Empowerment Avenue, a program that connects incarcerated writers and artists with mainstream outlets and fair compensation for their work, has been awarded the 2023 J.M.K. Innovation Prize. From a nationwide search for transformative, early-stage projects, The J.M. Kaplan Fund awards the Prize biennially to 10 innovators in the fields of social justice, the environment, and heritage conservation. Awardees receive a total of $175,000 over three years and join a learning collaborative designed to support them through the challenges of a startup organization.
“Empowerment Avenue amplifies the talent and narratives of incarcerated people, providing a critical bridge to broader engagement and opportunity,” said Justin Goldbach, J.M.K. Innovation Prize Program Director. “Like their fellow Prize awardees, they’re poised to reshape our world to be more equitable and just. We are thrilled to support them on that journey over the coming years.”
The J.M.K. Innovation Prize is designed to support nonprofits and entrepreneurs tackling America’s most pressing challenges through social and environmental innovation—focusing in particular on pilot projects, new organizations, or nascent initiatives that involve a certain amount of measured risk, but which may ultimately lead to large-scale, transformative results. This year’s awardees were selected from among 3,209 applications, by far the most participation in the Prize since its inception in 2015.
Empowerment Avenue founder and executive director Rahsaan Thomas has modeled the project largely on his own experiences as an incarcerated writer, filmmaker, and social justice advocate. “I was incarcerated, and the only part of me still free was my voice,” he notes. “But what good is having a voice if no one can hear you?”
Broadly speaking, incarcerated people are financially burdened and isolated from society, largely unseen and unheard by the world beyond prison walls. Incarcerated writers and artists have little insight or access to editors, gallery owners, and outlets that might be interested in featuring their work. What’s more, they typically require outside support to comply with common requirements for getting their work published or exhibited, like email communication, digital uploading, and meeting tight deadlines. At the same time, mainstream creative organizations lack the staff and know-how to successfully collaborate with and compensate creators in prison.
While incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, Thomas earned just $36 per month as a writer for the San Quentin News. Through connections with mainstream journalists and his work on the Ear Hustle podcast, Thomas launched Empowerment Avenue as a pilot together with freelance journalist Emily Nonko. His own writing built connections at publications like Huffington Post, Business Insider, and The Boston Globe, along with advancing his case for early release. Thomas paroled in February 2023 having published 40+ stories and earned more than $25,000. Fair wages for incarcerated contributors are a critical driver of Rahsaan’s innovation, helping outside organizations navigate the challenges and complexities of safely paying incarcerated creatives.
Playing a critical connective role, Empowerment Avenue pairs system-impacted writers and artists with professional writers and artists on the outside who volunteer their time and expertise to transcribe, edit, and pitch stories, articles, and proposals; facilitate agreements with museums and galleries; and negotiate and arrange payment for publishing or selling their work.
“With the J.M.K. Innovation Prize, we will be able to hire another staff member so we can expand our writing program and also expand into films,” Thomas adds. “We’ll be creating a culture of inclusion, a culture that allows people inside to tell their own stories and earn a living instead of having to work outside of the system.”
Empowerment Avenue is among several Prize winners committed to social-impact projects that integrate economic and racial justice with the arts. A report accompanying the Prize, Resilient Leadership in Times of Unrelenting Change, sheds further light on this trend and other findings from this year’s selection process and pool of 3,209 applicants.
Find more information about Empowerment Avenue and watch a video interview with Rahsaan Thomas at jmkfund.org/awardee/rahsaan-thomas.
About The J.M. Kaplan Fund
Established in 1945 by philanthropist and businessman Jacob Merrill Kaplan, the Fund has since its inception been committed to visionary innovation. Over four generations of family engagement, the Fund has devoted more than $300 million to propel fledgling efforts focused on human rights, civil liberties, equality and justice, the arts and literacy, and the conservation and enhancement of the built and natural worlds. The J.M.K. Innovation Prize continues the Fund’s legacy of catalytic giving, reaching across America to provide early-stage support for entrepreneurs with 21st-century solutions to urgent social and environmental challenges. Learn more at JMKFund.org.
Copyright © 2023 California Business Journal. All Rights Reserved.