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Educating the fight against poverty

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Political junkies might remember the late Jack Kemp saying, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” That was his blunt way of saying the war was lost because of the way we chose to fight it, and while that’s a debatable point, the fact that we’re still fighting poverty offers proof that this type of warfare must be waged constantly.

Thank goodness there are foot soldiers like Emily Auerbach, the 2018 ATHENA Award winner. Auerbach, founder of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Odyssey Project, has dedicated her life to helping adult learners overcome barriers to higher education.

With the Odyssey Project, she has built a national poverty-fighting model. A free college-level class in the humanities is offered to adults who have faced severe economic and personal roadblocks. Under the tutelage of the Odyssey faculty, students discover that they can read and understand the great works of the humanities and express in voice and writing their interpretations of literature through their own experiences. Many have transitioned from homelessness, incarceration, disabilities, or drug addiction to earning college degrees and pursuing meaningful careers.

Now in its 15th year, the program has helped more than 420 adult students who had been shut out of higher education opportunities. During those 15 years, 96% of Odyssey’s students were racial minorities and three-quarters of them were women. Auerbach, whose mother came from a destitute family in Appalachia and whose father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, barely escaping with his family at the age of 10, fully understands the link between education and earning power. Both parents overcame their circumstances with the help of a free education from Berea College in Kentucky, demonstrating what can be accomplished when people are given a chance.

Auerbach also is an English professor at UW–Madison, where she has provided literary outreach to nontraditional students in retirement centers, prisons, and service clubs. She’s taken that knowledge to a program whose impact was eloquently summed up by an appreciative Native American student: “The Odyssey Project helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.”

One wonders how many young people, undermined by a substandard education or their own demons, have been unable to unwrap their gifts. Emily Auerbach doesn’t just wonder, she acts. Greater Madison employers in need of quality workers should be grateful that she’s willing and able to be part of the workforce solution.

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