Students come to the Schar School with ideas. Some want to research subjects that deeply interest them; others want to gain the knowledge they feel they need to create a business or lead a public institution. In Damali Lambert’s case, she couldn’t wait to graduate with her Master’s in Public Policy degree to make her mark.
“It’s very unusual for a student who is still taking a master’s program to start their own nonprofit,” said Steven Ruth, a professor of public policy at the Schar School. “It’s a wonderful program, with wonderful purpose, but I don’t know any students who have done this in all my years of teaching.”
Ruth has been teaching at George Mason University since 1978.
Lambert took the initiative in 2020 to start Steps to Another Reality, or STAR for short. The public charity provides school children in Baltimore and surrounding Prince George’s County, Maryland, with academic support and resources, such as school supplies.
“When I started the nonprofit, I said as I grow in my master’s program—and hopefully my PhD program—that the organization can grow with me,” she said when asked why she started STAR when she did. “I want the organization to grow with me, hand in hand.”
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Lambert grew up in Georgetown, Guyana, where she began working with children in orphanages. After earning her bachelor’s degree at Binghamton University in New York, she graduated early and moved to Maryland “to get out of the cold and snow,” she said only half-joking.
She landed a teaching position at Green Street Academy in Baltimore where she is now an English Language Arts interventionist, someone who steps in to help students who are struggling,
The turmoil of the George Floyd murder and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired her to “be the change” in the form of creating opportunities for children in need of assistance, academic or otherwise. “It was like I couldn’t focus on anything else,” she said, “except trying to make things better for the community.”
That assistance works two ways: Teachers also benefit when students have fewer obstacles.
“I was doing more work than I needed to do because my students didn't have as much as they needed to be successful,” she said. “So how can I help teachers like me? I needed to find a way to support their students.”
The COVID-19 lockdown “was a blessing, really; instead of having to be in the classroom from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., I had way more time.”
And with that time, STAR was born.
Her studies at the Schar School, particularly in the Nonprofit Management program, have revealed to her issues that “I might not have gotten to know as much information about otherwise; it definitely gave me some clarity on how to be more culturally responsive as an organization leader.”
She appreciates the support she receives from her professors, particularly since her entire degree program has been conducted virtually, beginning during the pandemic and continuing until today.
“I was initially scared of the virtual setting,” the veteran school teacher said. “But having the professors that I do, and having them available to me has been really helpful.”