ATHENA Award: Radio icon Jean Feraca shines in retirement

Feature Athena Winner Panel

Award-winning broadcaster, author, and criminal justice reform advocate Jean Feraca, known best for her work with Wisconsin Public Radio, is the recipient of the 2021 ATHENA Award. Feraca was selected over seven other nominees and honored virtually on March 23 during the 24th annual ATHENA Leadership Award celebration.

The ATHENA Award program is sponsored by The Business Forum, a professional women’s organization, and recognizes women who demonstrate excellence in their chosen profession and in community service and who have contributed their time and talent to the enrichment of young women.

For 13 years, Feraca hosted Conversations with Jean Feraca on WHA-Radio, creating Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders, a pioneering international news and cultural affairs program, before retiring in 2012 as the University of Wisconsin’s Distinguished Broadcaster Emerita.

“I’m speechless!” Feraca exclaimed after her selection. “I’m a person of many words and at this moment, I really feel speechless. I just want to say thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here among all these wonderful women. I don’t really feel that I belong, but I’m still very pleased and honored.”

Feraca proved that she belongs by forging a career that spans the arts, broadcasting, literature, and community service. After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky and a Master of Arts in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, Feraca’s career included stints as poet-in-the-schools for the Ohio Arts Council and the Kentucky Arts Commission, and as poet-in-residence at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.

Her radio career began in 1980 as a reporter and producer at WGUC-FM in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she worked as a freelance reporter and producer for National Public Radio before joining Wisconsin Public Radio as a humanities coordinator. She eventually hosted and produced two long-running programs, Conversations with Jean Feraca from 1990–2003 and Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders from 2002–2012. During her broadcasting career, Feraca earned several awards, including the Distinguished Media Award from the National Telemedia Council in 1996, a Media Award for Excellence from the National Alliance on Mental Health in 2000, and the Niagara Foundation Award for Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates, 2012.

Her proudest accomplishment in radio is the work she did with Here on Earth, Radio Without Borders. It was a program Feraca started because it was clear to her that international news to Americans meant “news of breakdown,” and she tried to counter that by discovering people from all over the world who were doing things that Americans could learn from. It was an ambitious undertaking, especially because at the time the general feeling was that public radio listeners weren’t interested in international news, but it caught on with the help of a creative technical director and smart, well-educated young producers who found stories worth telling.

With Radio Without Borders, she found that people were open to inspiring stories no matter where they came from. “I’ve always gone against conventional wisdom in my work,” she explains. “I’ve always done things that you weren’t supposed to, and they always worked.”

At one point, they started a mixed media format with the Global Studies Department at UW–Madison and did so with the help of a social science grant. It was at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and with growing antipathy and fear of Muslims, the purpose of the program was to change that. Feraca described that as a “really, really interesting project that got a lot of attention.”

To win an ATHENA Award nearly a decade after retirement spoke volumes about Feraca’s post-retirement work with the Odyssey Project. She cofounded UW–Madison’s Odyssey Project in 2003 and still serves as a board member, and she teaches philosophy and civic engagement, a curriculum recently extended into Wisconsin’s prison system as part of the Prison Ministry Project and Odyssey Beyond Bars.

Feraca was nominated for the ATHENA Award by Emily Auerbach, co-director of the UW Odyssey Project, a free college-level class in the humanities that is offered to adults who have faced severe economic and other barriers to higher education. In her nomination, Auerbach, the 2018 ATHENA Award recipient, states that without Feraca’s leadership as co-founder, the Odyssey Project would not exist.

More recently, Feraca made sure the project continued to serve people during the COVID-19 pandemic. “In particular, her work since the pandemic struck in converting life-changing humanities ideas from in-person to virtual instruction for Wisconsin’s incarcerated men and women and for families at the poverty level in our community deserves special recognition,” Auerbach states.

After Feraca retired, Auerbach notes that she went into the prisons to work for greater justice and transformational education. She worked with MOSES Madison on a campaign to raise public awareness of the abuses of solitary confinement. As a volunteer in the Prison Ministry Project, she promoted restorative justice and began teaching Plato to incarcerated men at Fox Lake Correctional Institute. Building on that, she developed Odyssey Beyond Bars into a 10-week humanities course providing enrichment and life-changing reflection to adults behind bars, not only at Fox Lake but also at the Wisconsin Resource Center, a treatment facility in Oshkosh for prisoners, including women, with mental health issues.

Project Odyssey was inspired by the work of Earl Shorris, who was a prominent journalist who regularly contributed to Harper’s Magazine until his death in 2012. In 1995, Shorris founded the Clemente Course for the Humanities, a 10-month-long academic program designed to provide college-level literature and philosophy classes to low-income students in New York City. “He wrote a report back in 1997 about the results of the experiment in education [Clemente Course] that he started working with poor people on the lower east side of Manhattan,” Feraca recalls. “I was so inspired by the article that I invited Earl to be a guest on my program, and then when he came to Chicago to start a similar program, I followed him around for a weekend and decided this was something I wanted to do in Madison, Wisconsin.”

Feraca would eventually coax Shorris to UW–Madison, where he delivered a presentation with Auerbach in the audience. Together, the two women worked for about three years to build up interest in and find funding for the Madison version, and Auerbach has been its director for several years. The Clemente Course has been replicated around the world, but its home base is Bard College in New York.

