Courtesy of the Odyssey Project

Fifteen minutes before the 6pm Wednesday night class at the Stony Island Arts Bank, most of the students in the Odyssey Project’s South Side location had already arrived and begun discussing Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye along with their plans to see Oedipus Rex at the Court Theater that weekend. It was the literature section meeting, the second section of this thirty-two-week, free humanities program for low-income Chicagoans. 

Now entering its twentieth year in Chicago, the Odyssey Project is an outgrowth of the Clemente Course in the Humanities at Bard College. The Clemente Course is a national, nine or ten month-long humanities program for income eligible adults, founded by the Chicago writer Earl Shorris in 1995. The Odyssey Project continues to be offered in conjunction with the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, though it is now overseen by Illinois Humanities, receiving additional support from the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project and Northwestern University’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. Its first year program classes meet twice weekly in the evenings, with the South Side chapter at the Arts Bank, as well as a West Side chapter in Austin, a North Side chapter in Rogers Park, and a Spanish-speaking section in Cicero.

The first year’s coursework includes classes in art history, critical thinking, literature, and philosophy, and the second year, should students choose to pursue it, combines the previous disciplines in concentrated investigations of particular themes. Successful completion of each year of the program enables students to receive six credit hours (for a total of twelve credit hours over two years) to be advanced toward a college degree. The Odyssey Project also maintains ties with local arts organizations, offering pathways for students to advance their humanities education through career and volunteer opportunities at the Smart Museum. Students can apply online (the application window is listed as May–September of the starting year, although firm due dates for 2020–2021 year are not currently listed online) so long as they are eighteen or older, live at or below 150% of the federal poverty line, and do not currently have a four year college degree. It is a well-beloved program among its students, not only for its educational and career opportunities, but also for the community it provides.

This sense of community was evident at the Wednesday class on November 20, where students were already making arrangements to give each other rides home and later, to the weekend Court Theater performance of Oedipus Rex. The degree of intimacy in their discussion of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was welcome and surprising. Student and teacher alike shared life stories while interpreting the text. 

A student named Althea discussed how a passage concerning the face of the protagonist Pecola’s father, Cholly Breedlove, reminded her of the struggle to read her own father’s moods in his expressions. Later, she shared her first encounter with the n-word, prompting Tara Betts, a poet and a faculty member in the Creative Writing department at the University of Southern Maine, to do the same. 

Students also made explicit connections between conflicts in the book and conflicts in the real world. A student named Pamela Davis framed a scene in which a group of Black boys attack another group: “This book is about distraction. We pick at each other when really it’s the whole society that needs to be changed.” She also discussed a scene in which the protagonist, Pecola, encounters racist treatment at a store, apparently leading her to change her opinion of herself and the beauty of a common flower. After class, Davis said, “It’s about who has the power to determine what’s beautiful and what’s not beautiful. Usually that comes from the oligarch and whoever has the money and the power at the time.” Betts connected student comments to Morrison’s essays, read earlier in the literature section, and Morrison’s own views as expressed in an interview with Charlie Rose. 

Chris Guzaitis, Director of Education for Illinois Humanities and former director of the Odyssey Project, explained the strength of community was partially a function of people sharing their lives. She was pleasantly surprised at the level of care students had for one another: “The thing that really surprised me was the way that students would quite quickly [start] checking in on other students if they didn’t show up, or how some students would be real eager to have a phone tree,” she said.“That was something that wasn’t necessarily the case when I taught at the undergraduate level. Or, you know, someone heard from another student that their parent had passed away, and a student might make a card for everyone to sign for them.” 

Audrey Petty, the current director of the Odyssey Project, affirmed this sentiment. She discussed how, when teaching her course on journeys, she had a student who wrote about traveling south to the homes of her descendants. Odyssey Project students, Petty said, “bring their lives to the table.” Odyssey Project teacher Christophe Ringer, who is also an Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics & Society at the Chicago Theological Seminary, provided an example of how this kind of openness lent vigor to abstract questions: “One of the most rewarding parts of the Odyssey Project is that the students raise issues that the author wouldn’t have thought of because of their experiences,” he said. He recalled one student who had been homeless for years, who challenged “assumptions about what homeless people want or need” and helped his class to “think more broadly about how people become homeless.”

Ringer said students rarely question the merits of philosophy and its applicability to events in their lives. “They recognize that [this class] is an opportunity that, for a variety of reasons, they don’t have access to. And they’re able to… make the connections and [see] the practical relevance in ways that those who are in a traditional philosophy class are not,” he said. “As opposed to people who have been in school a reasonable number of years, [Odyssey Project Students] see [the importance] because they’re living life.” Petty added that, in teaching undergrads, getting conversations going “could be a muscular activity—but I did not have that experience in the Odyssey Classroom.”

Nicole Bond, an Odyssey Project alumni (and current Stage & Screen editor of the Weekly),  also emphasized the merits of having an experienced group of students: “We’re all grown, we’re all fully grown by the time we get to the Odyssey Project. So, our life is what it is. Of course, you know, we had to go through some things even to be eligible to apply. The Odyssey that has been our life is what gets us entered into the program,” she said. “So there’s that. So it’s not like we’re coming to it like ‘How is this gonna get me a job?’ We’ve already had like sixteen jobs, we know it’s not gonna help us get a job. How is it gonna help us open our mind?”

Guzaitis estimated the average age of Odyssey Project students to be forty, and explained how the Odyssey Project supports its adult population, providing transit and free childcare during classes. Guzaitis helped to expand the Odyssey Project classroom offerings beyond Western canonical texts, and into more contemporary material concerning issues like housing, racism, and citizenship. Petty added classes in the Austin neighborhood, as well as an enrichment summer program for high schoolers, named Sojourner Scholars, in 2017. 

Petty and Guzaitis strengthened extracurricular activities as well, which have included, in the past, a visit to Kerry James Marshall’s artist lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in 2019, a workshop surrounding the Envisioning Justice exhibition. Students participated in discussion surrounding this series of gallery shows and events, all centered on the impact of mass incarceration. The Odyssey Project also trains former students, including Nicole Bond, in facilitating discussions and book groups within their communities. Many students and alumni emphasized how the classroom style and extracurricular opportunities made the Odyssey Project different from their previous classroom experiences.

“I have never been in an environment like [the Odyssey Project],” Toy Robinson, an alumni who currently leads a James Baldwin discussion group at the Grand Crossing Library, said. “I feel very welcome there. I like what I do… I mean that. From the bottom of my heart.” Student Sylvia Fredrick echoed this statement “Back when I was an eighteen year old going to college, I didn’t have the compassion and the caring that I received here from these [instructors] through the Odyssey Project. You were just a number.” She added, “I feel like my education is just as valuable as if I went to Harvard or Princeton,” and said that the class was helping her hone her writing skills. She hopes to employ these skills toward completing her own writing, concerning her transition from a house music maker in the eighties to a Christian Step singer. 

Another current student at Wednesday night’s class, Audrey Forrest, aims to use her class credits towards a nursing degree. She learned of the program after a Harold Washington librarian found an ad in the Weekly. “I will have furthered my education and raised my GPA. It’s no written tests, no cramming, and it’s not an accelerated course,” she said. “What counts the most is my voice.”

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Morley Musick is a writer and reporter from Chicago.

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