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Out of the Academy and onto the Streets: The Power of Philosophy

Nov 5, 2015

Columbia University's "Rethink" community outreach program brings philosophy out of academia and into the lives of youths on probation, battered women, and other disadvantaged groups. "Rethink" co-founder Max Hayward discusses his experiences working with these groups and three concrete ways philosophy has empowered them.

ALEX WOODSON: Hello. My name is Alex Woodson, and I am a producer and editor at Carnegie Council. Today I am here with Max Hayward, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Columbia University in New York, who was the Public Humanities Fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities.

Thanks for coming, Max.


ALEX WOODSON: Max is one of the founders of Rethink, a community outreach program that runs philosophical discussions outside of the traditional academic environment.

To start off, why don't you tell us a little bit more about this program and how you got it started?

MAX HAYWARD: The inspiration for Rethink came out of conversations that I had with another one of the founders of Rethink, Robbie Kubala, who is also a Ph.D. student at Columbia. We were reflecting upon the great advantage we felt that the opportunity for philosophical thought and questioning had been in our own lives, and we wanted to find ways to bring this outside of the traditional academic context.

Of course, as Ph.D. students, we were teaching students, undergraduates, at Columbia, which is a very rewarding experience and something that we both enjoyed enormously. But we felt that there was a great need for the advantages and the possible changes that philosophical thinking and questioning could have outside of the small sector of the population that has the opportunity to encounter it in a university context.

To that end, we entered discussions with the two other co-founders of Rethink, Yoni Pasternak, who at the time was an M.A. student in philosophy, and John Fantuzzo, who is a Ph.D. student in philosophy and education at Teachers College.

Our first collaboration was with the Harlem Justice Community Program, which was a project that worked with young men and women mainly from Harlem and the South Bronx, but drawn from all over New York, who were "court-involved youth," was the term that we used. They had been involved with the justice system and were now either on parole or on probation.

We approached Harlem Justice to integrate our discussions into the ongoing educational program that they were offering to these young people. The idea was that many people coming out of the justice system face great challenges in moving forward with their lives. Harlem Justice offered an integrated program of educational offerings, help with job interviews, writing CVs, and also volunteering in the local community. Rethink was integrated into that program as a part of the educational program.

ALEX WOODSON: What other partnerships did Rethink have or does it have right now?

MAX HAYWARD: After the first term with Harlem Justice, we felt that the model that we had initiated seemed to be a success, although that sounds like bragging, and was something that could be expanded and would work in other locations.

Our second community partnership—all of these are ongoing—was with the Fortune Society, which has more than one location in New York. We partnered with their location which was also in Harlem, also working with the same demographic of young men and women—although, in practice, in both locations predominantly men, predominantly also African American and Latino—drawn from the same population, mainly in Uptown Manhattan and the South Bronx.

In that case, it was a similar educational program. We were integrated into a group that were working towards getting their GEDs [general educational development]. Philosophical discussions as run by Rethink became part of the weekly offerings there.

The third community partnership, which actually arose from invitation by the organization, was with a somewhat different demographic. We have multiple groups now working at Sanctuary for Families, which is an organization that works with women who have been victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Sanctuary for Families believes that in order to end the cycle of domestic violence, they need not just to help women leave dangerous situations, but provide them with the ability to become financially independent, for which more than simply a minimum-wage job is required. So they attempt to offer them a more advanced level of education, including focus on the greater conceptual skills that would be required in a managerial or salaried position, and also the cultural capital and greater problem-solving abilities.

That is called their Economic Empowerment Program, and Rethink is part of that. We are integrated into a series of readings and discussions they have, which are already dealing, to some extent, with philosophical topics. They read Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird, and they have discussions about philosophical, political, ethical questions. Rethink comes in and we pair our sessions with the curriculum that already exists, with the hope that this will further the goals of empowerment that Sanctuary for Families already has for its clients.

