Joni Stewart is a 27-year-old single mother of two children, aged 8 and 12. Recently, her son TJ had an ear infection and was treated at the IWK by a doctor who saw potential in Stewart and her children. He set the children up in tae kwon do classes and told Stewart about a new program called the Friends of Clemente Society.
She had an interview with the program coordinators. “They said I seemed like a good candidate,” she says. “I was really excited. It had been a long time since I got back into the real world.”
The Clemente Society is a model of teaching that has its roots in one man, an American educator and writer named Earl Shorris.
“Shorris visited a prison and began talking to people, especially one woman,” says Reverend Gary Thorne, the Friends of Clemente Society’s board chairman. “He asked her what she would like most of all in the world and what was lacking in her life. What was it she most needed to get out of the dreadful cycle of poverty and crime? Her response was that people like her were lacking ‘the moral life of downtown.’ Shorris didn’t know what she meant, so he asked her to clarify. She said, ‘Well, things like the art galleries, music!’”
Shorris started the first class in 1995 in the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the Lower East Side of New York City. The Clemente classroom spread to numerous parts of the USA and to Mexico and France. The Halifax chapter is one of only two in Canada, the other being administrated by UBC in Vancouver, says Thorne.
Stewart is among 32 local people—disadvantaged people whose lives have not allowed them the opportunities they desire—who are being given a second chance by the Friends of Clemente Society. A partnership between Saint George’s Church, local universities and Halifax Public Libraries, the program provides free university-level classes to people living on low income.
Stewart finished her schooling at grade 8. Years ago, she’d tried a program at St. Paul’s in Spryfield offering a General Education Diploma.
“I’ve tried so many courses. But it was so hard, because you gotta go every day. But when your kids are sick, you end up with a lot of complications. It was so hard to be able to concentrate.”
But the Clemente model is different. “The course gives them an introduction to the study of literature, history and philosophy,” says Bruce Russell, director of the program. “The hope is to give them a sense of what university is like.”
The class meets twice a week in the afternoon for two-hour sessions at the north end library on Gottingen. “Some people have bad experiences going to school,” says Russell, “but we felt that the library was kind of a neutral space people associated with learning where they could feel comfortable coming and going. It’s got good lighting and a bus stop outside.”
Students were selected from a pool of candidates from Halifax, Spryfield and Dartmouth. The courses are taught by over 40 volunteer instructors from across the academic community. Daycare services for students with children are provided for the duration of the class.
Students range in age from their early-20s to mid-60s, says Russell. Some of them have career aspirations but want to get a sense of what will be demanded of them. Others, like Stewart, are single moms or disabled people who want to explore their options more fully. “But these are people who are very bright, intellectually active, curious, but who live on assistance,” says Russell. “They’re very bored. They can’t afford to do anything. They have no money for transportation, and it’s very difficult for them to get intellectual stimulation. This program offers them a chance to meet other people who are curious like they are.
“They certainly shatter any kind of preconceptions about the intellectual life of people living under low income.”
Stewart reminds herself of some reading she needs to do for tomorrow’s class. The readings, she says, are tough. But “the teachers are very straightforward and kind. They tell us that any time we have questions, we should just raise our hands. A lot of the books have words that are vague, but the teacher puts them into words that we can understand.”Angus Johnston, a professor at the University of King’s College, is coordinating the first section of the course, the Ancient World. He says he’s stopped thinking of it as a lecture and more of a seminar because the students ask so many good, thoughtful questions. When there’s a break in the lecture, says Johnston, students frequently cluster around him to shower him with questions about the material.
“They’ve turned out to be wonderfully active students. The level of argument has been very high. One of the things I keep seeing in students are stories about derailed plans. Some of them really were drawn to art or poetry and then life got in the way somehow. And now it’s lovely to have this opportunity where everything is free and they’ve really taken to this opportunity to have intellectual fun….These people have forced me to look at texts in ways I never have before.”
So far, the course has covered ancient Mesopotamia and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Last week, the class visited the Nova Scotia Art Gallery to view examples of Egyptian, Greek and Roman art.
When talking to Sandra Caine about her trip to the gallery, she beams. “We got to see the mummies from Egypt,” she says. “That was very exciting! Something like that usually costs $15. I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime.”
And that’s exactly the point of the program, says Gary Thorne. “Taking that which is strange and different and yet allowing people to enter into that, and becoming better people by doing that.”
He says it’s meant to combat a mindset that “those living in poverty need to learn how to work in a warehouse or in data entry. But for a single mother with three children who wakes up in the morning and needs some motivation to get out of bed and do good for herself, knowing how to use a cash register, or knowing how to do data entry, isn’t going to do it.
“Knowing about the good moral life, having your horizons broadened—getting a sense of what it is to be human—is what this course is meant to do.”
St. George Church began meeting with university presidents two years ago to discuss the possibility of bringing the program to Halifax. Organizers say they were overwhelmed with the level of response from interested students.
“I believe the program can only grow from here,” says Bruce Russell. “We have many students coming from Dartmouth and Spryfield. Ideally we’d like to have two programs. There’s a list of 6 to 10 people who want to take part but didn’t hear about it in time.”But for a project in the early stages of development, the Friends of Clemente Society has had an effect on some of the people it was meant to touch.
For Stewart the course has helped instill a newfound sense of self-confidence.
“The class has given me more of an outlook on what the future can hold for me instead of sitting in my home and doing nothing,” she says. “I’m on assistance, and I don’t want to be on it for the rest of my life.”