Minds on Fire

What happens when disadvantaged adults learn to read Shakespeare and debate philosophy? How the Free Minds Project is changing lives through the humanities

“What is the difference between literature and history?” UT history professor Neil Foley asks his class. He gives the students a minute to think and write down an answer, and the room falls silent.

It’s a busy silence, though, marked by head-scratching, pencil-tapping, and chair-creaking as students lean over their notebooks.

“Literature tells stories. History is facts and dates,” one student says.

Foley frowns. “I hated history in high school. All we did was facts and dates, and I thought, who gives a damn?” At the word “damn,” surprised laughter ripples through the classroom.

“Historians don’t do facts and dates,” Foley says. “We analyze the past to figure out why things happen. That’s why I love history.”

U.S. immigration history is the topic of the day. The students listen with rapt attention and speak with conviction, many from personal experience. No one here is covertly texting under her desk—everyone is completely present.

“In America, the moment you fit in is when you decide someone else doesn’t,” one student says. Heads nod in agreement.

Foley scrawls e pluribus unum on the board. “From many, one,” he says. “It’s our country’s motto. But it doesn’t always work out that way, does it?”

The students smile. That’s an easy one.

It’s a question they’ve seen answered again and again, for these aren’t traditional college students. They are the students of the Free Minds Project, a radical effort based on the notion that the humanities can help lift people out of poverty.

As dusk falls over M Station, an affordable housing complex in East Austin, parents call kids in to dinner in three languages. Spanish rap leaks out from the headphones of a man slouched on a wooden bench. A teenage girl with purple beads in her hair leans over an apartment balcony, staring at something far away.

And the Free Minds students begin to arrive. They’re mostly women, mostly African American and Hispanic. Some wear medical scrubs; others are in office attire; a few wear jeans and T-shirts. All 23 are hungry for knowledge.

They gather in a classroom above the leasing office and fill plates with food from foil trays. Kids dart in and out; there’s a murmur of quiet conversation that swells as dinner perks people up. Vivé Griffith and Hana Silverstein, Free Minds’ staff of two, circulate the room and chat with students.

Program director Griffith, MFA ’02, is a petite, poised woman who speaks quietly and calmly. In front of a classroom, she exudes warmth and approachability tempered by a firm, no-nonsense attitude. Griffith is fiercely dedicated to her students. Once, when the headlights on a student’s car wouldn’t come on after class, she tailed the woman all the way home to make sure she got there safely. When another student lost her home to a fire, Griffith collected donations.

In 1997, Griffith was studying for her master’s in literature at the University of Cincinnati when she read an essay in Harper’s magazine about the Clemente Course. A rigorous, college-level humanities course for the poor, the Clemente program was founded in 1995 by New York City sociologist Earl Shorris.

In his essay, Shorris recalls telling the first Clemente students: “You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you.”

Griffith taught the essay to her freshman English class at Cincinnati. “I was very moved by it,” she says. “The Clemente Course was a bold experiment, and for Shorris it was very successful.”

Ten years later, Griffith was working as a UT public affairs writer after earning her MA at Cincinnati and an MFA in poetry at UT’s Michener Center. She saw a job posting for the directorship of Free Minds, a Clemente-inspired course started in 2006 by a UT English grad student named Sylvia Gale, and knew it was for her. “I think I got the job out of pure enthusiasm,” she laughs.

Under Griffith’s leadership, Free Minds has grown rapidly. The classes—on literature, philosophy, history, and creative writing—are taught by UT and Austin Community College professors. Students go on field trips to museums and to the theater.

Free Minds has strengthened partnerships with UT, ACC (Free Minds students earn ACC credit), and Camp Fire USA, which offers a youth-development program for children of students. The Camp Fire program tailors its content to parallel Free Minds’ curricula. “Last year, while the adults were reading Romeo & Juliet, the kids were acting out a child’s version of the play,” Griffith says. “Then the parents and kids can talk together about what they’re learning.”

The program is tough: students must complete a heavy reading load, as well as frequent writing assignments and analytical papers. They’re graded rigorously and submit a final portfolio at the end of the year. Griffith strikes a balance between accommodating the challenges in her students’ lives and reminding them, as alumna Grace Adams recalls, that “This is for real. This is real school, and you have to get really serious and make a commitment to your education.”

This summer, 107 people applied for the fifth-annual Free Minds class. Griffith only had space and funding for 25. Students are selected on the basis of motivation, need, and the ability to seek support from family and friends when the going gets tough. The program, which runs from August to May, is free to students, including tuition, books, child care, and dinners. Free Minds students must be at least 18 years old, earn no more than twice the federal poverty level, and lack a college degree. In recent years, they’ve ranged from age 21 to 65.

Most Free Minds students are the working poor. Often they are city or state employees, working 40 or more hours per week and still barely scraping by. Others have disabilities that make it hard to hold a job. Many are single parents.

So why the humanities? Wouldn’t job training be more practical than Plato?

“There’s nothing wrong with vocational training,” Griffith says, “but up until now, that’s been the only thing available to this population. Studying the humanities speaks to people’s minds, their aspirations. And it gives them basic skills—critical thinking, writing, confidence—that are vital to any career.”

And it encourages higher education: 77 percent of alumni take further college courses after completing the program. After graduating, about half the alumni report a change in their jobs—whether that means a new job, a promotion, or increased confidence—and 70 percent attribute the change to the program.

Griffith and coordinator Hana Silverstein, an Americorps volunteer who wrote her way into the job through a successful grant application, are always planning something new. They stay connected with Free Minds alumni by inviting them to return for master classes on topics ranging from religious fundamentalism to the culture of Texas barbecue. And this year, they debuted a new series of creative writing workshops open to anyone. A mentorship program is in the works, too.

Emily Whitehurst, a 2011 alumna now studying at St. Edward’s University, completed the program while her first child was an infant. Whitehurst, who works at the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, recently visited a Free Minds class to share her experience. Students nodded knowingly along with her as she described how daunting it was to write her first paper after so many years out of school. But then, Whitehurst said, she felt “the click.”

“It’s that moment when it all comes together and suddenly you realize, ‘I can do this. I can read Shakespeare and go to an art museum and write a term paper. I never thought I would do those things, and now that I know I can, what else can I do?”

Photos by Sarah Lim


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