ALEX WOODSON: Why have these philosophical discussions been such a good fit for court-involved youth? Let's start off with the Harlem Justice Community Program first. Why has that worked out so well?

MAX HAYWARD: It is interesting. I think people find it somewhat surprising that philosophy would be something that you would want to take outside of the classroom, outside of the academy. To many people, philosophy sounds like the most abstruse and least accessible and least practically relevant of academic disciplines.

I would like to think that the reverse is true. You can do philosophy by talking about everyday life. You can do philosophy without having to engage with difficult readings or listing the names of great dead white men. Rethink was founded with this as our guiding belief, and so we always attempt to make philosophical discussions take off from what are really discussions about everyday life.

At the beginning of every session we will ask perhaps a mundane question—for example, "What is your dream job?" or "What is a time that you were responsible for something?"—things that people will have encountered in their everyday lives—and use these as opportunities to delve into the less specific and more abstract realm of philosophical thinking, perhaps discussing the concept of power or the concept of responsibility. But the thought is that this is always grounded in the reality of the lives of our participants.

And we hope it is something that can always be brought back. Having abstracted away from particular concrete experiences, to try and think in general terms, they can then take general thoughts—and we always aim to take general thoughts—and reapply them to the situations that prompted questioning in the first place.

So to that extent, I think that philosophy is a very natural fit for community outreach, because it can be brought to bear on all sorts of pressing, live issues that our participants face already.

ALEX WOODSON: I watched a video where you were describing this. Some of the interesting things that I found were: You said you never ask participants why they are there. No one is the teacher; no one is in front of the classroom. You also wanted to get the youth that you are talking to in the habit of presenting reasons for opinions.

It may seem obvious, but what effect did this have on discussions?

MAX HAYWARD: Following on from what I said before, I think we really do aim to challenge the notion of philosophy as being something where everyone has to read certain texts and then someone stands at the front of the classroom and lectures. The way in which there is not an explicit teacher-student dynamic is that we go in groups and we sit around a table, rather than having us at the front and them looking up towards us.

We also present ourselves as guests in their community and in their environment. So we say that we come with no rules beyond—the rules that we want to respect are the rules that they have and the rules that are already in place at our community partnerships, except that we add two rules: One of which is a rule of mutual respect, that we don't have the right answers and, a priori (from the earlier), we don't know that this is the right answer to any question. Second—so on the one hand, it is important that participants respect the beliefs, opinions, and arguments of those around them; but on the other hand, they owe it to the others to give reasons for whatever they say.

We foster this through a variety of techniques. As well as discussion around the table, we also model respectful disagreements. So two of us will start off having a debate about, for example, different justifications or views on the justifiability of punishment, and then invite the participants to take part.

I think the product of this is twofold. One, many of the people we work with, especially when we are talking about court-involved youth, have had very few opportunities to express and develop their own views and have them listened to. Initially, they think it is a strange experience to be asked, "What do you think reflectively about these political or ethical questions?" They might initially be somewhat surprised to be given this opportunity. But I have found that our participants, many of them, really relish it and become excited at the idea of working out for themselves what they reflectively think about ethical questions that are indeed relevant to their own lives.

Secondly, I think it encourages a spirit of shared—and sometimes argumentative—exploration. One thing that is often said about contemporary philosophical practice in the academy is that it is very argumentative. It is sometimes accused of being combative, which is something that we try not to encourage. But the spirit of respectful debate, I think, is an important thing to understand and to foster. Encouraging our participants to develop that skill and habit I think is very valuable for them, and I think something they come out more comfortable with doing.

ALEX WOODSON: You said that Rethink now works with women who are victims of domestic violence. Is it kind of the same approach with them, or is that a different program?

MAX HAYWARD: The model is very much the same in both cases. In fact, the ideal behind the Rethink model is that it should be something that can be taken and adapted to a variety of contexts.

