Wisconsin Humanities staff member Jen Rubin is one of a team of storytellers who teach in Odyssey Beyond Bars English classes. She is pictured here with several students at Oakhill Correctional Facility. Learn more about the workshops and hear stories told by some of the students in Human Powered 'Humanity Unlocked' podcast.
Storytelling Workshops in Wisconsin Correctional Facilities
So often people in prison are told this is your story…this is who you are…this is why you ended up in prison. We know that every person’s story is more. More interesting, more complicated, more…human.
As part of a program called Odyssey Beyond Bars, Wisconsin Humanities is getting into classrooms to help students craft fresh, personal narratives about their lives. Each semester Love Wisconsin’s Executive Producer Jen Rubin leads a team of storytellers who facilitate a three-part storytelling workshop as part of UW-Madison Odyssey Project English classes in Columbia, Oak Hill, and Racine Correctional Facilities.
So what’s the value, for incarcerated people, of learning how to craft a good story? Over the last 20 years, the UW-Madison Odyssey Project has proven that an introduction to the humanities, and access to education, changes lives for the better and can help break the cycle of poverty. With Odyssey Beyond Bars , Jen has seen that storytelling can give justice-impacted people the tools they need to reimagine the stories they tell about their lives. And this changes everything.
For the people in classes at Columbia, Oak Hill, and Racine Correctional Facilities, the storytelling experience begins with a 90-minute skill-building workshop about how to turn a memory into a story. In part two, Jen brings in several experienced storytellers to work with the students in small groups. Each student gets a lot of feedback that helps them refine their story draft. Finally, on the last day of class, students share their stories with the class and with guests, often performing them without notes.
There are typically fifteen students in an Odyssey Beyond Bars course. To put that in context there are about 35,000 people in prisons and jails in the state of Wisconsin, and about 1,800,000 in the country. To give more context, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but is responsible for 20% of the world’s prison population. Through this collaboration with Odyssey Beyond Bars, not only are we bringing the humanities to a place where they are sorely needed, but by sharing that work with people on the outside, we hope to help all of us look at incarceration in our society through a humanities lens. How do humans express themselves creatively and find meaning, even in dehumanizing circumstances? How can the humanities help people re-imagine the story of their lives – and what can happen when they do?
As one student put it, “Odyssey helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.”
Wisconsin Humanities is proud to have supported the UW-Madison Odyssey Project with initial funding and subsequent grants through our grant program. Founder and UW-Madison English Professor Emily Auerbach shared some of her inspiration for starting a humanities-based course for people living below the poverty level, as well as her fundamental belief in the life-changing power of education, with Love Wisconsin. You can read that story here.
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