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  • Vive Griffith

Anna Mangahas: The Value of Wrestling with Big Ideas

For Anna Mangahas, the richness of the classroom community in Chicago’s Clemente Course, the Odyssey Project, was a powerful motivator.

“There’s something about pulling unlikely people together in a room to address and interact with a text that feels sacred and unique,” she said. “We got to explore these big ideas that we don’t get to explore anywhere else because we’re so busy trying to figure out our grocery lists or how to help our children with school. It was so enriching.” Anna wasn’t new to college when she came to Odyssey in 2005, but she hadn’t been in the classroom in a long time. She started work toward a degree at age 18, but wasn’t ready then to see it through. Instead, she joined AmeriCorps and traveled from her native Chicago to California to serve as a reading tutor in an elementary school. She loved the experience, but ultimately returned home to begin her work life and her family. She put her plans for a degree on the back burner. When her son started growing up, she realized that if she was telling him he had to go to college, she needed to commit to completing her degree as well. Enrolling in Odyssey felt like a “baby step” toward that goal. “It allowed me to be in a school environment with other adult learners,” she said. “And because it was in the evening, I could still work full time. It was what I needed to commit to my own education.” Once she got started with Odyssey, Anna kept going. She enrolled in classes at Northeastern Illinois University and built her career as a community organizer. After years of working in direct service with individuals transitioning out of incarceration, she wanted to help change the systems that get people caught up in criminal justice. Today she works with ONE Northside on police accountability issues. While much of the work focuses on policy and strategy, she sees a parallel between the humanities she studied in Odyssey and the work she does in the community.

Anna, bottom left, and fellow Odyssey alum facilitators of the Long Overdue Book Group

“In both cases, it’s about telling stories and sharing ideas,” she said. “In our work, we listen to people’s stories, pull out the big ideas, and then use those stories and ideas to build ordinances that can help change lives.” Anna stayed connected with Odyssey over the years, participating in facilitation training for the Long Overdue Book Group and then organizing book group meetings in her neighborhood with fellow graduate Jo McEntee. She also enrolled in the second-year bridge courses for alumni. In fact, the credits she earned for those courses ended up being the final ones she needed for her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies degree at Northeastern. “I had to do a writing portfolio to complete my degree, and I used things from the second-year course for that portfolio. It all came full circle. It was the Odyssey Project that got me started, and it was those final credits from Bard College that enabled me to finish my degree.”

“Clemente gave me the confidence I needed to go back to school as an adult learner and helped me model for my son that education is incredibly important—so important that you don’t let all the other things in life get in the way. Today I am a college graduate, and my son is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

As Clemente celebrates its 25th anniversary, Anna reflects on the difference the Odyssey Project made for her and her family: “I really do think there is a lot of value in having the stillness to wrestle with these big ideas, and that stillness is hard to create unless you’re in a setting where there is accountability and where you are part of the discussion. My opinions and experiences were valued there,” she said. “I wish everyone could have that stillness and generative space to reflect on big ideas and how their lives interact with these big ideas and then go back into the broader world. It’s incredible and hard to replicate unless you’re part of the Odyssey Project.”

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