In terms of what we do and how we do it, it is very much the same. Obviously, different focuses for discussion will come up. In discussing real and pressing examples with court-involved youth, often a question such as the legitimacy of stop-and-frisk would be a discussion point we would come upon. Whereas, in a recent discussion—I was part of a team at Sanctuary for Families—we were talking about the concept of power, initially in a physical context, but the discussion amongst the participants brought that to the notions of power in interpersonal relationships and the possibility of those around you to take away the power even to make a choice.

So in terms of the subject matter, we allow our participants—we come, perhaps, with a topic for discussion, a short reading drawn from the news perhaps, but we allow the participants to take the discussions in their own direction. And so, inevitably, we will end up discussing different concrete cases which are instances or applications of the general philosophical questions that we want to discuss.

ALEX WOODSON: You just said that one of the goals of the Rethink program is that it can work in a variety of different contexts. As someone who was born and raised in London in the UK, do you think that this is something that could work in England, in Europe, in Asia, or is it kind of more specific to the United States or to New York? We are an international organization, so that is something that we are always a little interested in.

MAX HAYWARD: Absolutely. It's something that we are already working on in fact. One of our former discussion facilitators, one of our volunteers, is now in Toronto, and she is planning on setting up a branch of Rethink or—I don't know. We won't compel her to use the same name if she doesn't want to—but the same model.

Also, we have been approached by someone in Boston who wants to set up a similar model.

I certainly think that it would work in the UK, in London, and if I move back there, I would certainly be looking into finding partnerships to work with.

I think it would work anywhere where those—one part of our current model is that we partner with community organizations. So the existence of well-run and successful community organizations that work with the sort of demographics that we want to work with is a sine qua non. But beyond that, I don't think there are great locational or cultural constraints on where and how this could be done.

Our volunteers are drawn from all over the world. We have graduate students from Columbia, from Teachers College, from The New School, from the CUNY [City University of New York] grad center, from Fordham, and from NYU [New York University], who themselves are from a variety of different countries. If they end up back in their countries of origin, we would encourage them to set up something similar and provide them with all the materials that we prepared.

Part of our goal in the past few years has been to put together a stock of discussion plans, short adapted readings, which are accessible to audiences without necessarily an extensive educational background, exercises, games, activities, that worked. The idea is that anyone can take these resources and use them and adapt them to the groups that they want to work with.

It is absolutely free for anyone. These are going live on our website shortly. It's absolutely free for anyone who wants to take them, or it will be.

Also, the people that we work with are themselves drawn from a variety of backgrounds. In our partnerships in Harlem, they are mainly, if they weren't born in the United States or New York—we have a number of participants who were born in the Dominican Republic. At Sanctuary for Families, we have participants drawn from all over the world who, of course, have come to New York under very unfortunate circumstances—women from India, from Pakistan, from West Africa, from the Caribbean, from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, off the top of my head. Recently, we worked with women from various East Asian countries.

And people come in with a variety of backgrounds in terms of English proficiency.

We have found ways to adapt what we are doing, which we think is something that is relevant and interesting to anyone, to the needs and challenges of working with such a diverse group of participants.

ALEX WOODSON: Does the fact that you and, you said, a lot of the other volunteers are not native to the United States and you are working in these communities—does that have an effect on the discussions? Does that change things in any way?

MAX HAYWARD: I think it does in this respect, which is that a lot of what philosophical questioning or philosophical thinking does is challenge preconceptions which you might take to be necessarily universal.

Just inviting our participants to think about concrete situations where things are done differently and we, as some of us are not from New York or from the United States, can say with authority "actually, this is how things are done elsewhere"—I think it provides us with very real and concrete examples of the differences, for example, in ethical norms or in political practices, or even talking about differences in how policing is conducted in different countries. This I think does invite our participants to think in the terms that we think would be fruitful. So in that respect, yes.

ALEX WOODSON: How has this been received in the greater philosophical community? It seems like in Columbia and New York people have really taken to it. But have you brought it out to different parts of the country, other countries, and what has been the reception when you talk about this?

