Building Power to End Mass Incarceration: Reflections from the Art for Justice Convening

December 18, 2018

Read reflections from Jennel Nesbitt, Program Associate for the Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives, on the Art for Justice Fund 2018 Convening.

“In November 2018, I joined over a hundred activists, advocates, artists, and allies at the Art for Justice convening in New Orleans. We came together to build relationships and to learn more about the ways that art and organizing are essential in the movement to end mass incarceration.

As the Program Associate for the Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy and also a person with lived experience in the criminal justice system, this convening gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own personal experience and also hear from so many others who share my story. I also had the chance to explore the possibilities of my new role in philanthropy and think more about how I can support the communities who are most directly impacted in our collective fight to reform the bail system, end mass incarceration and combat racism.

I was sentenced to prison time when I wasn’t even able to legally drink alcohol. Yet, I was old enough to be sentenced to 17 years (12 in prison, 5 on parole) for a violent crime where no violence ever occurred. No priors, just a college student whose mother showed up to every court date. No bail, just jail, and the life lessons that can never be unlearned. I had flashbacks of my own experience while listening to the stories of so many other advocates, organizers, writers, and artists talk about the pain they carry while doing this work. I couldn’t help but feel empowered and inspired by such a profound group of leaders dedicated to the urgency of criminal justice reform.

Borealis has been working with several funders to launch a collaborative fund committed to supporting organizing groups who are transforming pretrial detention, decriminalizing poverty, and ending mass incarceration. I’m proud to be helping to build this fund and in my new role as a grantmaker, I’m committed to resourcing communities as they build power to change our broken criminal justice system. Part of my role is to connect with and support organizations that are doing the transformative work rooted in communities who have been most harmed by the system. Ultimately, I believe that supporting communities closest to the problems will bring us closest to the solutions.

I’m looking forward to supporting the inspiring people I met at Art for Justice who are building this unstoppable movement. From slavery to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration, to the fight to end all injustice that disturbs the intersectionalities of our experience, I am hopeful in this movement that I know can and must win.”