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 foster philosophical ways of thinking and discuss critical issues with one another in a respectful and cooperative way.

Each discussion is led by two to four volunteer co-facilitators, most 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 are 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 co-facilitators to create discussions around new topics on the basis of suggestions from participants.

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 encourage participants to guide the direction of discussions to pursue lines of thought that the co-facilitators had not anticipated.  Co-facilitators often feel that they have learned at least as much from the participants as the participants have from them.  In each of these regular discussions, we introduce relevant philosophical arguments and ideas. However, our fundamental aim is to create a space in which participants can exercise and develop critical thinking skills: namely, challenging assumptions we may hold and engaging in an exchange of ideas guided by mutual respect.

Rethink continues to grow and work at improving its methodology, and we are working on some new projects for the year ahead.  We have recently developed methods, such as discussion guides and synchronous video conferencing, for facilitating these discussions online and remotely.  Although these methods were first implemented in response to circumstances presented by the global pandemic, we are building the capacities to integrate these methods into our regular offerings.  In addition, we have invited former participants to take on the co-facilitator role, and we are actively trying to create more such opportunities.

If you want to find out more about Rethink, please contact one of its coordinators - Adam Blazej (ab3926@columbia.edu) and Conor Cullen (cc3735@columbia.edu).

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.

Justice-in-Education Program at Heyman

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.