Philosophy major takes classroom debates to homeless shelters

The students? Homeless women looking to analyze life’s great questions.

The Lily News
Jun 5, 2017 · 3 min read
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(iStock/Lily illustration)
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When Clarinda Blais first began volunteering at the St. Francis House homeless shelter in Boston, she didn’t feel like serving breakfast was enough.

A philosophy major at Boston University, Blais wanted to bridge “what sometimes seems like an insurmountable distance” between those who have experienced homelessness and those who haven’t. Starting a philosophy group in shelters seemed like the perfect solution.

When Blais pitched the idea to Boston shelters, they consistently turned her down. Why would the homeless be interested in philosophical discussions when they’re worried about when they’ll eat next or where they’ll sleep that night? After multiple rejections, Blais realized she needed to narrow her focus. She honed in on women.

Although many were skeptical, doors began to open, and the Free Philosophy Project was born.

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Every week, Blais brings pastries, notebooks, pens and the teachings of Plato and Aristotle to St. Francis House. She asks the women to ponder a philosophical quandary. During one recent discussion, Blais asked four women: “Are people born good, or do they learn how to be good?”

They discussed how goodness relates to happiness, and Blais brought up Aristotle’s philosophy that reaching happiness entails first understanding what it means to be good. Ultimately, “The byproduct of learning to be good is happiness,” Blais explained to the group.

Sometimes, the group doesn’t come to a consensus. Their conclusions are often the opposite of what ancient philosophers thought. None of that matters much though, Blais said. The exercise is meant to engage the women in active debate and to get them thinking about great life questions.

Hope Daniels has attended Blais’s St. Francis House workshops for more than a year. She battles crack addiction, collects disability for asthma issues and is recovering from a brain tumor. Daniels enjoys the classes because they offer a temporary escape from reality.

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Since Blais began nearly two years ago, the Free Philosophy Project has spread to more than 10 shelters for women, men and families in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Blais trains students from BU and Harvard College to lead the workshops. Boston University’s philosophy department funds the project and will continue to do so as Blais develops a manual for national expansion that she’ll begin work on this summer.

Elizabeth Keeley, executive director of the Women’s Lunch Place, was the first to support the Free Philosophy Project at the shelter. Keely knows how important it is for the women to be heard and how open to learning they are.

“So many of these women have lost their voices or were silenced by trauma,” Keeley said. “Our whole philosophy around dignity and restoring women’s feelings of positive self-worth is tied into their being able to talk about what brought them here and how they move forward.”

Original story by Meredith Derby Berg for The Washington Post.

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