Rethink: A Philosophy Community Outreach Program

Rethink, which was created in 2013 by graduate students at Columbia University and Teachers College and awarded the APA/PDC 2015 Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs, is an outreach program that aims to promote philosophical engagement outside of a traditional academic context.  We work with members of marginalized and underprivileged groups to help expose participants to new ideas and discuss philosophical issues with one another in a respectful and cooperative way.

Each discussion is led by two to four volunteer co-facilitators, all of whom are graduate students from various universities in the New York City area (Columbia, CUNY, Fordham, NYU, and The New School are all represented).  We work primarily with at-risk and court-involved youth, currently incarcerated people, and victims of domestic abuse, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.  The topics of discussion tend to be--with important exceptions--drawn from areas of moral, social, and political philosophy that relevant to participants’ life experiences.  We have covered a broad range of topics in recent years, including democracy, equality, punishment, racism, sources of knowledge, beauty, and authenticity.  We work closely with our community partners in developing discussion materials, selecting new topics, and revising our discussion plans.  We also encourage our volunteers to create discussions around new topics and invite participants to suggest topics of their own.

While the co-facilitators who direct the discussions play an essential role, we take the “facilitator” title (as well as the “co-” prefix) seriously and make sure that participants do most of the talking and are in a position to pursue lines of thought that the facilitators had not anticipated.  We introduce relevant philosophical arguments and ideas into each of these weekly discussions, but our fundamental aim is to help participants exercise and develop the skills necessary to engage in an exchange of ideas guided by mutual respect and recognition.  The task is to empower as well as inform, and facilitators often feel that they have learned at least as much from the participants as the participants have from them.

Rethink continues to grow and work at improving its methodology, and we are working on some new projects for the year ahead.  We are in the early stages of working with the NYPD to develop coordinated Rethink discussions between police officers and court-involved youth.  We are also working to develop new ways for former participants to play an active role in guiding discussions.  We have selected an individual to play this role at one of our partner organizations in the Fall and we hope, after this trial period, to expand this opportunity to participants at all of our community partner locations.  If you want to find out more about Rethink, please contact one of its coordinators - Adam Blazej, Conor Cullen, or  Rory Varrato.

Previous and current community partners include the following organizations:

The Children's Village

The Fortune Society

The Osborne Association

Sanctuary for Families

South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.

Rethink is grateful for the support of these institutions, our volunteers, the Philosophy Department of Columbia University, the Squire Family Foundation, and the American Philosophical Association.