The women at the shelter appear curious as Blais attempts to move chairs into a semicircle. They accept her offer of free notebooks and pens and her urging that they take another breakfast pastry.
Each week, the Boston University philosophy major comes here with a philosophical quandary she asks the women to ponder. Similar discussions play out at homeless shelters across the Boston area as part of the Free Philosophy Project Blais founded more than 18 months ago to help homeless people reflect on their lives and values and connect across the class divide with people like her.
During one recent discussion at the St. Francis House, Blais asks a group of four women who stick around for the session: “Are people born good, or do they learn how to be good?”
They agree that even if their early home lives didn’t instill it in them, people could still learn to be good. They also agree that doing good things for people helps people learn how to be good and happy. “Balance” is one word raised by another woman who says she believes people can learn to be good by practicing. “Being good makes you feel good inside and out,” she says, emphasizing that politeness, such as saying “please,” “excuse me,” and “thank you,” goes a long way in her mind.
They acknowledge there’s a link between goodness and happiness, though one woman declares, “Some people are just not gonna be happy.”
Blais points out that Aristotle’s theory on happiness is complicated. Aristotle, she says, thinks happiness has a certain standard. Reaching happiness entails first understanding what it means for humans to be good. Ultimately, “The byproduct of learning to be good is happiness,” she explains.
Sometimes, the group doesn’t come to a consensus — and often, Blais says, the conclusions the students at the shelters reach are the opposite of the ancient philosophers’ conclusions. But the exercise isn’t to find agreement, but rather to engage the women in active debate, to get them thinking and analyzing these great life questions.
‘Everyone has their own experience’
Blais first gathered homeless women together on a summer morning in 2015 at St. Francis House, which is one of Downtown Boston’s most well-known shelters. Blais began sharing the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, the concepts of free will and moral responsibility, and what it means to be good or happy people.
Blais, a BU senior, had volunteered at the shelter serving breakfast, but it didn’t feel like enough. The 22-year-old wanted to find a way, she said, “to bridge what sometimes seems like an insurmountable distance between two kinds of people”: Those who have experienced homelessness and those who haven’t.
The Free Philosophy Project has since spread to 11 shelters for women, men and families in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Blais trains students from BU and Harvard College to lead the workshops and plans to expand to other area colleges. Boston University’s philosophy department funds the project and will continue to do so as Blais develops a manual for national expansion that she’ll begin work on this summer.
The idea works with the homeless because philosophy is “actually the most accessible of all academic fields — it just requires you to reflect on your experience, and everyone has their own experience,” Blais said.
Blais is adamant, however, that she’s not seeking to solve homelessness with philosophy. She merely seeks to give them a voice and understand their world, something vastly different from her middle-class upbringing in Upstate New York. As a result, Blais doesn’t shy away from tough topics like racism, inequality and income, and says it’s actually when topics make her uncomfortable that she knows she must cover them.
In early 2015, when Blais first brought her idea for a philosophy group aimed at the homeless to multiple Boston shelters, they consistently turned her away. To eventually get into St. Francis House, Blais realized she needed to think smaller and set her sights on the women’s only center inside the larger shelter. Even so, expectations for success weren’t high. “I said to her, ‘I don’t think this will work,’ ” says Rachel Klein, coordinator of the women’s center. Over a year later, Klein admits, “I was totally wrong.”
The St. Francis House had not historically had success with group classes, Klein explains. Why would the homeless be interested in philosophical discussions when they may be more immediately concerned with health care, clothing, when they will eat next, and where they will sleep? But Klein says that contrary to preconceived notions about the homeless, many of the women who visit St. Francis House have higher education degrees. As a result, Klein allowed Blais weekly access to the women’s center, which around 40 women use daily.
Klein said it’s been working out. She recalls one memorable lesson: “If someone is using [drugs] and they think they’re happy, are we to say that they’re not happy if they think that they are? It was such an interesting conversation,” Klein said.
Over time, Blais has also gotten to know many of the women at a large day shelter called Women’s Lunch Place, in the basement of a church steps from the Boston Garden.
Elizabeth Keeley, executive director of the Women’s Lunch Place, was the first to support the Free Philosophy Project at the shelter, which serves more than 225 women daily. Keely knows how important it is for the women to be heard and how open to learning they are.
“So many of these women have lost their voices or were silenced by trauma,” Keeley says. “Our whole philosophy around dignity and restoring women’s feelings of positive self-worth is tied into their being able to talk about what brought them here and how they move forward.”
Hope Daniels, a 50-year-old native of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood has attended Blais’s St. Francis House workshops for over a year. Daniels battles a crack addiction, collects disability for asthma issues and is also recovering from a brain tumor. She said she enjoys the classes because she likes being listened to, and Daniels said she likes the temporary escape from her reality where she has struggled consistently to find permanent housing.
“I get to tell my story. I get to tell my feelings,” Daniels said. Blais “doesn’t look at me funny when I say whatever comes out of my mouth. I just let it go.”
The classes have taught her to be open minded, she said, and the group has helped improve her quick temper.
In November, Daniels was finally placed into an apartment in downtown Boston after three years of moving between shelters and her abusive boyfriend’s place. But she still visits St. Francis House to pass the time at the philosophy group, attend a meditation class, get free clothing, and go to addiction recovery meetings.
In her new home, Daniels keeps the philosophy handouts Blais gives to her students around and easily accessible, she said.
“Over the past year and half or so, I’ve noticed a big change in Hope,” Blais said. “She’s become much more willing to listen, genuinely curious about the material I have, and adamant about getting whatever papers I have for her to bring home. She is always eager to participate, but notably more mindful of other’s roles in the workshop, including my own.”
Allen Speight, chair of BU’s philosophy department and Blais’s adviser, says analyzing philosophy is a surprisingly natural fit for the homeless population. “People who live by their wits and whose lives have had a more difficult passage are people who have a lot of philosophical questions that might be sharper in some ways, much rawer than people who have had a more privileged existence,” he said.
BU gave Blais $2,000 initially to launch the project, and she’s since used another $3,000. She spends most of the money on supplies like notebooks, and she has jokingly become known as “the doughnut lady” at shelters she visits.
Students at Harvard, under Blais’s guidance, have helped expand the Free Philosophy Project to shelters in Cambridge. After her May graduation from BU Blais plans to take the summer to work on a manual or textbook to expand her Free Philosophy Project beyond Boston.
Because the women that populate the shelters are transient, it’s difficult to assess the long-term impacts. But one day Blais got reinforcement from a checkout clerk at a local Whole Foods. He noticed her first name on her credit card and said, “[Clarinda is] a very famous name in my house.”
His aunt, he told her, had a philosophy teacher with the same name.
“Guilty. That’s me,” Blais said, smiling.
“Can I give you a hug?” the clerk asked as he came around the counter. “You have no idea what you did for her or for our family.”
His aunt had been a regular participant in Blais’s workshop the previous summer. Just a week prior, Blais saw her at one of the shelters after not seeing her for months.
Blais said the woman hugged her and thanked her for helping to change her perspective.
“She used to only rely on God and her faith, and never realized how much she could rely on herself,” Blais said. “She said she found it a lot easier to be happy.”
Meredith Derby Berg is an independent writer and video producer based in Greater Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Fusion and the Marshall Project. She teaches journalism at Boston University.