Free Minds at Five: Reflections from Sylvia Gale, Founding Director

Four years and one month ago, the first class of Free Minds Project students met in the community room of the Foundation Communities Vintage Creek apartment complex on Northeast Drive. For each of the 25 students, six faculty members, and two staff sitting packed in close around the seminar tables, sharing our thoughts and dreams about what education meant to each of us, this was a high point of a journey most of us probably could not have predicted.

My own journey to Free Minds began eight years before and 1,000 miles away from that first night. While house-sitting for a friend one winter in the remote mountains of western Colorado, I picked up an old copy of Harper’s Magazine, and discovered an article by New York City-based sociologist Earl Shorris, recounting the first year of his Clemente Course in the Humanities, a seminar intended to be as rigorous as any first-year humanities survey course at an elite university, yet taught in a community center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to a group of students who had been variously disenfranchised from formal education. Reading about this experiment in my quiet mountain hideaway, still chewing on the fat of my own liberal arts education, I felt literally electrified, abuzz with the sense that Shorris and his students had traveled across an immense divide.

At the time, I think I thought of bridging this divide through a program like the Clemente Course as my life’s work–something to grow into someday, somewhere, somehow. But I got the chance to bring to life the idea of a humanities education made truly accessible much sooner than I’d expected, when I was a graduate student in the English department at UT-Austin. With the generous support and embrace of the Humanities Institute at UT, and with rock-solid collaborators Austin Community College and Foundation Communities on board, the Free Minds Project was born.

That first year was full of growing pains. Students left because their lives got more complicated, or because the class was more or different than they’d expected, or because we did not yet know how to offer the kind of support that would make it possible for them to stay. Some students traveled hours each night to get to class on the bus. Our basic childcare program sputtered along in the room next door.  We ate pounds of pizza and breakfast tacos and po’boys, the three foods I could either get delivered or bring to class each night in the basket on my bike.

The rest of my life that year is a blur. But I remember acutely dozens of moments from class. Beloved Ailsworth’s ’07 close reading of William Carlos William’s short story “The Use of Force” in our first literature class. Veronica Posada’s ’07 confident renderings of American history. Victoria Duose’s ’07 powerful connection to guest poet Charles Patterson’s poems about the Vietnam war. Our collective effort to grasp the multiple levels of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative–emotional, rhetorical, political. And on and on. Together, we rode the intellectual highs and lows of our seminar discussions, learning to disagree and to go deeper, to listen carefully to our books and to one another.

As the fifth class of Free Minds students digs into language, literature, and themselves in Austin this fall, I am tremendously moved to see what the program has become. I am proud beyond measure to have been a part of its beginning. And most of all, I am grateful to the Free Minds pioneers of 2006-07 and to the students, faculty, and program collaborators who have come after. You gave, you continue to give, an impossible idea a life.

Dr. Sylvia Gale is associate director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, where she continues to work on creating collaborative programs that expand access to transformational learning. She is the mother of a two-year-old, Isaiah, and is expecting her second baby in November.

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