ON Newsletter - Fall 2023
COURTESY OF SHANNON ROSS/THE COMMUNITY
On a societal level, the humanities help us grapple with the challenges we face and guide our collective quest for new and better solutions. We find our way there together, which, in a democracy, requires allowing all to have their say. What then about those people who have been devalued and made invisible by the justice system?
Mass incarceration is an issue that affects all of us, whether we feel it or not. In Wisconsin, there are 35,000 people behind bars. That is nearly the population of Beloit. Wisconsin imprisons Black men at a higher rate than any other state.
How do humans retain their voices, express themselves creatively, and find meaning in dehumanizing conditions? How can the humanities help us envision a justice system that makes Wisconsin a better place for everyone?
Humanity Unlocked, the second season of our Human Powered podcast, brings these questions to the fore by highlighting the ideas and work of people inside and outside the carceral system who are dedicated to helping us think differently about people who are or have been imprisoned. From a storytelling workshop at Oakhill Correctional Institution, to a poetry workshop with people who were formerly incarcerated, to a conversation with writers and editors of prison newspapers, we are digging into the importance of the humanities as tools for understanding what it means to be human, valued, and free.
In Humanity Unlocked, we meet Robert Taliaferro and Shannon Ross, prison newspaper journalists who shaped stories for and about incarcerated people while on the inside. Robert was at the helm of The Prison Mirror, an award-winning newspaper in circulation since 1887. After meeting through the podcast, Shannon and Robert have teamed up in their post-carceral lives to continue to put the stories of people, not their crimes, at the center of The Community, an organization and newsletter Shannon founded that reaches half of the state’s prison population.
“If you don’t treat [people who are incarcerated] as human beings first and foremost they’re never going to get to ‘employee’ or ‘parent’ or ‘student’ or any other label or position you want in society,” says Shannon, who works to foster the potential of people with criminal records and the potential of communities to support them.
What would change if we made it a priority to recognize people as assets when they returned to their communities after serving their time? A piece of the answer could lie with Wisconsin Humanities’ new partnership with the University of Wisconsin’s Odyssey Beyond Bars (OBB) college jumpstart program for students incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons.
As a former student of Odyssey Beyond Bars at Oakhill Correctional Institution, Robert believes that for many incarcerated people, experience with the humanities like OBB offers could make a profound difference. Today he is a graduate student and on the planning committee with our staff for a national conference on the humanities and mass incarceration.
“I think education in prison is a necessity. Do we want people to come out of prison the same as they came in, or do we want them to come out and get jobs, pay taxes, and be responsible citizens?” Robert asks.
Wisconsin Humanities is helping OBB students use the humanities to reimagine, craft, and own new narratives about themselves. Love Wisconsin and Human Powered producer Jen Rubin uses her expertise to lead storytelling workshops for the OBB English 100 college-credit course at Columbia, Oakhill, and Racine Correctional facilities. In the span of three sessions, students write a story from their lives then step up to the mic and share it with fellow students and guests. Reading and listening to these stories can be a profound experience—one that we’ll be sharing more about in coming months.
Communities in every corner of Wisconsin are facing a huge array of challenges, from the impacts of climate change on infrastructure, to the loss of talented youth who look for better lives elsewhere, to the need to increase cultural literacy as communities grow more diverse.
On August 27, 1970, Latino activists demanding access to higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were set to meet with the chancellor. UWM’s mission centered on serving the urban population of the city, and the activists had been striving to hold them to their word. At that time, there were 12 Latino/a students enrolled, and they were from Puerto Rico or Mexico and other countries, not Milwaukee, where 30,000 Latinos lived.
Love Wisconsin, our digital storytelling platform, connects you to stories of inspiring people across the state. Whether a life story resonates with your own or introduces you to a vastly different experience, we’re hoping you’ll find that we Wisconsinites have more in common than not.
Here is an excerpt from Angie Treinen’s story about an unexpected twist in the life of their family’s century-old farm.