Wisconsin’s poet laureate helps OBB students unlock their stories

Wisconsin Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton meets with Odyssey Beyond Bars students at Green Bay Correctional in spring 2022 (Photo courtesy of GBCI staff)

Every writer is a storyteller. That is the common bond that is shared among us. I write because it helps to free the thoughts and ideals that have always lived within me. This ability to create, to allow myself to live in a world that I created, was something that I had to rediscover.

—Karshara, student in English 100 at Racine Correctional

How do Odyssey Beyond Bars students in English 100 prepare for the 5-minute oral storytelling assignment that caps the end of the course? With the help of professional storytellers, of course, including Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, Dasha Kelly Hamilton!

In a massive collaboration led by Jen Rubin of Wisconsin Humanities, storytelling coaches travel to our four prisons around the state to help students identify experiences they want to share and frame those experiences in a short, compelling storytelling performance. At Green Bay Correctional, students worked with special guest coach Dasha Kelly Hamilton, who shared tips about story structure and performance.

Mark, a student at Oakhill Correctional, notes the unifying power of storytelling and the communities it can build: “I believe that life is one’s best teacher, and if I took my life story and my life experiences and shared them with the world, I might be able to make a difference in at least one person’s life.”

This spring, Odyssey staff joined the students and coaches at each prison to hear the students’ performances, and we were dazzled by their energy, passion, and humor. In addition to Dasha, we thank coaches Brendon Panke at Columbia Correctional, Ali Muldrow and Danielle Hairston-Green at Oakhill, and Nestor Gomez and Jimmy Gutierrez at Racine Correctional. As Nestor shared, “As a person that came to this country undocumented, I struggled for years to find my own voice. It was a blessing and an honor to work with the students at Racine to find their voices!” And most of all, thanks to Jen Rubin for coordinating all our coaches and continuing to support our students.