Diversity and Democracy

Free Minds, Empowered Citizens: Changing Lives with the Humanities in Austin

Swing by the community room at M Station apartments in East Austin one Monday or Thursday evening, and you will find a class full of adults deep in discussion. They might be considering Socrates’s theories on the best way to raise children, or the irresistible villainy of Richard III, or how education shaped the life of Frederick Douglass. For more than a decade, these conversations have been ongoing at Free Minds, a program offering free college humanities classes to adults living on low incomes.

With books, tuition, child care, and meals on class nights all provided at no charge, Free Minds takes care of many logistics that keep people from returning to school. But the program also aims to do something more radical. It offers a space for reflection, something sorely missing in our culture and particularly for those students whose lives are stretched by financial and social burdens.

Free Minds is built on the premise that engaging with the humanities offers a unique opportunity to place our lives in a larger context. We ask the big questions—What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be American? How do we create meaningful lives?—and explore the ways people have answered them over millennia. The very act of grappling with those questions can empower people to create change in their own lives and in the world.

Taking a Different Approach

Founded in 2006 at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), Free Minds is now a program of Foundation Communities, an affordable housing nonprofit. Classes are held on housing sites, removing the challenges of getting onto a college campus. UT Austin and Austin Community College (ACC) contribute faculty and academic resources, and students earn college credit through ACC.

The students we serve are smart and motivated but have faced real barriers to the classroom. They may have experienced homelessness or incarceration, or come from families where higher education was not considered or was even discouraged. They may have families and jobs and may be navigating public transportation or uncertain housing. And they are eager to learn. Too often, that desire finds them shuttled into vocational education—great for people who want that training, but limiting to those who want more—or into developmental education, where less than 25 percent of students earn a degree in eight years (Bailey and Cho 2010).

Free Minds takes a different approach. Students engage with a range of humanities texts in a lively seminar. The professors, tops in their fields, approach the seminar as facilitators, not lecturers. Over nine months the seminars go deep, beginning in ancient Greece and ending with Sandra Cisneros. The classroom is an exhilarating place, as students claim their own intelligence and voice.

Cultivating Individual Agency

Humanities education is under fire everywhere, so it’s surprising to find it alive and well on a Thursday evening in East Austin. But Free Minds is not alone. We are an affiliate of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which was awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Obama. The idea of bringing humanities to those living in poverty began at the Roberto Clemente Center in Lower Manhattan in 1995, and today there are about thirty Clemente Courses in the United States alone, with courses in Canada and Australia as well.

For founder Earl Shorris, Clemente wasn’t about college access and success. Shorris was interested in cultivating individual agency—what he called “becoming political.” Studying the humanities was the path to action—a path away from being acted upon—and Shorris believed this would make the critical difference for those experiencing poverty.

“You’ve been cheated,” Shorris told potential applicants to the first Clemente class. In a 1997 essay in Harper’s Magazine, he recalled saying, “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…. Rich people know politics in that sense. They know how to negotiate instead of using force. They know how to use politics to get along, to get power.”

The students Shorris encountered in 1995 and the ones we encounter in Free Minds today understand that. Sure, some come to the class simply to get some college credits under their belts, but more often they see education as a path to a different kind of life. Being educated isn’t just a credential but a way of moving in the world. They want connections to intellectual community, to civic organizations, to the processes that make a democracy work. They want to be part of the conversation.

Encouraging Civic Engagement

Creating a course that offers all of this is complicated. Covering six disciplines—literature, philosophy, US history, art history, creative writing, and analytical writing—we can only teach a slice of what we would hope to include. Thus, the curriculum is idiosyncratic, but includes what each professor finds most critical in his or her area. We also choose a theme, a question that connects the texts. One year that question was, “How do we tell our stories?” and another “What does it mean to belong?” In 2012–13, during a contentious election year, faculty built the curriculum around the question, “What are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?” That lens allowed us to explore the treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as well as civil rights texts.

Students had powerful responses. For Catrina Williams, that meant going to the polls for the first time in her forty-one years. After reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King talks about methods used to prevent African Americans from registering to vote, Williams decided she needed to make her voice heard. “It made me realize it’s my responsibility to vote as a citizen,” she said. “I’ve been letting people who fought for these rights down. I have the freedom to vote, and now I have exercised my right.”

Yet the theme needn’t be so explicit to connect the classroom to civic engagement. Last year’s theme focused on realities and perspectives, and when the spring semester arrived, students began exploring the second half of Plato’s Republic with our electrifying philosophy professor, Matthew Daude Laurents. They had read the first half of the Republic in the fall, and we thought returning to Plato after months away might be tricky. Instead, students dove in head first to respond to Daude Laurents’s question, “Why do we read the Republic?”

“Delving into Plato has made me think about constructing new ways to run a society,” said one student. “Especially when we are electing a new president.” A second chimed in: “We are still run by kings and not philosophers.”

Finding a Place in the World

Our students often go on to complete degrees, earn promotions, and encourage their children toward education. They build their confidence as well as their skills. But just as important, they come to think more deeply and consider their place in the world in new ways.

No one typifies this more than 2008 graduate Kellee Coleman, who has since earned an associate’s as well as a bachelor’s degree. When in Free Minds, she sometimes found herself nursing her infant son during class, walking in circles to keep him quiet while she participated in discussion. “I was so committed to being there,” she said, “and it was one of the most beautiful communal experiences of my life.” But it also made her think about her life and community differently.  

As a mother of three, Coleman found herself asking about the maternal needs of women of color. Racial health inequities are a real problem in Austin, so she helped found Mama Sana/Vibrant Woman, a collective committed to improving pregnancy and birth outcomes. Today she is working on developing community-driven solutions to address health disparities in underserved populations. She traces her work back to her ability to ask questions and think critically, skills she honed in a humanities classroom.

“There’s a difference between acquiring knowledge and being educated,” she said. “Free Minds offers the space to think intentionally and dig deep into ideas. Once I turned this on, I couldn’t turn it off.”


Bailey, Thomas, and Sung-Woo Cho. 2010. “Issue Brief: Developmental Education in Community Colleges.” New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/developmental-education-community-colleges.pdf.

Shorris, Earl. 1997. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” Harper’s Magazine, September. http://harpers.org/archive/1997/09/on-the-uses-of-a-liberal-education/.

Vivé Griffith was Director of Free Minds from 2007 to 2016.

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