For over twenty years, Illinois Humanities has been proud to offer The Odyssey Project, a learning community which provides college-accredited courses for income-eligible adults in subjects such as philosophy, art history, literature, history, critical thinking, and writing. An affiliate of the Clemente Course in the Humanities at Bard College, the Odyssey Project has been and continues to be an invaluable resource in the lives and careers of its cohorts, offering courses designed to facilitate students’ development as scholars and foster their edification and growth as human beings.
In light of the program’s twentieth anniversary this year, we spoke with poet-artist Nicole Bond, a contributor to the South Side Weekly, educator at the Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park, and a proud alumnus of the Odyssey Project, to talk about her experiences in the program, the readings and experiences from her time as a student that have stayed with her since graduation, and her advice to prospective students about the value the program has to offer both within the classroom and beyond.
Toussaint Egan (TE): Tell me a little about yourself. You were quoted in a feature for the South Side Weekly focused on the Odyssey Project, saying, “The odyssey that has been our life is what gets us entered into the program.” What was your odyssey before you joined the Odyssey Project?
NB: Sure, I can speak to that. I’m a woman of a certain age, I live in Chicago, always have. I’m an artist; I like art, theater, and poetry. But as far as speaking directly to that quote in the South Side Weekly, what I meant was that the point of entry for the program is based on income. I love how very recently the language was changed to say “income eligible” as opposed to “low income,” they mean the same thing but they carry a very different energy, and when one finds themselves in that category, there are a lot of things that go along with that. Life is difficult, it’s a bit challenging, and I’m not unique, so was mine. I grew up in a working class family; we weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we weren’t poor, either. We always had a roof securely over our head, there was always food in the refrigerator. We flipped the switch, the light came on; picked up the phone, there was a dial tone. I went to private Catholic school for all four years of high school and had cute clothes and nice shoes and that sort of thing, and into my adult years, I landed into a career where I enjoyed what I was doing, and I thought, “Okay, everybody lives like this.” These are things that I took for granted for so long, they were just my normal. And then one year my mom got catastrophically ill, and who expects that, who plans for that? I didn’t, so I quit my job immediately so I could cash out my 401k and live on that while I was caring for her and thought, “Oh, this is a momentary blip, you know, I’ll be back in the game in a year.” But I wasn’t. The illness was lengthy. She ended up passing on, and my life started to spiral from then. After I lost her, I lost my aunt, my mother’s only sister, shortly after that. Another relative after that, and then it was a snowball effect. Whenever you lose someone, especially if you’re from a very close knit family, there’s so many things that are attached to that. There’s so much that you have to do that really changes your life in ways that you never would have imagined. From quitting my job at the onset of my mother’s illness, I was never quite able to kind of get back onto that merry-go-round that I was on and things change really quickly. I was living in Hyde Park at the time, and I was gentrified-away as the neighborhood began to change, and [I was] just totally priced out. So my life began to look very, very different— which is what made me fit that “income eligible” category that the Odyssey Project seeks out when they’re looking for people to consider.
TE: How did you first come in contact with the Odyssey Project? What was it that interested you about the program when you first learned about it?
NB: Honestly when I first learned about it, nothing! I was not attracted to it. The way I first found out about it, I was and still am part of a writer’s group that’s met every Tuesday for years. And when I first joined this writer’s group, one of my favorite writers was a lovely lady named Sylvia Taylor, a really brilliant writer who is now also an Odyssey Project alum. I don’t know if you’ve met her, but she’s somebody to know, she’s a really cool person as well as a brilliant writer. I would show up to this writers group, not so much to workshop my own work, but because I really wanted to hear what Sylvia would bring to read that week. And one week, Sylvia stopped showing up. I was wondering where she had gone, and then one Tuesday she had an occasion to attend because I think the program had some sort of day off. She came back to the group and was just raving about this Odyssey Project thing, and at the time I couldn’t care less. She was telling us all these amazing things about the program, how it was structured and how everything was free— you got your textbooks and college credits that could transfer to any university and I thought, “yeah that’s great and all, but when are you coming back to our writers group?” Time passed, and my life had changed considerably. I was squatting in a friend’s foreclosed home after becoming homeless. I had been completely priced out of the Hyde Park neighborhood I had called home for nearly twenty-five years. I had no living family that I could turn to to regroup and recalibrate my life, and was at a really weird point in life where I didn’t know what I was going to do next. That was around the time a lot of people were going through the housing crisis. At some point Sylvia approached me and said, “You know, they’re having that open application for that Odyssey Project I’ve told you about it, and I really think you should apply, I think this would be good for you.” And at that point I was like, “I don’t have anything to lose. I have lost everything, it can only go up from here. Let me apply for this thing,” and so I applied and was accepted into the program and started in winter 2014 at the North Side location. And between when I applied and the very first day of the class, I got an apartment on the South Side of Chicago. So, my first year in the program was me trekking all the way from South Shore to almost Evanston for the program. So that’s also part of what I mean when I say, it’s the odyssey that is our life. That’s our admission price, that’s what gets us in. It’s as if the program genuinely asks, “What trauma have you been through, and how can we help you navigate that?”
TE: What would you say was the most memorable take-away from your time participating in The Odyssey Project, looking back now as an alumnus?
