Three Yale affiliates win MacArthur ‘genius’ grants for their creativity

Poet, lawyer, and Yale Law School faculty member Reginald Dwayne Betts, along with two Yale alumnae, are among this year’s MacArthur Fellows.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, Monica Muñoz Martinez, and Jordan Casteel

Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16 J.D., Monica Muñoz Martinez ’08 M.A., ’10 M.Phil., ’12 Ph.D., and Jordan Casteel ’14 M.F.A.

Yale Law School faculty member Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16 J.D., a poet and lawyer whose own imprisonment as a teenager led him to become an advocate for incarcerated people, is one of three Yale affiliates to be awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as the “genius grant.”

Painter Jordan Casteel ’14 M.F.A. and public historian Monica Muñoz Martinez ’08 M.A., ’10 M.Phil., ’12 Ph.D., are also among the 25 individuals to be named MacArthur Fellows.

The awards are given annually to individuals in any field in recognition of exceptional creativity. Each fellow receives $625,000 over five years, which they are free to spend however they wish.

As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible,” Cecilia Conrad, managing director of MacArthur Fellows, said in a statement announcing the awards. “They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries.”

Betts, a clinical lecturer in law and associate research scholar in law at Yale Law School, was chosen for “promoting the humanity and rights of individuals who are or have been incarcerated.” He was incarcerated after being tried as an adult at the age of 16 for a carjacking, and today advocates for the incarcerated, fighting for clemency and parole for those facing lengthy sentences, ending cash bail, and prohibiting the practice of sending juveniles to adult prisons, among other causes.

Betts’ poetry also reflects his and others’ experience with the criminal justice system and includes the collection “Felon” (2019). In collaboration with Titus Kaphar ’06 M.F.A., a New Haven artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow, Betts created a series of prints that blended his poetry about the criminalization of poverty with Kaphar’s portraits of plaintiffs in lawsuits. Their work resulted in the 2019 exhibition “Redaction.” 

He also recently launched the nonprofit Freedom Reads to give incarcerated people access to literature. Freedom Reads donates books and shelving for libraries, organizes author visits, and sets up book circles in prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

Freedom begins with a book,” said Betts in his MacArthur Fellow biography. “I believe building Freedom Libraries, and placing them in prisons across this country, will be the start of somebody’s story of freedom.”

Casteel was recognized for “capturing everyday encounters with people and places in works that invite recognition of our shared humanity.” Her paintings feature the people and environments she encounters on the streets of Harlem, in New York City subways, and in her classrooms, among other venues, with the goal of highlighting their vulnerability and affirming their individuality.

She also hopes to broaden the representation of people of color in museum and gallery spaces. From 2016 to 2021 she served as an associate professor of painting at Rutgers University-Newark. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Denver Art Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, among others.

I’ve always been curious about people,” said Casteel in the video accompanying her MacArthur biography. “I’ve always wanted painting to be an opportunity to explore, and through that exploration, I want to understand myself and I want to understand others.”

Muñoz Martinez was honored for “bringing to light long-obscured cases of racial violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and their reverberations in the present.” Her various projects include the award-winning book “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” and Refusing to Forget, a nonprofit she cofounded with a team of historians that increases public awareness of the massacre of Mexicans and Mexican Americans by Anglo-American vigilantes and law enforcement officers during a period from 1910 to 1920. Her current project, Mapping Violence, aims to build a digital archive that will allow both scholars and the general public to learn about violence targeted at racial and ethnic groups in Texas between 1900 and 1930. Muñoz Martinez is currently an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas-Austin.

People have a right to learn truthful accounts of history in schools, museums, the news, and popular culture, even when those histories are troubling,” Muñoz Martinez said in her MacArthur Fellow biography. “This is especially important when lessons of the past can help inspire a more inclusive and equitable future.”

The Class of 2021 MacArthur Fellows also includes art historian and curator Nicole Fleetwood, historian and writer Ibram X. Kendi, civil rights activist Desmond Meade, geomorphologist Taylor Perron, and microbiologist Victor J. Torres. A full list of fellows can be viewed on the MacArthur Fellowship website.


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