Feeling drained after a tough year, Woodlawn resident Jennifer Toliver recently found herself looking for something that would help energize her, mentally and professionally. She found it in a new humanities and professional skills-building course offered by the University of Chicago. Who I Am, Who We Are is a free, ten-week course for community residents — with priority given to individuals with criminal records or involvement in the justice system — that covers themes like personal and group identity through reading and discussion.
“It’s definitely just helping me get back in the process of being normal and helping me get that energy back period to continue and try to knock out goals,” Toliver, an audio engineer who’s working on a book about the entertainment industry, said. “Taking the course has helped me want to go ahead and get back to work and get back to really focusing on my business and really making it flourish as I want it to.”
Developed and led by the Office of Civic Engagement and the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, the course is part of a broader effort by the University to remove barriers to employment and provide resources for justice-involved individuals. These actions stem from recommendations from the Community Development Working Group — a group of more than 60 local stakeholders from business, workforce development, and housing organizations that the Office of Civic Engagement has convened since 2019 to share the University’s work in these areas and explore how the University can help to spur more equitable development and economic inclusion on the South Side. The effort has also included the Office of Civic Engagement partnering with the University of Chicago’s Human Resources to update the hiring process by highlighting local candidates and including Fair Chance language in job postings. The language specifies that a conviction history does not automatically preclude University employment and conviction information is considered on a case-by-case basis.
The students participating in Who I Am, Who We Are represent a mix of ages, interests, and life experiences, which has allowed for rich discussion despite the inaugural classes being taught over Zoom, according to Amy Thomas Elder, a teaching specialist at the Graham School and the course instructor. Students have read and talked about works by 20th century Black writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison and compared those to ancient writings by Plato and others, sparking conversations and reflections about what the authors have to say about how individual and collective forces shape self-image and how those concepts might apply to their own lives.
“People were willing to talk about their experience in ways that were often moving and provocative, and they were supportive of one another but also willing to challenge one another,” Elder says. “The benefit of having a text is that it gives a place where everybody can meet as equals.”
Toliver and fellow student Gwendolyn Chubb both say they were struck by how much of what they read and discussed in the course is still relevant today.
“Some of the same issues that Du Bois and Gwendolyn Brooks bring up in their work, we’re still grappling with those things,” Chubb said. “So, that’s unsettling but in a good way. It shakes you out of your numbness.”
In addition to the humanities-based portion of the course, students participated in a four-week professional skills-building workshop, taught by Writing Department instructor Ashley Lyons, focused on business communication, including memo writing, PowerPoint presentations, and email. Chubb, who lives in the South Loop, says she was eager for the opportunity to update her technological and professional communications skills to support the legal clinic she established and another small business concept she’s developing.
Learning that the University of Chicago offers free courses like this one to community residents, and free workshops like those she’s taken advantage of through the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, has been something of a game-changer, Chubb says, particularly after the University loaned her a laptop and provided a mobile hot spot. “I thought that was so amazing that they would do that because sometimes it’s something as simple as not having access to the internet on a regular basis that will keep you from taking part in an opportunity like this,” Chubb said.
The course provided students with a chance to examine their own lives through a unique set of lenses, Elder said — an exercise that could be particularly valuable for anyone who’s experienced something that’s fractured or constrained their understanding of their self and their lived narrative.
“That’s why you study the humanities: to be able to reframe your own life and process it in light of a history of human striving, and identity is one way to talk about that and one that, I think, is appealing to people,” Elder says. “What I hope for the students is that the class would give them new ways to reflect on their own experience in order to be able to form a more coherent narrative about themselves.”