NB: So, so many things. First and foremost, I think the most important thing for me was the sense of community that it creates. There’re so many different people from so many walks of life, all ages, all different education levels. There’s some of everybody that convenes in the room that is an Odyssey Project classroom. It’s really interesting, and I hate it when people use the word “interesting” because it really doesn’t mean anything. It can mean a lot of different things, but it’s an experience just to be in the company of so many different kinds of people. It really forces you to get to know yourself. I think we all walk around and we have a pretty good sense of who we are, but you don’t really get to know that, at least for myself, until you brush up against someone who is very different from you. Or until you are in company with someone who is really similar to you, but when you’re seeing yourself through their eyes it makes you see yourself in a different light. There were so many moments like that, which really gave me a chance to see who I am and what I’m made of. One of my favorite readings from class was in our second year, we read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. And oh my God, it was life-changing in how it was so simple. She calls them poems, but they were more prose than poetry; it’s poetry, artwork and photographs and just pages of text with little anecdotes from her life about what it means to be Black, especially in the US, but in the rest of the world as well. One of the most interesting things about the book is the cover. It is a sculpture of a black hoodie by David Hammons titled “In The Hood,” it immediately sparked comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s killing, but the sculpture was made years before, in 1993. It just speaks to how Black people are seen in the world and how timeless racial issues are, unfortunately. So that was a defining moment for me, just picking apart Rankine’s book in the company of people with so many different opinions and having some very spirited conversations about it was powerful. Literally watching people change their mind was so refreshing. I actually got to see some people really see things in a different way. But there were also people who never changed their minds, who were in the “All Lives Matter” camp rather than team Black Lives Matter. It was Important to be in such diverse company when reading that book. It was a foreshadowing of the racial tension we are working through now.
“I think we all walk around and we have a pretty good sense of who we are, but you don’t really get to know that, at least for myself, until you brush up against someone who is very different from you.”
TE: How has your relationship with the humanities evolved or grown since your time in the program? Do you relate to or engage with the humanities differently now than when you did before graduating from The Odyssey Project?
NB: That’s a good question. I’ve pondered that a lot. My answer would have to be, “Yes, and…” The “yes” is that I’ve always been steeped in the humanities, even before I knew what that was. I always gravitated toward poetry, plays, and art, and even in the work that I do. It’s all of that. That’s always just been such a huge part of who I am as a person. What is happening for me though now is by having had a closer read on so many different works, I see many things very differently.
When I think about the moment that we’re in now, in what I call the time of COVID and George Floyd and everything that means, how every institution is scrambling to say the right thing and put up the right statement, and they’re all doing this anti-racism work and they’re all going to stop being this thing they’ve been since their inception. When I read the things that the canon of humanities dictate that you read, I get to see where racism comes from. It’s who we are—not just as a nation, but as a world. I mean, the things that make their way into the canon become required reading for you to be considered an educated person. I get to see how the sausage is made, for lack of a better term. It’s like, these are the things that support our way of life. So to have something like Claudia Rankine’s work put into the canon that was ours as Odyssey Project students, it just made the world seem so much more well-rounded. I got to see educated people promote education in a way that included things that were important to me, because so much of what is prescribed reading for academics does not fit who I am, or it works against who I am. I had the opportunity through the Odyssey Project to matriculate on to a course through the University of Chicago. And, oh my god, how much more “human” can the humanities be between Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Darwin, Nietzsche, and so on. I have a much better understanding of things, and now it’s like I kind of give the side-eye to folks who think they’re oh-so-smart when they drop a Nietzsche quote into something. But after I read his rhetoric and got to hear some of his ideas, beyond the quotes people like to throw around, I feel better equipped to have conversations that matter and I’ve learned that just because someone has been considered to be a prolific thinker it doesn’t mean that they are thinking about me! That’s how I feel my relationship with the humanities has changed through having gone through The Odyssey Project, by having a closer read on things. You really get to understand in a way you hadn’t before what people are talking about, or what they’re not talking about, or what they want you to think they’re talking about when they’re really talking about something else. It really is life-changing.
TE: What would you tell prospective students of the Odyssey Project?
NB: The Odyssey Project is an opportunity that you will want. If it comes your way, you’ll want to take it. What’s the saying, “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse”? It is kind of like that, though in a good way. It’s an offer that you really can’t refuse. I mean, literally, who is going to allow you to go and take some classes about things that matter, and you don’t have to pay for it? Any textbooks that are required, they’re going to provide them for you. If you can’t get there, here’s a Ventra card for you. If you’re hungry when you get there, here’s some snacks for you. Oh, you have a crying baby? Here’s the crying baby room, put the baby over there so we can get some work done! It’s an offer you can’t refuse! They make it super easy for anybody who wants to learn and to continue their education. The beauty of that is that there are actual college credits that you’re earning that you can transfer to any university to start your higher education or to continue it or add to it and you didn’t have to pay for. Who does that? I’ve said before in other conversations similar to this one that there are so many things that I could point to in my life that are like, “Oh this is wrong,” and, “Oh I wish this was better,” and, “If only it wouldn’t have been for that or this.” Everyone has their woulda-coulda-shoulda moments, we all do. But when I point to the things in my life that are working well – the good things: my work, my art, my continuing education, many of my friendships and professional relationships, I can actually trace the line all the way back to those good things being rooted somewhere in the Odyssey Project. Most of the things in my life that are really working well can be traced back to something or someone from Illinois Humanities and the Odyssey Project. So, I would tell anyone, if you get an opportunity to participate in the program, do it, it’s worth it.
TE: If there was one thing you would want people unfamiliar to The Odyssey Project to know about the value of the program, what would that be?
NB: When I think about Illinois Humanities, I think about precisely that word, “humanities,” and what it means. We think about literature and art and history, because that’s what humanities means in Academia. But the root of the word is “human.” It makes me think about what it means to be human, what it means to see another person’s humanity. That’s exactly what the program does. The Odyssey Project sees people’s humanity and embraces that humanity. The program meets people where they are to help them move their lives forward, with no strings attached.