By Vivé Griffith
Photography by Andy Sams
In this East Austin meeting room, the tables form a circle. Course readers with goldenrod covers wait at each seat, along with syllabi and books. Steam rises from tureens of soup on a side table. It’s six o’clock on a Wednesday evening in January, and the spring semester will be underway when the first bowl is lifted and dinner begins.
This is the Free Minds Project, a partnership between The University of Texas and Austin Community College that offers low-income adults a unique educational experience: a free two-semester course in the humanities.
Students take on Socrates and Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence and the structure of a declarative sentence. Each class begins with a meal.
Sometimes we eat turkey meatloaf or penne with chicken delivered at a discount by Central Market; other times we construct sandwiches from a tray of meats and cheeses; on occasion boxes of pizza are stacked high.
Twenty students trickle into M Station, the affordable housing complex run by Foundation Communities. These are adults with full lives, coming to class after a long day at work, the scramble of picking up kids from school or a few bus transfers. They set down their things and in doing so, set down their days. Mealtime marks the transition from the lives they live outside the classroom to the ones they step into around this table. Here they are part of a community—a community bound by learning, but also bound by food.
When the program begins in August, we eat quietly. But slowly a hum is born, and by November it’s a clamor. Mealtimes are full of energy; children move in and out of the room grabbing plates from their parents before settling into their own classroom down the hall; class notes are exchanged, or a tricky paragraph by Frederick Douglass is taken apart; students talk about their weekends and share job opportunities and favorite recipes.
Providing a healthful meal for students and their children two nights a week isn’t easy or cheap. Working on a shoestring budget, the program’s founder would pick up breakfast tacos in paper bags and transport them to class in a trailer attached to her bicycle. When I became director, I knew I lacked her fortitude. Fortunately, a generous grant allowed us to have the food delivered. In leaner years, we’ve considered letting go of dinner. In a pinch, shouldn’t we choose copies of King Lear over plates of pasta?
I’m glad that question has remained rhetorical. We’ve been able to offer a meal each class night since the program began in 2006. Once, a donor gave us an H-E-B card that kept us eating for a month. Last year, we had Amanda.
An AmeriCorps volunteer, Amanda liked Free Minds, and even better, she loved to cook. So for an entire academic year, in an apartment shared with three roommates, she prepared us a homemade meal. Out of the hatch of her red SUV she’d pull pots of minestrone or pans of tamales. We ate shepherd’s pie, lemon chicken, quinoa pilaf. Each night held a surprise. She’d slice avocados into a salad while a student approached to pull off a lid for a peek. Vegetarian chili! Chicken and dumplings!
Amanda’s in graduate school now, but she wouldn’t trade those evenings watching students interact over their dinners. Nor would I. Because in the end, while I want students to master the material on the syllabus, I want even more for them to feel part of an intellectual community. I want them to have confidence in their own abilities. I want them to know that they belong in a college classroom—that our classrooms need people with their smarts and motivation.
I think about this as voices start filling the room and students ladle tomato bisque or beef vegetable soup into bowls. This semester they’ll work through a Toni Morrison novel and a history of the borderlands. They’ll tour the Blanton Museum and read creative work in front of an audience. And in May they’ll graduate from the program on fire, ready to take on college and the world.
But first, as always, we eat.