MAX HAYWARD: I think that philosophy as a whole, as an academic discipline and profession, is thinking increasingly about the role of philosophers in the public world because it is important for us to remind people of the relevance of philosophy. In a time when the humanities often seem to be under attack—and, indeed, often are—it is seen as vital that we demonstrate the relevance of philosophy to the real and pressing needs and problems of the world around us. I think that in that respect it is seen very positively.

We already have had faculty members joining in Rethink in various capacities, as helping to train new volunteers, helping to volunteer themselves. And we have had great enthusiasm when we have communicated this to others.

Another faculty member who was previously a Society Fellow at the Heyman Center at Columbia, who is now moving to Washington University in St. Louis, has talked about bringing the program there.

I think philosophy departments see this as part of a broader necessity for the discipline.

There is another way in which philosophy will be benefitted from this, which is that it broadens, I think, the conception for philosophers, a sense of what are necessarily topics for philosophical reflection. And so I think it not only helps the discipline's position in the world, but I think that a greater access to philosophy and a broadening of the horizons of philosophers is itself good for the discipline—not that great work isn't being done in philosophical engagement with public issues already. This is just one of many different ways in which various philosophers view public engagement as a resource for the rejuvenation of philosophy itself.

ALEX WOODSON: How has this informed your work as a philosopher and your thinking? Are there things that surprised you that you have taken with you? How long have you been doing this for?

MAX HAYWARD: Three years now.

ALEX WOODSON: So it has been a while to actually build up and make some conclusions. What have you taken with you?

MAX HAYWARD: One of the things that has startled me is that some of the opinions that we have encountered have been views that I find morally and politically, myself, deeply uncomfortable. Participants who have been incarcerated, who know that their incarceration was unjust—people who have been sent to jail for very petty crimes, minor drug charges, and they know that it wasn't just—they feel that it was absurd, but also detrimental, that nothing was gained, there were no good consequences that flowed from the decision to incarcerate them for such petty reasons.

And yet, these same people are supporting a kind of retributive attitude towards the justification of punishment, saying that punishment, and often quite extreme punishments, are deserved regardless of whether these bring about good consequences, and simply because it's intrinsic in wrongdoing that wrongdoing creates the just deserts of punishment.

This struck me as a contradiction, that people whose own lives might be improved if they advocated for a more results-oriented view of the justification of punishment were themselves putting forward views that seemed to contradict what I assumed was their own interest. And yet, it has been very important for me to try and understand why they say this and to try to, if not agree, at least be able to occupy a position where I can see what the perspective is that makes sense of such views. And I think there is one. It's not a question simply of people having incoherent views.

I realize that many of the people we work with, much as they may feel a resentment at what they have suffered from the justice system, are also extremely scared of being victims of crime. One participant who advocated extremely harsh penalties revealed that his own sister had been a victim of sexual assault. Another participant who also advocated for harsh penalties had lost a family member to drunk driving from another person. And many of them had been victims of crime in jail.

It made me understand the importance, not just of—a lot of philosophy, a lot of ethics, often seems to focus just on coming up with the right answer or what is the truth ethically. I don't think this is actually the fundamental or only goal that ethicists should have, but also say how can we reconstruct a variety of different ethical viewpoints in order to understand them better. That goal of understanding is just as important as the goal of trying to get things right.

I find, related to this, I have become more and more convinced of the view that ethical discovery or ethical progress is something that has to be shaped by a broader conversation and it can't just be something that is done from the armchair by a select few ethical experts; rather, ethical discovery is something that has to emerge out of collective discussions that represent the whole of our community and our society.

I use that in the broadest sense, not just to include a particular nation, but all those who have a stake in the creation of the ethical order around us, which is everyone. That is a substantive philosophical view, it is controversial, but it is definitely something that has been informed by the practice of actually running something that I take to be in a small way an approximation of such a conversation.

Now, not everyone who does Rethink with me has the same philosophical view about ethics as something communally, jointly constructed by all of us. Some people think of ethics as something that could be discovered by experts and could be promulgated by experts. But I do think that the viewpoint, at least in my case, of saying that was, if not born out of doing this work, at least developed in that context.

