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With Books and New Focus, Mellon Foundation to Foster Social Equity


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, announced Tuesday that it is adjusting its mission to give greater emphasis in its grant-giving to programs that promote social justice.

The strategic refocus was approved by the foundation’s board earlier this month at the same meeting at which it authorized spending for an initiative born of the new ethos — a $5.3 million program to distribute large, curated collections of books to prisons across the country.

Though the discussion at the foundation to invest more deeply in issues of social justice predates the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the foundation, said that the moment of national introspection born of his death made the shift feel particularly timely.

“I had always been thinking about what stories haven’t been told, what knowledge hasn’t been seen as precious, what voices have been denied to us?” she said in an interview.

The Mellon Foundation typically gives out roughly $300 million a year in grants to arts and humanities organizations. This year, because of the economic losses created by the pandemic, it is planning to distribute $500 million.

The prison library program will give each of the 1,000 prisons the same 500-book collection selected by the project’s leaders. The collections, which Dr. Alexander called “freedom libraries,” are to include a broad variety of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, science, social thought and more.

“Not just self-help books or religious books or books that are supposed to be about self-improvement,” Dr. Alexander said. “The way that people are improved happens through poetry, it happens through history and in all kinds of ways.”

Foundation officials said that the overall emphasis on social justice will involve some public rebranding (the nonprofit’s focus on “scholarly communications” is now known as “public knowledge”) and both old and new applicants for Mellon Foundation grants will be evaluated based on how their work will contribute to a more just and fair society.

As one example of what that larger shift in the foundation’s emphasis will mean, Dr. Alexander said it would begin putting more resources into public libraries and community archives in addition to university and research libraries.

Since she started leading the foundation in 2018, Dr. Alexander said, she has invested substantial resources in projects with a social justice emphasis, such as its grant toward preserving important sites in African-American history in an effort to rethink what constitutes a “national treasure.”

The origin story of the new project — called the “Million Book Project” — started in 2006 when Dr. Alexander, a poet and former humanities professor who read from her work at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, met Reginald Dwayne Betts at a workshop facilitated by her nonprofit organization Cave Canem, which trains aspiring poets. Mr. Betts first encountered Dr. Alexander’s poetry as a teenager at Red Onion State Prison where he was incarcerated after being tried as an adult for a carjacking at 16.

“I just imagined that prison was a black box that I had to suffer in,” said Mr. Betts, who was incarcerated for more than eight years.

He recalled the way his world expanded when he moved to a prison with an interlibrary loan program, which enabled him to borrow works of poetry by writers like Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove and Sonia Sanchez.

“This is unlocking not just one world but dozens if not hundreds of worlds for people,” he said of the project.

Mr. Betts, who has now published three collections of poetry and a memoir, is running the books project with the Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, an organization focused on criminal justice reform. He and Elizabeth Hinton, a professor of history, African-American studies and law at Yale, will select the 500 books that will be sent to medium and maximum security prisons in all 50 states, as well as Washington and Puerto Rico. The project will also involve a group of writers giving readings in the prisons.

They plan to seek recommendations from an advisory committee of experts in various fields and ask them three key questions: What books profoundly changed your life? What books must exist for your expertise to exist? And what books did you have to read to become the person that you are? (Knowing that he would like to include some children’s books in the collection, Mr. Betts also plans to consult his 8- and 12-year-old old sons as sort of ex officio members of the curatorial team.)

The list will likely be finished in about six months, Mr. Betts said. Right now, Dr. Hinton said that she and Mr. Betts have a shared Google doc where they are compiling titles. Both of them agree that W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America” should be on the list. Mr. Betts also sees “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison as a necessary part of the collection; Dr. Hinton would like Ann Petry’s “The Street” and Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred” on there.

“Beyond the impact of reading and books on an individual, we’re hoping that this project helps build community and creates new conversations between people on the inside,” said Dr. Hinton, who wrote a book about mass incarceration.

On their preliminary list are some that address mass incarceration, like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, or prison rebellions, like “Blood in the Water” by Heather Ann Thompson, which is a history of the Attica Prison uprising, both titles that some prisons have restricted in the past. Mr. Betts said that he believes books like those will make it into prisons with an open dialogue between his team and the institutions themselves, and just in case, the project will also have support from a legal clinic.

Dr. Alexander said the project aims to turn incarcerated time into “learning time” and “mind-expanding time” for many prisoners. She wants them to have similar experiences to the one she had in the library at 19 years old when a friend handed her a battered copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.

“You have got to read this,” she recalled her friend saying.

In the book, Janie Crawford recounts the joys and sorrows of her life to her friend Pheoby Watson while sitting on a porch. Dr. Alexander remembered reading it and feeling as though “something was blown wide open when you think about what your life could be.”

“Everybody deserves that,” she said. “Every human being deserves it.”



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