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Plato in da 'hood

Nanaimo Clemente Program

Nanaimo’s south end is a neighbourhood in transition, caught between the high-density development of downtown, the glitz of a waterfront conference centre that looks to the future and low-slung industrial buildings that look back into the city’s resource-based past.

The Princess Royal Family Centre is a small patch of colour and noise on an otherwise gritty, monochromatic day. Children play outside on a candy-coloured jungle gym next to a patch of green grass. Their playful shouts hang in the air.

A steady stream of people pours through the doors of this former 1950s schoolhouse. Now a drop-in centre for public health nursing and the community, the family centre is a hub around which a huge social network of people and programs spin.

Inside, a wall of brochures and rack cards advertises every conceivable family program. Colourful posters offer immunization clinics, addiction resources, nursing support and workshops on dental health, nutrition and postpartum depression. A whiteboard proclaims, “Clemente Program 12:30-2:30 p.m.” It’s early yet, and a peek inside the classroom reveals a solitary mom quietly breastfeeding her baby.

Outside, two men are smoking. They’re taking a break before their class begins (and giving mom some privacy). They drag deeply. You’d be hard-pressed to fi nd two more distinct personalities, or two more unlikely friends, than these two. Doug is 48. He grew up in Nanoose Bay, and “pulled the pin” on school in Grade 10, trading the classroom for the rough-and-tumble life of logging camps. A carpenter, fi sherman and logger, he made a lot of money in B.C.’s resource industries. Enough to buy a Harley and pay cash for his own house at 22 years old. Enough to get married, and divorced. Unfortunately not enough to support a voracious drug habit. Doug doesn’t mention that time much (he’s been clean for two years). Or perhaps he forgets – it’s understandable – a head injury from a motorcycle accident in 1993 changed his life completely. He is self-deprecating, speaks with disarming candour and is fi ercely committed to regaining the function and parts of his life that he lost 16 years ago.

Paul is 41. He’s wry, cynical and laughs easily. A former child prodigy from Ontario, he’s a fi ne arts graduate, an award-winning carver and a Celtic harp maker. He also struggled in school, but for different reasons than Doug.

“In the educational system at the time they didn’t know quite what to do with people like me,” he says.” I’d finish all my courses in the first month. I was extraordinarily bored in school.” Paul is charming, extremely articulate and solitary.

Doug and Paul are both part of a revolutionary program that is teaching literature, philosophy and art history to people at risk of homelessness, physical and mental illness and addiction. American journalist Earl Shorris started the Clemente Program in 1995. Shorris developed a college-level course for non-traditional adult learners, in the belief that the humanities are key to fostering citizenship. Vancouver Foundation is one of the principal sponsors of the Clemente Program in Nanaimo, along with Vancouver Island University and the Nanaimo Youth Services Association. In 2008, the Foundation provided a grant of almost $62,000 to help fund the program.

Support for the Nanaimo Clemente Program comes from Vancouver Foundation’s Community Fund, which allows donors to direct their gifts to the most pressing community needs, and to support innovative projects. The Foundation works closely with volunteer community advisers – experts in their field who know the emerging trends and needs – to ensure gifts for the Community Fund are targeted effectively and make a lasting impact in the community.

Clemente Program participants get together twice a week to read and discuss such matters as the philosophical questions raised by Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. They study Rousseau and Homer. They’re taught by experts in the field, and can get university credit if they pass. Heady stuff for the students, many of whom never made it past Grade 10.

They also get a meal before each class, and bus fare if they need it. Child care is available. Books are paid for by the program, and the students get free tickets to a variety of local artistic events, such as dance, music and theatre performances, and gallery openings.

The second class of the Nanaimo Clemente Program ended April 3 with a small ceremony at VIU. All of the students graduated with a certificate of participation, and most got university credit for the fall and spring terms. Classes begin again in September 2009.

Mark Blackell, professor of liberal studies and political science at VIU, and academic coordinator for the Nanaimo Clemente Program, is sold on the inherent benefits of studying literature and philosophy, but credits the students for the progress they’ve made.

“The program doesn’t always work for everybody,” he says. “You have to find the right people…. But when it does, it works for two reasons: first, the community that develops between the people in the classroom. And second, in students who are open to it, the course creates an intellectual excitement and intellectual courage.

“Many of our students have mental health issues, and occasionally they struggle with those…. It takes a lot of courage for some participants to come to class. It takes courage to crack open a book, to read it and think about it, and courage to come and speak, and listen to others.”

Blackell recalls one former student who said, “A good day is when I can get out of bed. I drag myself to the Clemente course, and I always feel better afterwards. I feel intellectually alive. I walk away and I’m thinking about ideas.”

It’s ideas that brought Doug and Paul, along with eight others, to the Princess Royal Family Centre. It’s ideas they share over a cigarette and a cup of coffee. They always come an hour early, to set up the tables in the classroom, have a smoke and chat.

For Doug, the benefits of the Clemente Program are concrete. “I’m speaking better because of this course,” he says. “After my accident I couldn’t say a whole sentence without stuttering. I couldn’t remember things. I couldn’t read or write properly, because by the time I finished the sentence I couldn’t remember the first word. Now I read a lot … I’m not totally on-topic all the time. I wander a little, but my family is happy that I’m doing something and asking what I’m going to do next.”

Paul adds, “I think a course like this is absolutely critical for our society… we are sliding into the abyss of reality shows; of poor dialogue, poor interactions. I think we’re doomed if we let that happen. You end up with a culture that encourages going shopping to fill a personal void. The mall is the new church. People are looking for something; something spiritual. Call it science or faith or technology or spirituality – they’re looking for something.”

He grits his teeth, the struggle to find the right words evident on his face. “It’s a fall from intellectual grace. Education can fill that void. As long as we question; as long as we have the tools to question, that’s the most important thing.” He trails off, lost in thought.

There’s no bell; no blaring announcement over a PA system, but Paul and Doug seem to know it’s time to go set up the tables. They head inside to prepare for class and the discussion of the day. Mom and baby are gone. Tables and chairs are pushed into place. Plato is waiting.

To find out more about the Community Fund at Vancouver Foundation, call 604-688- 2204. To find out more about the Nanaimo Clemente program, contact Mark Blackell at

Your Comments:

July 15, 2009
I have to say that this is a well written article and I was quite entertained by it as well. But what really got me was that this exists at all. I know how valuable being educated is, I was a street person all through my teens and with a grade 9 education until I was 43, I floundered with insecurity because I never felt like I 'measured up'. Add to it a head injury from being shot twice in the head at close range at 22, I came back with the equivalent for swiss cheese for a memory, so sure that I could never amount to anything. Then at 43, I took a course at Malu for relearning how to enter the work force as my kids were older. I wound up Gradding in June with a BA in Women's Studies and First Nations studies, and I have to agree... the education has taken away that sense of listlessness and worthlessness too. This is a brilliant idea. I only wish that I too could have been given books and the course. My student loan debt at 53 is upwards of $60,000. No matter what I do, I don't think I will ever be able to pay it back... so unrealistic... even educated... I wish that I'd had a Clemente program to help with educating me. And I wish that at some point in my life dealing with Welfare and social workers and FAW's, that someone had mentioned my getting an education. It wasn't until the Liberal pulled my assistance with me still having two small kids at home and my struggling self esteem and brain issues, that I grasped the straw of trying for a student loan, that entered me into the educational process... I think I could have been better served had someone mentioned it was a possibility a lot sooner. Thanks for all your hard work. Some people are destined to be great thanks to your being good. Cheers, Tina Budeweit
Tina, Victoria

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