ALEX WOODSON: What's next for you? Is Rethink something that you are going to continue in for a few more years, or do you have other goals in mind?

MAX HAYWARD: Indefinitely, I hope. The initial founders have already done a lot of work to ensure that Rethink in New York, housed from Columbia but, as I mentioned, including graduate students from a variety of New York universities—we have already done work to make sure that that continues in its current form.

Part of that is that we have set up a faculty advisory board with certain responsibility over Rethink. We are now no longer running it ourselves, although we continue to work for Rethink. So we found younger members of the Ph.D. program who have now taken it over and try to give them—they very much feel a stake in it. Their names are Adam Blazej and Ignacio Ojea. They have taken it on themselves, and they are already looking at who will succeed them in the future.

One of our great worries is that—there are other outreach programs in philosophy, other community-oriented programs of philosophy—given the realities of the academic world, Ph.D. study is extremely demanding and the academic job market, which most people coming out of a Ph.D. face, is time-consuming—indeed, all-consuming—and it is very hard for an individual motivate herself to do this without a structure around.

Often, these programs are the result of a few highly motivated individuals, and when they leave the programs die. Sadly, NYU had a fantastic outreach program which more or less withered away when the initial, very passionate founders departed to take up jobs elsewhere.

So the first thing is to make sure that Rethink was a sustainable program and was something that people could join into and give as much as they have. The sustainability of Rethink here in New York was priority one.

In terms of my own development, I will be applying for jobs throughout the United States, Canada, and the UK in academic philosophy for academic positions, and I will certainly take Rethink with me wherever I go, as long as it is something that can feasibly be run, as long as there was a community and an audience for it.

For me it has been one of the most important and rewarding, both emotionally and intellectually, endeavors that I have undertaken in my career. It is certainly something that I wouldn't leave behind.

ALEX WOODSON: That's great. It sounds like a really wonderful program.

Anything else you want to add before we wrap up?

MAX HAYWARD: Yes. Just a little bit more about the concept of discussing philosophy and why we think it is worthwhile.

I think one of the great challenges that we wrestled with was—one answer I gave you when you asked "Why philosophy?" was I said, "Well, philosophy works in this context." That's one sort of reason to do it.

Of course, that's not a conclusive reason to do it. The further question is, "What does philosophy give; what does it give to our participants?" Maybe it's good press for philosophy that people are engaging with it, but why should our participants spend time on philosophy rather than anything else? These are people with pressing needs, after all. I take that very seriously as a question.We see this in terms of three stages of empowerment.

The first is that we take care to discuss concepts that are important and salient in everyday life. The course of topics that we are discussing is actually for families right now. We discuss power, which is both relevant for the personal lives of our participants but also relevant as they make strides or return to the workplace—or responsibility, another concept that is used all the time in everyday life. So simply conceptual mastery of this sort, thinking more about concepts that structure the world around us, I think is a great benefit.

It's something that people may not realize they get from privileged education, but certainly do. The ability to debate and discuss these concepts at a certain level gives you a personal advantage, a personal empowerment. It gives you the ability to articulate your own reasons or your own justifications. So that is the first sort of empowerment, very immediate personal empowerment.

The second sort of empowerment I think touches on something that I mentioned earlier, which is that I said that sometimes people have viewpoints that I find surprising given their own needs and what I take to be their interests. It is very important that I and that we respect these and understand that these might be the products of coherent viewpoints that we need to understand. Nevertheless, I do think that many of our participants have come to see and have picked up viewpoints that don't represent their own best interests because these are socially dominant or widely promulgated viewpoints. I see Rethink as an opportunity for people to scrutinize and subject these to reflective criticism in the light of their own experience and understanding.

