“Not voting can set us back in time to when kings inherited their power or took everything by force with their armies,” says J. Luis Peréz-Olguín of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Odyssey Project . Peréz-Olguín won the program’s 2018 “Why Vote?” essay competition, and his impassioned argument appeared in the Capital Times earlier this month.
The essay contest is an effort to convince nonvoters to cast ballots on Nov. 6. It’s also the precursor to “A Celebration of Voting,” an event the Odyssey Project will host on Saturday, Oct. 27, from 2-3:30pm, in the Urban League Community Room, 2222 S. Park St. Attendees can gather information about voting, register to vote, visit the library next door to vote early, and hear Odyssey Project students and graduates read their winning essays about the importance of voting. There will also be activities for children, door prizes, and refreshments to enjoy.
Voting is just one topic covered in the free, two-semester humanities course the Odyssey Project offers each year to 30 adults facing substantial barriers to higher education. The curriculum explores many types of civic engagement through readings from Socrates, Martin Luther King Jr., and other important thinkers. Students also examine key moments in the civil rights movement, drawing parallels between these struggles and experiences from their own lives. Their “Why Vote?” essays illustrate their belief in democratic principles and their hopes for the future of the country.
Odyssey Project students earn six English credits from UW–Madison as they develop their critical thinking skills and become empowered to change their lives—and the community—for the better. The program provides its students with textbooks, as well as dinner and child care while they’re in class. Many graduates of the program go on to complete college degrees and find meaningful work in Madison and beyond.
Empowerment, action, change
Joyce Johnson, who earned second place in the essay contest, remembers watching the civil rights movement unfold in America.
“I was 13 years old in 1963 and watching our black-and-white TV with my family. I saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights movement protesters being attacked by dogs, sprayed with water hoses, spit upon, beaten with clubs, and jailed by white policemen filled with bigotry and racism,” she recalls.
Voting is a way to improve flawed laws and push society to change for the better, she adds.
Contest winner Peréz-Olguín acknowledges that there are many factors that might make a potential voter feel defeated about the American political system, especially some elected officials’ efforts to protect the wealthy and powerful while ignoring the needs of the other people they represent. This is no reason to give up on voting, he argues.
“Let’s educate ourselves about the people running to represent us and learn who has the best interest at heart for the greater good,” he says. “Changes might not happen right away, but one step at a time will give us results.”
For more information on the Odyssey Project, see the program website or contact director Emily Auerbach, firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-262-3733. To donate to the program or become a volunteer, visit the Support Odyssey webpage.