“It’s designed to lift people who are living at the margins of society out of poverty and out of obscurity and into becoming fully endowed citizens, really,” Feraca explains. “That’s really what it’s all about.”

Feraca devoted much of her acceptance speech to the Odyssey Project. She characterized women of Odyssey as stalwart, courageous, and empowering because they have overcome many obstacles in their lives. “I was thinking about our very first class,” Feraca recalled. “We had a wonderful woman who wrote a poem about her child who was severely disabled, and the mantra of her poem was, ‘This child was entrusted to me’ because so many people tried to persuade her to give this child away. She absolutely was determined to raise him, and she has, and she’s made a lot of sacrifices on his behalf, but that commitment, that passion, that love for that child was something I remembered through all these years because we are now in our 18th year at Odyssey.

“Now this year, I have made connections with women in prison,” she added. “I have never seen them [due to the pandemic], but we’ve had amazingly intimate connections and the essays that they have written and that I’ve read and commented on.”

In one particular case, a woman responded very strongly to a program on nature, which was presented on a DVD because visitors were not allowed to enter the prison. Feraca was “blown away” by how well and powerfully she and other inmates wrote while composing their essays. “This particular woman … recovered memories she had from early childhood, and she talked about identifying with a tornado,” Feraca recounts. “She saw the tornado coming and her family was trying to get her out of the way, and she identified with the hopscotch that the tornado was doing, bouncing up and down, touching down, and she felt her power, her essential power in that moment.

“To have helped her reconnect with that moment, can you imagine what that woman is capable of, if she can ever realize her full potential, which is what the Business Forum is all about? So, I’m so pleased and honored to be a part of this.”

The author

Feraca also is an accomplished author, having written or co-authored books such as: South from Rome: Il Mezzogiorno, poetry published with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; Crossing the Great Divide, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 1992 (poetry); and I Hear Voices: A Memoir of Love, Death, and the Radio, winner of the Kingery/Derleth Non-Fiction Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and named one of the Best Books of the Year by the American Library Association. 

Feraca is most proud of her first memoir, I Hear Voices, which was dedicated to her mother, and she has begun another memoir for her late father. “I always knew I had a book in me,” she explains. “More than anything else, I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer. Because of the intensity of the public radio work, I never was able to really concentrate on it until I took a leave of absence to write the book. It won a number of awards, and I’m very happy with it. I’m proud of it.

“I went to Fraboni’s to buy sausages not so long ago and the woman behind the counter said, ‘Oh, I just finished reading your book,’” Feraca adds. “So, that makes me very happy that it’s still doing its work in the world.”

While the first memoir was dedicated to her mother, a very memorable character, Feraca jokes that she’s making amends by devoting the next one to her father, who passed away before her career took off. “When my father died, I was at a low point in my life. I felt I needed to prove myself to him because he always had high hopes for me. During his lifetime, I did not fulfill that promise. I started out by saying, “Daddy, I thought you might like to know what happened after you died.’”

The next book won’t merely chronicle what happened after his death because she’s trying to think about it more creatively than that. “I mean, I just started it, so I begin with his death,” she explains. “When he was dying, he looked at me and looked at my mother and said to her, ‘Has the doctor slapped her yet?’”

It’s a memory that evokes laughter now and was a bit of an awakening back then. “It was a shock to me to think that in my father’s mind, I hadn’t even taken my first breath yet.”

That awakening is still unfolding in her retirement years, even though she finds it somewhat surprising to be moving back into the public eye at this stage. “You know, it’s not easy to be a retired, former public radio talk show host because I had a big platform when I was working for Wisconsin Public Radio and a lot of influence, and it wasn’t easy to move away from that,” she explains. “I decided that I needed to be a private person after having been so public, and so I chose a spiritual course, never thinking that I would rise into prominence again after making that kind of a choice. I’m just a little bit overwhelmed to tell you the truth.”

Raising the bar
Feraca called the ATHENA Award extremely special given past recipients and the professional accomplishments and civic contributions of the seven other women who were nominated in the 2021 program. They include:

  • Marcia Anderson, a retired major general with the U.S. Army;
  • Beth Bovis, vice president and partner with A.T. Kearney;
  • Tracy Brooks, art director for the Creative Company;
  • Alicia Hazen, director of Career and Leadership Development for the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology;
  • Denise Jess, CEO and executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired;
  • Erin Lavery, director of training and development for Exact Sciences; and
  • Lisa Paley, general manager at Two Men and a Truck.

“They are remarkable,” Feraca marvels “I really don’t understand what went into judges’ decision. I’m happy of course that they chose me, but I never thought I’d be competing with a retired major general in the Army who oversaw an $8 billion budget in the Pentagon, for heaven’s sake, or for that matter competing against the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired who is herself blind and could not even see the Zoom camera [during the virtual program]. That was quite remarkable.

“The woman who is the general manager of Two Men and a Truck. I mean, I’ve seen those trucks around town. I never imagined that it would be a woman who is the general manager and to find out about all the incredible things she does for women in the community, making sure that Mother’s Day is special for all moms. I mean, my goodness, how wonderful is that?

“Just their kindness and generosity. I was not just impressed but moved.”

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