a different opinion, a different point of view, just want to be listened to. I thought that was a good lesson to listen.

Q. You’re 91. What keeps you still motivated to do this program?

I’m passionate about education, and my value system I think there are two things that are valuable when you get up in those high numbers. It’s to keep your body moving — that’s why I go to yoga — and to keep your brain moving. So this keeps my brain moving.

Q. In the past nine years of doing this, what has surprised you the most?

I am fascinated by the people who come and I’ve met all kinds of people. I enjoy these people so much.

Q. How do you decide what topics to cover?

I think about the issues that seem so much part of what’s going on right now. I don’t have any trouble with that. There’s so much going on.

Q. What do you hope the people will take away from the program?

I hear people say things that I have been thinking, and one of them is citizenship used to be more valued. In the last couple of decades, one man said — I didn’t know and I was startled — that when people vote in the primaries, 10 percent voted; 90 percent did not. The number of people who voted in the regular election is under 50 percent — it has been that for years. In Europe, it’s much, much higher. It’s like citizenship has been devalued. And that’s one thing I hope to arouse — what does it mean to be a citizen, and there’s a responsibility to being a citizen.