Colleen Johnson knows the strength of a community depends on the resilience of its residents. As director of development and community partnerships for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Odyssey Project, she leads fundraising efforts for a program that has helped more than 500 disadvantaged individuals believe that they are college material and make strides toward their educational goals.
These individuals come from some of Dane County’s most underprivileged populations, facing barriers such as poverty and structural racism. Each year, about 30 adults take Odyssey’s two-semester humanities course, which immerses them in English literature, American history, and philosophy. They earn six college credits as their faith in their academic abilities—and their power to change the world—grows. Along the way, the program provides child care, a weekly meal, tutoring, financial counseling, and meetings with a social worker, all of which help the students solve problems and focus on their studies.
Johnson is one of many people who help these students find, celebrate, and mobilize their strengths. Her commitment to serving this population of learners—and her skill at securing resources such as a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—convinced Brava magazine to name her a Dane County “Woman to Watch” in 2019.
Fighting poverty, fostering opportunity
An accomplished grant writer who spent a decade in urban planning at Vandewalle & Associates, Johnson brings passion and compassion to her work.
“I really believe that to strengthen a community, you have to start with the people who live there, especially the economically disadvantaged and people of color,” Johnson told Brava.
Johnson notes that Odyssey’s community-building capacity contributes to its effectiveness at fighting poverty and fostering opportunity. She describes the program as the kind of place where participants get to know “other working parents who face similar obstacles and are succeeding,” something that can be hard to do without a little help from others.
In addition to building students’ confidence and academic skills, Odyssey inspires them to chase their dreams both inside and outside the classroom. So far, about 75% of Odyssey graduates have taken additional college courses, and 24% have earned college degrees or professional certificates. Plus, students who complete the program see their household incomes increase by an average of $18,000 within seven years. Additionally, students report finding their voices and “unwrapping” gifts such as creative writing talents and public speaking abilities.
When nominating Johnson for the “Women to Watch” list, Odyssey Director Emily Auerbach emphasized how her fundraising skills and commitment to social justice complement each other. She also noted how Johnson’s experience attending public schools in Rockford, Ill., helped her understand the relationship between racial segregation and disparities in education, income, and housing.
“Driven to reinvest in struggling Midwest communities like Rockford, Colleen worked as a community and economic development planner for ten years. Through this work, she discovered that her real passion lay in investing in people and empowering them to strengthen their own communities,” Auerbach told Brava. “This is why Colleen is so passionate about Odyssey: It invests in people who will, as they succeed in breaking a cycle of generational poverty, go on to strengthen systems such as education, health care, justice, and social services, making Madison a stronger and more inclusive community.”
Expanding Odyssey’s reach
This year Johnson will work with Peter Moreno and Odyssey Associate Director Kevin Mullen to launch Odyssey Beyond Bars, a partnership with the Department of Corrections that brings college courses to inmates in Wisconsin prisons. These courses are based on the Odyssey curriculum that has helped hundreds of students thrive amid difficult circumstances.
She’s also raising money to bolster Odyssey and its sister programs. These include Onward Odyssey, which connects Odyssey graduates with UW–Madison courses that can help them make progress toward college degrees, and Odyssey Junior, which serves the children and grandchildren of adult Odyssey students.
Auerbach is confident that Johnson will broaden Odyssey’s impact by developing new programming and sharing the program’s model with other universities in Wisconsin and beyond. She believes Johnson’s talent for building partnerships could lead to workforce-training opportunities that help Odyssey graduates attain greater economic stability as they raise their families and go to school.
Johnson also has the chance to change lives by addressing some of the most persistent barriers students of color face. In addition to taking on structural racism, Johnson and her team design Odyssey initiatives to impact not only adult students but their children, neighbors, and other people in their lives. Nearly 98% of Odyssey participants say the program has helped them show their family and friends the importance of education, and two-thirds report that the experience has increased their children’s interest in attending college.
“Colleen’s work will make a profound difference in addressing issues of racial inequity right here in our community,” Auerbach says. “She’s a star and definitely a woman to watch.”
For more information about the Odyssey Project, including Onward Odyssey, Odyssey Junior, and Odyssey Beyond Bars, see the program’s website. To donate to one or more of these programs, visit the Support Odyssey page.
Featured photo: Johnson (right) with Odyssey Director Emily Auerbach, who nominated her for the “Women to Watch” list. Photo courtesy of Hedi Lamarr Photography.