Now, some people might walk away reflectively being in favor of harsh prison sentences, but I don't think most of them do. I think most of them walk away with different views from the ones that they started with. I think that this is a form of empowerment in itself, not simply living by the values—political, ethical, philosophical views—that were handed down to you. But coming to form your own views in light of your own experience and your own understanding is a deep form of empowerment, I think, that greatly benefits and in a certain way is very relevant to the lives of our participants.

Finally, the third sort of empowerment is a political one, which is that many of the people we work with are committed, or become committed, not just through us but through their experiences in these social organizations, to working for and fighting for various kinds of systemic change in the world around them.

For example, a group that we worked with at Fortune Society were being taken by Fortune to an event in Albany to lobby policymakers on changes to policy regarding detention for minors. We felt, and they felt, that the opportunity to have certain kinds of discussions, the debates we were having, the opportunity to reflect on some of the topics we talked about, gave them a facility together to articulate and express arguments that may have reflected viewpoints that they started with but perhaps they weren't initially able to explain in a way that would engage widely or engage with the broader political and moral conversation.

During—this is ongoing of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is ongoing—but before one of the major marches in New York last year we ran a whole session for those of our participants who were interested and engaged with this movement and with the issue or the question of police brutality against African Americans on what were philosophical questions that we could identify as being key to various positions that people might take on this issue. So how could you identify some of the often-run-together views—sometimes you see political debates run together and it seems like there's one side versus another—but how could we break this down into a series of particular moral questions, or even epistemological questions, and how could we articulate what it was and why one would take one view rather than another.

We felt that this was a case of bringing the concepts and the work that we had done together in a philosophical context to empower the people we worked with to make the arguments to effect the sorts of change that they wanted to effect. That's the third form of empowerment.

So three forms of empowerment: One, the direct thing, their individual lives being altered, you use concepts that are relevant to individual life and give and ask for reasons with greater practice; the second, reflectively rejecting views that they don't reflectively endorse in light of their experience; and third, being armed with capabilities perhaps to argue in a certain way for systemic changes that they are themselves personally committed to. I think that this is a demonstration of the importance of philosophical thinking in every aspect—and ethical thinking, because the majority of these topics are ethical/philosophical questions—although not all of them are; we sometimes talk about questions about knowledge production and testimony and who we even regard as having epistemic authority over questions, which is itself to some extent a moral question.

But understanding both the role that these ideas play in shaping the world around them, and also I think, to bring us back to the very first thing I said, the sense that we have gained a personal advantage, those of us who have had the opportunity to have this education, we have gained personal empowerment, and that was something we wanted, we want, and we do bring to those that we work with.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to quickly follow up on that, do you stay in touch with any of the youth? It has been three years. That's a long time in the life of a teenager.

MAX HAYWARD: Yes. This is a slightly complex question. Obviously, working with these populations, with women who have been involved with domestic violence and youth who have been incarcerated, there are certain issues of confidentiality. We don't ask personal details about any of them. Sadly, in the case of the court-involved youth, we sometimes do hear from the organizations that some of them have been reincarcerated, which is always very sad for us, although some of them have gone on to succeed in their GEDs or college applications or job applications, which is always nice to hear about.

We have had some follow-up contact on an individual basis—not as an organization, because this is not information that we have—but that always has to be initiated by them.

We have actually had, sadly, requests that we couldn't take. We had one former participant who asked if he could be our intern. We don't have funding for an internship, and we wouldn't want to take him on without that because he is facing pretty meaningful economic challenges. If we could have done it, we would.

So we have had a few former participants who actually offered or asked about the possibility of volunteering with us or working with us. We are currently in the process of applying for various sorts of funding, grants, that would actually potentially give us the opportunity to offer some kind of stipend to former participants to help them come back into the program from the other side.

That has been something that has happened to the extent that—I can't tell you the broad picture of where people have gone, but that is some example.

ALEX WOODSON: Great. Thank you very much. This has been a really interesting discussion.

Again, this was Max Hayward speaking about Rethink. My name is Alex Woodson. You can find this podcast on and iTunes. Thanks for listening.

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