The University of Arizona Poetry Center, part of the College of Humanities, has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Art for Justice Fund.

The grant will fund a three-year project that will commission new work from leading writers on mass incarceration in the U.S., with the goal of creating awareness and empathy through presentation and publication. In particular, through the work of poets, the project will seek to confront racial inequities in the criminal justice system and promote social justice and change.   

The Poetry Center will carry out the project in partnership with Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, lawyer and public intellectual who writes and lectures on mass incarceration and American society. Betts visited Tucson and read at the center in September. Over the three years of funding, the project will:

  • Commission and present new work in the Reading & Lecture Series at the UA, in conversation with local organizations working for change in the criminal justice system.
  • Commission found-text poems and responses created from the language of representative federal and state legislation that has disproportionately affected people of color.
  • Seek to publish works created through the aforementioned commissions in leading publications through partnerships.
  • Create a single-source archive for all new works on the center’s website, including interactive platforms to encourage public participation in the found-text project. 

The Art for Justice Fund, launched earlier this year with a $100 million donation from philanthropist Agnes Gund, today announced the first round of grant recipients in the areas of criminal justice reform and the arts. With awards ranging from $100,000 to $7.5 million, a total of $22 million was awarded to 30 innovative programs that seek to safely reduce prison populations, strengthen education and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and humanize those affected by the criminal justice system. 

The fund, created by Gund in partnership with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, is a five-year initiative that uniquely connects the ingenuity of criminal justice advocates and the creativity of artists to address the crisis of mass incarceration in America. 

“The Art for Justice Fund invests in organizations and artists doing critical work to advance criminal justice reform,” said Helena Huang, the fund’s project director. “Over the next five years, we aim to reduce our country’s harmful reliance on prisons and jails, and instead to increase community investments in health and public safety.”

The Poetry Center has a long history of serving system-involved writers, and for many years it has administered the Arizona prison writing workshop led by writers Richard Shelton, Ken Lamberton and Erec Toso. Recently, the center has begun serving writers incarcerated in area juvenile detention centers with poetry readings by visiting poets and with writing residencies through the center’s Writing the Community program. 

“We are so excited to leverage this support from the Art for Justice Fund to expand the conversation about the role incarceration plays in American life. We’re grateful to the fund for believing in the powerful role poetry can play as an agent for conversation and change,” said Tyler Meier, executive director of the Poetry Center. 

Said Betts: “This is an exciting opportunity to not only bring poets to the Arizona community who have been socially engaged while writing at the highest levels, but also to play a role in making that poetry truly exist as a part of larger and more public conversations around social justice in the United States.”

Learn more about the Art for Justice fund at: