When professor Emily Auerbach hears the word "Madison," she doesn't immediately picture the glowing granite Capitol or the most postcard-worthy scenes on the UW campus, where she teaches English and co-hosts Wisconsin Public Radio's University of the Air program. Instead, two Madisons appear in her mind's eye: one filled with opportunity and another sorely lacking it.
"We can do better than this," she says, frustrated. "Why should Madison have more than one-third of its African American, Asian and Hispanic residents living below the poverty level?"
Poverty is a topic that hits close to home for Auerbach, whose parents grew up in Kentucky, with no money and few hopes for the future. Thanks to a free college education, they were able to venture off the path their socioeconomic status dictated.
Auerbach's father went on to become a professor, and her mother became a medical librarian. This wouldn't have been possible, she says, without Berea College, a tuition-free university that only accepts students from low-income backgrounds.
While she couldn't singlehandedly change UW tuition, she realized that she could provide free college classes to some of Madison's neediest people. She's been doing so for a decade through the Odyssey Project, which provides free humanities classes to 30 adult learners each year. Each student also receives textbooks, childcare and a weekly meal, as well as six UW credits.
Over the course of a year, an Odyssey class reads and discusses works by superstars of the academic canon, from William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson.
Auerbach says Frederick Douglass and Socrates are especially popular among Odyssey students.
"A lot of them respond very well to Socrates because he was willing to die for his beliefs and because he was a gadfly. He stirred up questions," she says. "Frederick Douglass' narrative about escaping the shackles of slavery and struggling to become literate resonates as well, because these students realize education is their ticket out of poverty."
Examining works by some of the world's greatest thinkers inspires critical thinking here in Madison, she adds.
"People who felt like they're not college material and discover the richness of art and history and literature find their own gifts when it comes to writing and critical thinking," she says.
They also discover their potential. Several Odyssey students have gone on to earn college degrees. They've become teachers, police officers, social workers and prison chaplains. One student went from homelessness to graduate school.
In addition to teaching Odyssey classes with distinguished colleagues such as UW history professor Craig Werner and WPR alum Jean Feraca, Auerbach raises awareness about the project -- and money to sustain it -- through lectures and other events. She's been heartened by the response of her audiences.
"Last spring or winter, I gave a talk on campus about the project, and someone from UW Communications was in the audience and was very moved by its story. She decided there should be a film about the Odyssey Project for the Big Ten Network," Auerbach says.
This person was Katy Sai, co-founder of StoryBridge.tv. A 10-minute film soon morphed into a 30-minute documentary about the project, its participants and the people who inspired it: Auerbach's parents, Wanda and Robert.
The film is bittersweet for Auerbach, whose mother passed away a week ago.
"One of the main reasons I'm doing [the Odyssey Project] is because of my mother. She had no running water [while growing up]. Despite immense obstacles, she graduated valedictorian and went on to Columbia University," she says. "So the timing is very painful, but despite the pain, I have more passion than ever."
The film (watch a promo), which aired as an episode of Forward Motion on the Big Ten Network, will be screened for free at Sundance Cinemas Madison this Thursday, Dec. 6, at 5 p.m., 5:40 p.m. and 6:20 p.m. Attendees can enjoy refreshments and meet students from the program between screenings. Donations from the event will go toward scholarships for Odyssey students.