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Speaker gives university education to those in need

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The developer of a new approach to help those in need will be sharing his ideas with students this week.

Renowned writer and social critic Earl Shorris will deliver a free public speech on the importance of making Humanities courses accessible to marginalized members of society Friday.

The speech will kick off a symposium bringing together all programs across Canada modelled after Shorris' Clemente Course in the Humanities. Founded in New York in 1995, the Clemente Course arose from a need to find a better solution to urban poverty. Traditional programs for the disadvantaged usually focus on the immediate need to find better employment, such as janitorial work and basic mechanics.

"Low level training programs. . . really train poor people to live at the margins of society for the rest of their lives," said Shorris. "Not only that, they train them for jobs that are generally alienating."

Shorris added that once alienated, people have a smaller chance of integrating themselves into society.

"Those people become marginalized," said Shorris. "They don't participate in the democracy. We find that the poor don't vote, don't join social organizations and they tend not to go to the Parent Teacher Association."

With his background at the University of Chicago, Shorris realized the engaging demands of an education in literature, moral philosophy, history, art history and logic were a cause of social change in the past.

"We know from our history of Athens, that with the rise of the humanities, there was also concurrently, or even a little later, the rise of a different way of conducting social life," said Shorris.

His first class was taught in the lower east side of Manhattan in 1995 at the Roberto Clemente Family guidance centre. Since then it has inspired similar programs around the world.

Storefront 101 is Calgary's version of the original Clemente Course in the humanities. Tracy Ray Lewis, an alumnus, is now in her third year of English at St. Mary's University College. She intends to use this degree to research and write about poverty-- a subject where she has plenty of first hand experience.

Four years ago, Lewis was recovering from alcohol and drug addiction and living in shelters. She enrolled in various types of social programs intended to improve her employability, but they did not help much. In some instances they added more challenges.

"In some of the workshops that were designed for adult students, it seemed like they were treating us like children," said Lewis. "They were kind of dehumanizing us."

This drove her to resignation about the few options she had in life.

"All I thought there was [to life] was getting cleaned up so I didn't die from the drugs and then restaurant work until my body gave out," she said.

It was when her addictions counsellor sent her to Storefront 101 that things began to have a marked change. Though she admits she initially was tempted to just quit and walk away, the engaging nature of the program actually encouraged her to give it a chance.

"This isn't just another little creative writing exercise to boost your confidence," said Lewis. "This is going to take some work and [the program] has resources to help you. It's real university level education."

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