Transcript – Episode 45

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Rose Sackey-Milligan: The humanities gives us the tools to realize that there– we have much more in common than we have been led to believe. The humanities are significant.

Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Rose Sackey-Milligan. She is a Senior Program Officer at Mass Humanities, one of our wonderful partner organizations here in Massachusetts. And we’re going to be talking a little bit about the Clemente program. Rose, give us a little background on that.

Rose Sackey-Milligan: The Clemente Course in the Humanities got started in 1995 by a social critic and writer, Earl Shorris. He was doing some research for a book on poverty and he was doing some research around the country, and he found himself in a women’s prison. I don’t remember what state. But in that prison, in his conversations with an incarcerated woman, her charge to him was that because people are poor or incarcerated or are impoverished, does that mean that they have the capacity to be interested in the humanities, in philosophy, in art history, in U.S. history, in writing and critical thinking? And that his charge was to provide a moral alternative to the streets. That was her charge to Earl, that in taking courses that– using the words of Plato or Socrates, that through that experience, that inmates could have the moral grounding that is an alternative to the life that they’ve lived on the streets. And so he took that charge pretty seriously and developed The Clemente Course in the Humanities. And it became the Clemente Course because the location of the first course was at the Roberto Clemente Family Center in lower Manhattan, and that’s how the course got its name. It is now under the supervision of Bard College, so it’s the Clemente Course in the Humanities– it’s the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. That is the appropriate title of the course.

Anita Walker: So you’ve been working on this for a number of years. Could you tell us a couple of specific examples of the Clemente Course in Massachusetts?

Rose Sackey-Milligan: Well, there are five courses in Massachusetts. There are thirty-one across the country. Actually, six, six in Massachusetts. And the Clemente Course is a course that’s available to people in the margins who have not had access to an educational experience and want to have it. These are people who could be homeless, it could be veterans, they could be single moms, or a full household of both parents, who want to have the experience of a college level experience or just are interested in these various subject areas, as I liked before, U.S. history, American hist– art history, philosophy and literature and writing. And so they sign up, they go through an application process, they get an interview, and the requirements are pretty basic. Usually the individual has to meet the hundred and– less than one hundred and fifty percent at the poverty level. They have to be able to read a very basic newspaper with ease, and they have to be eighteen years of age and have a commitment to completing the course. Essentially, that’s what that is. And if they perform, if they take the yearlong course and complete all of the subject areas, which meets twice a week, the classes meet twice a week for two semesters, then they have the– they will receive a certificate of achievement and also up to six credits from– that are provided by Bard College. So that is the opportunity, that is the experience. It’s demanding. It’s not easy. Many of the students persevere against tremendous odds, working several jobs, single moms, various addictions, different work schedules. So it is quite a demanding experience, but many people, about fifty percent of the people we admit, complete the course. And they go on to do amazing things. Most people will go on to take additional learning at the college level. Some people are now engaged in becoming– getting their academic degrees, Bachelor’s, and some want to go on to law school. So those are the success stories. The fundamental success with the Clemente Course is to be able to complete the course. That alone is a tremendous success for people who are facing tremendous challenges, day to day challenges that make their life really, really hard.

Anita Walker: How do you reach out to potential applicants?

Rose Sackey-Milligan: We have a variety of ways. Usually we contact human service organizations. We also are on the radio a lot. Particularly in Springfield, radio is big, and so we use the radio, and word of mouth, and churches. Churches provide a good source of individuals, and we encourage people to come as– in buddies– as a buddy, because in those warm– those challenging winter days when you don’t want to get out, when the snow is bearing upon you and the cold is biting at your ears, take– going out to take the course and to sit in the classroom is not the most enjoyable thing. So the buddy system seems to work a lot, and when people have a tremendous amount of support – families, partners, grandmoms, cousins really support the individual – then there’s a high level of success.

Anita Walker: Do you have a waiting list?

Rose Sackey-Milligan: No, we do not yet have a waiting list in Springfield. In other parts of the state, there might be waiting lists because we have, as I mentioned before, we have the courses being offered in New Bedford and Brockton and Boston, Dorchester, Worcester, Springfield, and then our oldest, or the oldest Clemente Course is at The Care Center in Holyoke.

