As Sophie said, The Odyssey Project has been in existence for 15 years. In the ‘90’s, I read an article by Earl Shorris, who was researching a story on poverty in America. His 600th interview was with Viniece Walker, an inmate at a maximum-security prison for women 50 miles north of New York City.
Niecy had been in prison for over a decade. She was locked up in her early 20’s, poor, with HIV, no high school diploma, having been beaten up routinely since she was a child. In prison, however, she completed her high school requirements, and enrolled in college, majoring in psychology but also taking a great interest in philosophy. She was reading the greats; her favorite was Dostoevsky. She was counseling inmates with a history of family violence. Comforting those with AIDS.
When Earl asked her why the poor were poor, Niecy told him that numerous forces – hunger, isolation, illness, abuse, landlords, police, drugs, criminals, racism – exert themselves on the poor at all times and enclose them, making up a surround of force from which, it seems, they cannot escape. This surround of force prevents them from being political – not in the sense of voting, but from having meaningful activity with people at all levels, from the family to the neighborhood to the broader community to the city-state.
This, she said, prevented them access to what she called “the moral life of downtown.” Earl asked himself: “How can a museum push poverty away? Who can dress in sculpture and eat history? And what about political action – the voting kind? And then she made it clear for Earl. No one, she said, could step out of the panicking circumstances of poverty directly into the public world. This surround of force robs the poor of opportunities to reflect on human concerns and constructs, what we call the humanities.
This article was the inspiration for The Odyssey Project. We operate five courses a year, one in Spanish. Students do close readings of some of the bedrock texts of our civilization, from Plato to the Declaration of Independence to Zora Neale Hurston.
People often ask me what action I want our programming to provoke. They might see the practice of the humanities as just talking. But Niecy did not talk about the need for acting as much as the need for reflection. Picking up a rock and throwing it through a store window is an action. Saying “they are just criminals and got what’s coming” and walking away is an action. People act all the time. We yell, or remain punishingly silent, so much more than we discuss, talking with others so that we might see it from different sides. Yet talking to strangers is the bedrock of democracy.
Illinois Humanities shapes discussions and enables reflection, so that our actions, when they come, are smarter, more productive.
Our programs focus specifically on issues of public policy, media and journalism, business, and art. They all seek to bring about political participation, not the voting kind per se, but the kind that Neicy spoke of — the kind that’s about having meaningful interaction with people at all levels of society.
The aim of our public policy programs is to bring people across lines of race, class and political ideology for constructive public policy discussions.
Through Capitol Forum, high school students across Illinois discuss U.S. foreign policy in their social studies classes. At the end of the school year, students from 15 of the high schools meet to debate specific case studies. Just a couple weeks ago in Bloomington, these students debated the role the U.S. should play in addressing issues like sex trafficking and terrorism.
This fall, we will announce a yearlong series of programs about the future of public education, asking the questions: What do young people need to succeed?; What was the original purpose of public schools? What is their current use? What can we really expect of them?; Can we achieve equity in funding, resources, and quality?; What is the relationship between poverty, the changing demographics in the U.S., and education reform?
The aim of our Media and Journalism programming is to empower the public to substantively reshape the media conversation.
Last year, we hosted a conversation that took stock of the blurring roles of journalism and activism, as evidenced in the coverage of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri.
Reporting Back pairs residents of Englewood, Woodlawn, Bronzeville, and Humboldt Park, communities that are disproportionately affected by gun violence, with journalists who cover this issue. This gives journalists access to people who are most affected by the topics they cover and gives community members an opportunity to shape stories that are written about them.
Our Business programs aim to foster more meaningful discussion about the relationship between business and public life. Later this month, we will look at the relationship between debt and the American dream, specifically the role of personal debt in shaping the economic and cultural life of the middle class status, before and after the Great Recession.
Our art programs seek to strengthen the conditions in which art thrives by creating dialogue about works of art and by combating perceptions of exclusivity.
In Champaign, Carbondale, and Springfield, we operate book groups that give veterans an opportunity to connect with one another and to reflect on their experiences of war, using literature as a tool for reflection. The depth and breadth of our programming is unmatched. We reach the urban residents of Woodlawn and Lincoln Park in Chicago and the rural residents of Nokomis and Cobden. And every single program we produce is free.
Our mission is critical, but we do not live in a world where public funds come close to covering our needs. The National Science Foundation’s federal appropriation in FY15 was $72b. Combined, the NEA and NEH’s appropriation was a little over $290m.
So many of you have generously supported our work by purchasing a table or a ticket today and for that I thank you. This luncheon is our only fundraising event, and all proceeds go directly to our programs. On your tables are donation cards and envelopes. Please consider making a contribution to further this important work. If you feel moved to make a donation, Illinois Humanities staff will gladly take your envelope as you exit.
One of Illinois Humanities’ long-term partners has been Young Chicago Authors. We have funded their work for over a decade. When I asked Howard what kind of entertainment he might enjoy at the luncheon, he immediately answered “Louder Than A Bomb.” Finishing its 15th season, Louder Than A Bomb is the largest, youth poetry festival in the world. It attracts 1,000 participants from 120 schools in over 100 different Chicagoland zip codes. Imagine high school in-class and after school teams focused on a Literary Arts curriculum as a team sporting event — with reading and writing literacy as the goal. It’s an incredible program and you’re about to get a taste of it. Please welcome two of the finalists from this year’s competition (Kristyn Zoey Wilkerson (Zoe), “How to go natural amongst the creamy crackheads” and Luqman Muhammad (Luq), “PA”).