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 resources for justice-involved individuals. Students 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.
Toliver says she was struck by how much of what they read and discussed in the course is still relevant today.
“Reading words of authors way before our time and being able to apply that same knowledge to today’s time and apply your own twist to it, I think that’s pretty good,” Toliver said. “The world is so big but we kind of get stuck in this narrow mindset so just having that literature to help set a foundation is good. That’s something I look forward to — that I can always come back at times when I feel down to read it for inspiration.”
Toliver says she was also eager for the opportunity to build on business skills she’d previously honed at workshops offered through the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and she appreciates that the University offers these courses and workshops free of charge, which has been particularly helpful after a financially difficult year for so many.
“I felt like this was an opportunity to get that motivation back,” Toliver said. “I’m just trying to enlighten myself a little bit more and have a bigger picture understanding of what’s going on and how I can apply it to my life.”