So often people in prison are told this is your story…this is who you are…this is why you ended up in prison. We know that every person’s story is more. More interesting, more complicated, more…human.

We are excited to bring our storytelling skills to a special collaboration between Wisconsin Humanities and the Odyssey Project through a program called Odyssey Beyond Bars. Each semester Love Wisconsin’s Executive Producer Jen Rubin leads a team of storytellers who facilitate a three-part storytelling workshop as part of Odyssey Beyond Bars English classes in Columbia, Oak Hill and Racine Correctional Facilities. 

So what’s the value, for incarcerated people, of learning how to craft a good story? Over the last 20 years, the UW-Madison Odyssey Project has proven that an introduction to the humanities, and access to education, changes lives for the better and can help break the cycle of poverty. With Odyssey Beyond Bars, Jen has seen that storytelling can give justice-impacted people the tools they need to reimagine the stories they tell about their lives. And this changes everything. 

For the people in classes at Columbia, Oak Hill and Racine Correctional Facilities, the storytelling experience begins with a 90-minute skill-building workshop about how to turn a memory into a story. In part two, Jen brings in several experienced storytellers to work with the students in small groups.  Each student gets a lot of feedback that helps them refine their story draft. Finally, on the last day of class, students share their stories with the class and with guests, often performing them without notes.  

There are typically fifteen students in an Odyssey Beyond Bars  course. To put that in context there are about 35,000 people in prisons and jails in the state of Wisconsin, and about 1,800,000 in the country. To give more context, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but is responsible for 20% of the world’s prison population. Through this collaboration with Odyssey Beyond Bars, not only are we bringing the humanities to a place where they are sorely needed, but by sharing that work with people on the outside, we hope to help all of us look at incarceration in our society through a humanities lens. How do humans express themselves creatively and find meaning, even in dehumanizing circumstances? How can the humanities help people re-imagine the story of their lives – and what can happen when they do? 

As one student put it, “Odyssey helped me unwrap my gifts and rewrite the story of my life.”

To learn more about Odyssey Beyond Bars and hear about other ways that the humanities are making a difference for people in the Wisconsin correctional system, listen to the Odyssey Beyond Bars stories featured in this episode of Human Powered podcast.

The Team of Storytellers

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Nestor told his first story at a Moth StorySlam to get over the stuttering that plagued his childhood; since then he has won more than 70 Slams. Nestor created 80 Minutes Around the World, featuring stories of immigrants and refugees from different parts of the world and their descendants. As a former undocumented immigrant, Nestor understands the importance of having a voice and owning your own story. Storytelling creates an opportunity for those behind walls, physical or political, to overcome barriers and build bridges through our mutual experience. Link to his website

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Jimmy Gutierrez (he/him) is a journalist and storyteller from Milwaukee. He’s worked as an editor for TED’s Audio collective and 70 Million, a podcast examining incarceration and the criminal justice system in the United States, and has helped report, produce and host numerous podcasts for New Hampshire Public Radio. He’s also worked on filling information gaps in Milwaukee’s low-wealth neighborhoods with the help of Stanford’s JSK fellowship.   



Danielle leads storytelling workshops and keynotes on the ‘impact of a single story’ and is a host for the Moth Story Slam in Madison. Her stories are grounded in the lessons learned from her mother and her journey through fear, loss, and triumphs. She leads the Institute of Human Development and Relationships with the UW Division of Extension. “Storytelling is vulnerable and powerful, scary and brave; it is one of the greatest human connectors and is a fundamental part of being human.” 

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Ali Muldrow created and was the host of spoken word clubs at five Madison public high schools. Ali is the Director of Youth Programming and Inclusion at GSAFE, working with LGBTQ+ youth. She launched GSAFE’s New Narrative Project in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. She is passionate about consent, freedom, learning and human rights and is committed to bringing love to all that she does.

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Brendon has been telling stories on stages for over 20 years and has been helping others tell stories for over 10 years. Brendon’s style is built upon improv experience and training, which isn’t to say he never prepares. Brendon’s favorite storytelling moments are when he gets to work with a student as they uncover what story they want to tell and how to connect with an audience through that story.

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Jen in the Executive Producer of Love Wisconsin, co-produces the Moth StorySlam in Madison, and co-hosts the storytelling podcast Inside Stories. She leads storytelling workshops around the state. Jen believes that stories are an important way we connect as humans. Turning a memory into a well told story can affirm a truth that the listener already knew, it can deepen someone’s understanding, it can lower fences and it can amplify voices.

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