Stanford humanities course empowers recovering addicts and alcoholics

12925-hope_ellen_newsI was really pleased to see Stanford University is conducting a course on historical female figures for recovering women of Hope House. The course is run by Humanities students who gain the chance to “connect with the humanity and hardships behind people whom our society usually writes off.”

I’ve always felt that too many universities remain detached from the realities of the communities within which they exist, so I was excited to see this approach. I really hope more universities work in this way.

‘Wende C. is a grandmother who worked in banking for 27 years. She is also a crack addict who checked herself into Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in Redwood City, Calif., so she could learn the skills she needs to recover from her addiction.

As a resident in the all-female facility, she participated in group and individual therapy sessions, and health and nutrition seminars. She also attended a weekly humanities course.

Each session focused on one historical female figure, including medieval philosopher Hildegard of Bingen, poet Emily Dickinson, African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth and Hatshepsut, one of the most successful pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

At first, Wende wondered about the merit of studying “old and dead people,” but she said that learning about influential women made her feel “empowered” and helped her realize that it’s “OK for women to take a stand.”

Wende is one of the hundreds of women who have completed the Hope House Scholars Program during the last 10 years. The program presents Stanford courses on traditional humanities topics like philosophy, ethics and the arts. Stanford scholars teach 10-week courses that incorporate discussions and homework, just like similar courses on the university campus. Stanford undergraduates serve as teaching assistants.

A humanities education may not seem like an obvious component of addiction recovery, but Karen Marie Francone, the executive director of the Service League of San Mateo County, the nonprofit agency that runs Hope House, said there is a strong correlation between the two.

“Like the recovery process, the coursework seems insurmountable,” she said, but trusting the process of the course shows students that “you can do anything if you keep an open mind and are willing.”

Corrie Goldman
Hope House scholar Ellen D. said the confidence she gained studying and writing about influential women in history helped to counteract the ‘powerlessness and shame’ of addiction.

Francone, who initiated the Hope House program with Stanford, also said that humanities subject matter, such as philosophical scenarios and ethical dilemmas, gives the students new perspectives “that help them make wise decisions that are actually good for them.”

Importantly, Francone noted, exposure to the humanities helps the women “expand their horizons and see themselves not just as an addict or alcoholic but as a whole person.”

The award-winning Hope House Scholars Program began in 2001 after Stanford Professors Debra Satz (philosophy) and Rob Reich (political science and philosophy) were inspired by an article about the Clemente Course in the Humanities – a program that offers free humanities courses to the economically distressed.

The Clemente Course was founded in 1995 by social critic Earl Shorris on the premise that skills learned in a liberal arts curriculum, such as critical thinking and cultural awareness, could give the poor and uneducated the tools to more fully participate in society, which would in turn enable them to better their own lives.

Satz, whose research centers on political philosophy, sees a humanities education as an equalizing force between citizens of different economic classes. As Satz describes it on the Hope House Scholars webpage, “a liberal education is to learn about freedom,” the “democratic birthright of all Americans.”

After eight years overseeing Stanford’s relationship with Hope House, Joan Berry, associate director of Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society, feels that what makes this program work is that “everyone – the faculty, the Stanford students and the Hope House clients – benefits from the sharing of ideas and discussing life’s big questions.”

“Time after time,” Berry said, “it is clear that at end of the class, everyone leaves feeling empowered and transformed.”

Reich, the director of Stanford’s Program in Ethics in Society, which organizes the Hope House Scholars Program in conjunction with Stanford Continuing Studies, said because “the humanities revolve around questions every human being grapples with,” study of humanities subjects creates “a sense of possibility and agency that many [of the Hope House students] haven’t experienced in a long time.”

Finding a voice
Indeed, many of the women who completed the most recent course referenced a sense of accomplishment that renewed their self-confidence.

This spring, a course team-taught by Stanford Humanities Center Associate Director Katja Zelljadt and Mira Wasserman, a scholar of Jewish studies and a resident fellow in a Stanford undergraduate residence hall, centered on an iconic work of feminist art called The Dinner Party. Created by artist Judy Chicago and on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, the installation features 39 unique place settings representing important women from history.

The students wrote poems, plays, essays and political speeches in which they found connections between their own personal stories and those of the historical figures.

Ellen D., a lawyer and an alcoholic whose binge drinking landed her in jail, described writing assignments such as a play that showed how Emily Dickinson and Sojourner Truth might have interacted as “cathartic.” The experience, she said, helped to counteract the powerlessness and shame of addiction. “For the first time in a long time I did something I was proud of,” she added.

A historian by training, Zelljadt said she and Wasserman “wanted to get the women thinking about layering in history and how different generations of women rediscover women.” The Hope House students, she added, “are just the newest generation of those re-discoverers.”

At the course completion celebration, Wasserman told the students that the coursework had “stretched the students to express themselves” but they had “raised themselves to every challenge.” She said she hoped the course had “persuaded the women that they have important things to say and the ability to express themselves.”

Each graduate receives a credit toward a Continuing Studies course, and Jesse R., a young mother who is trying to beat her drug addiction so she can regain custody of her infant, said she plans to take a writing course because she realized she’s “a voice that wants to be heard.”

Speaking at the ceremony, Ruby Cvetan-Ross, a licensed therapist at Hope House since 2000, said that no matter the topic, the impact of the Hope House Scholars Program “has always been profound and opens the eyes and minds of our women.”

The program, Cvetan-Ross noted, helps the clients realize “that they have thoughts that are worth sharing and that they have personal meaning and significance in the world.”

‘Not a one-way program’
The Hope House Scholars Program is equally significant for the Stanford students who serve as tutors, moderating discussions and helping the women with writing assignments.

A junior majoring in history and Italian, Connie McNair has tutored for four quarters and said she plans to continue “as long as there’s space for me.”

McNair said her work at Hope House continually reminds her of the “depth and complexity of the problems of poverty, inequality, violence, lack of opportunity and institutional oppression that leave these women devoid of confidence, self-esteem and hope.”

Faced with that complex challenge, McNair said she feels the most important thing the tutors do is cultivate “interest and confidence in the students’ ability to grapple with material they’ve never had access to before.”

Like McNair, sophomore classics major Michael Taylor is a repeat tutor. He worked two quarters this year and intends to continue to do so as long as his schedule allows.

Being a tutor has helped Taylor realize that “there are plenty of perfectly beautiful and legitimate ways of expressing one’s self that would not fly in a university setting.”

Satz, who has taught the course Philosophy and Social Justice at Hope House a number of times, tells the tutors and instructors to “be prepared to have so many of your assumptions totally rocked.”

“Not only do the Hope House women ‘get’ the books we teach,” said Satz, they “see aspects of the works that sometimes go by unremarked when we teach them at Stanford.”

Reich noted that the tutors are also enlightened on a more emotional plane, as their work with the women helps them connect with “the humanity and hardships behind people whom our society usually writes off.”

Importantly, said Satz, “it’s not a one-way program. This is not a program where Stanford faculty bring their expertise to a group of people who have no expertise. This is actually a program in which two groups that have been relatively isolated from one anther come together and think together about important questions of values, and ethics, and history.”‘