Vivé Griffith says her Vanderbilt years tie directly to her present leadership of the Austin, Texas-based Free Minds Project, which offers under-resourced adults a free, yearlong, college-level course in subjects ranging from history to Shakespeare, along with free books, child care and dinners. Its mission is to give adults who have faced barriers to education an opportunity to enrich their lives and explore their intellectual potential through study of the humanities.
“At Vanderbilt, thanks to financial aid and scholarships, I had the opportunity to study literature and humanities disciplines in a seminar environment,” Griffith says. “It was a valued part of my educational experience. Now I have the opportunity to make that available to people who never had the chance to go to college.”
After graduating from Vanderbilt with a degree in both economics and English, Griffith earned a master’s degree in literature at the University of Cincinnati, then an M.F.A. at the University of Texas, thanks to a prestigious Michener Fellowship in poetry. Always drawn to community work, she seized the chance to direct Free Minds when the opportunity presented itself nine years ago.
“During my M.F.A. studies, I had facilitated poetry workshops in the community,” Griffith says. “I liked working beyond the university, with different populations and diverse groups of people.”
Free Minds is a rigorous academic program, taught by professors from the University of Texas and Austin Community College—and Griffith knows firsthand that it changes lives. “Seeing what happens over nine months of being in community together is exciting,” she says. “Students embrace their own intelligence and sense of agency, and recognize the abilities they have within themselves to contribute to larger conversations.”
Recognition of that transformative impact has come from the highest levels: President Obama awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal to the Clemente Course in the Humanities—the liberal-arts education program for underprivileged adults, active in 30 cities nationwide, with which the Free Minds Project is affiliated. (Coincidentally, Mark Santow, BA’89, who chairs the history department at the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth, also directs a local Clemente Course.)
“My goal is to give people the tools and confidence to build better lives,” Griffith says, “and to think about their experiences in broader ways.”