Many adult students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project face barriers to getting an education, including homelessness, incarceration, and poverty. Sometimes those obstacles get in the way of participating in elections.
“Some of our students have never voted because they’re living on the margins,” says Odyssey director and UW-Madison English professor Emily Auerbach. “They may be intimidated by the process or unaware of their rights.”
To demystify wards and ballots for Odyssey students and other community members, Auerbach has organized “A Celebration of Voting” on Oct. 8 at the Urban League Community Room, 2222 S. Park St., 2-4 p.m. The nonpartisan event will include information on where and how to vote, along with refreshments, guest speakers, door prizes, and activities for children. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters will register attendees on the spot, and Odyssey students will read their winning essays on the theme of “Why Vote?”
“I can remember the first time I voted,” says Odyssey alumna Nissa Uriostegui. “I remember how nervous I felt when I first walked into the room. When it was all done, I had this feeling of accomplishment. I was part of the bigger picture, and my vote made a difference.”
Each year, the Odyssey Project offers a free two-semester humanities class for 30 people, providing textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner. They earn six credits in English from UW-Madison, as well as gain critical thinking skills and a sense of empowerment. Many go on to complete a college degree and find meaningful work in the community.
The Odyssey class emphasizes civic engagement, with readings from Socrates, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Students make connections between historic civil rights struggles and their own lives.
“Learning about these heroes often inspires the students to vote,” Auerbach says. “They feel like they’re letting down their ancestors if they don’t participate in the process.”
For 2016-17, Auerbach has expanded Odyssey Junior, the related program for the children and grandchildren of Odyssey Project students. New grants and partnerships will allow for instruction in music, reading, speech, movement, and visual art.
Night of the Living Humanities
Those interested in supporting the Odyssey Project can attend Night of the Living Humanities, a pre-Halloween party at the University Club, 803 State St. Odyssey students and staff will dress as their favorite artist or thinker from the Odyssey humanities course. Attendees have the option of dressing up themselves, with prizes awarded for best costume. The fundraiser takes place Oct. 27 from 5-7 p.m.
“The students’ own experiences fighting injustice and triumphing over adversity make them feel a strong connection with these historical figures,” Auerbach says.