Anita Walker: So what is it about this? You mentioned well, the most important thing is to start and finish, and that obviously proves to a person that they can start and finish something hard. But there’s more to it than that.

Rose Sackey-Milligan: The more to it is that the courses are based in the humanities. The humanities are– of course we know them as academic disciplines, philosophy, ethics, jurisprudence, language, literature, so on and so forth. But what the humanities offer is the opportunity to explore the sort of ever evolving ideas of history and culture. There’s a way in which the humanities equip us with the tools of introspection, inquiry, exploration, reflection, critical thinking, and analysis. The humanities offer us the opportunity to have multiple perspectives on an issue, and many of the students come in thinking, because that’s the way they’ve been trained in grade school, is that there is only one absolute answer. And so the Clemente Course is seminar style and so the humanities offered in a seminar style setting gives you the opportunity to think about what you have read or learned, and reflect on it and see how it resonates with your own life. And you and I might have a different perspective on the situation. It’s not a right or wrong. And so in that knowing, people get a sense of confidence in that, “Wow, I have a perspective on this that matters, that is respected by other people, that has some value.” It may not have value to you per say, but there’s a way in which as we sit in the class together, we can develop, yeah a mutual respect for an understanding of an issue because that’s what it is. There are no absolutes. There are only relatives.

Anita Walker: So you’re doing this, not to state the obvious, but in an environment, in this country where that perspective, that valuing of multiple opinions seems to be completely absent. I mean, it feels like you’re doing this in a bubble.

Rose Sackey-Milligan: Exactly, it feels like we’re doing it in a bubble. And I think that’s why we’re very concerned with the current political climate and the thinking that is not in support of the humanities, the thinking that does not seem to value– the political thinking that doesn’t seem to value the humanities that much. But the humanities are important because if we can– if people, the people that we serve, can have the space, the space to explore ideas and think critically about issues and go– and take the time to inquire about the nature of poverty or the nature of any issue, then that lends itself to other aspects of their life. That means that they can take those tools and apply them to their environment, to their particular environment, particularly engaging civically to address and to understand, for example, the reason of why they are– their circumstance is the way it is. They can use those tools to inquire about their own life and the life of their community.

Anita Walker: You know what’s interesting, that leaders all over the country are trying to figure out why we are such a divided place, why we are so in stark opposition to each other. One can’t help but wonder if the absence of humanities in education over so many generations might be a contributing factor.

Rose Sackey-Milligan: Exactly, because I think that– not I think. I’ve come to experience and know that the humanities gives us the tools to realize that there– we have much more in common than we have been led to believe. And it’s in that commonality that then we can sort of reverse these– the gaps between our communities, whether they’re based on economics, class, race, gender, and other kinds of divides. So the humanities are significant, are very, very important. My sense is that the humanities may not be as important for our democracy as might be for other countries. It’s my understanding that in Europe, for example, I think that humanities are elevated to a much higher level. They’re much more significant to human life. Certainly people understand the value of exploring the human experience much more than I’ve experienced in this country. So…

Anita Walker: It’s interesting that the Clemente program is on the one hand, really transforming the lives of people who maybe never could have imagined that they would be taking a college course, and certainly not in philosophy or art history. And so that in and of itself has got to be a transformative experience for the people in the program. But at the same time, you’re breaking down the stereotypes that other people have of people who are in poverty or incarcerated or– and what their potential and capabilities are.

Rose Sackey-Milligan: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that the Clemente Course offers everyone the opportunity to see that excellence has nothing to do with your economic or social circumstances, that because you may live in an area that’s on the margins has nothing to do with your capacity to learn and to excel and to develop academically. And so it is true that the Clemente Course is transformative, not only for the students who participate and who complete the course, but also for the faculty who have to change their way of teaching and for the larger community, you can say, “Wow, I have to– this– I have to reconsider this false idea that the poor are not– do not have the capacity to learn.”

Anita Walker: Rose Sackey-Milligan, Senior Program Officer at Mass Humanities with the Clemente Course, another of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Rose Sackey-Milligan: Thank you so much.

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