Ryan Chiao, Senior Photographer

Reginald Dwayne Betts LAW ’16 GRD ’21 told the News that he laughed in surprise when an anonymous caller notified him of an award that he won — the MacArthur Fellowship. 

University alumni who also received the honor include Jordan Casteel ART ’14 and Monica Muñoz Martinez GRD ’12. The MacArthur fellowship, commonly known as the genius grant, is annually awarded to 25 individuals who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their respective fields of work and achievements.  The three alumni won the award for their achievements in poetry and law, art and public history, respectively. Each received a five-year grant of $625,000, paid in quarterly installments, to pursue their work in whichever way they deem fit. 

“I laughed because it was so unexpected and then I was still, I am still developing what my reaction is,” Betts said. “I will use [the grant] to build relationships and to build a foundation of support for what I want to do going forward.”

The selective and secretive nomination process for the award involves nominations by a “changing pool of invited external nominators.” None of the three had ever anticipated being nominated for the award, let alone winning it, they said.  

Betts is a poet, lawyer and a current doctoral candidate in Law at Yale. He has worked to promote the rights of individuals who are or have been previously incarcerated. At age 16, Betts himself was tried as an adult for carjacking and has since then written as a poet to reflect on experiences with the justice system. After his time at the University, Betts worked as a lawyer to end cash bail, limit sentence lengths and prohibit juvenile sentencing to adult prisons. 

Currently, as part of the Yale Law School Justice Collaboratory, Betts works as director of the non-profit Freedom Reads  — creating book circles, donating books and curating book lists for incarcerated individuals. Betts founded Freedom Reads with the goal of widening the horizons of incarcerated people through access to books in prison libraries. 

Elsa Hardy LAW ’23 also shared with the News her delight at hearing that Betts won the MacArthur Fellowship. Hardy has worked with Betts since before the founding of Freedom Reads and was his “right hand person.” She said that she could sense Betts’ “innovative” and “boundary pushing” qualities “in the air around him.” 

Hardy gave the example of Freedom Reads’ bookshelf building project as one that illustrates Betts’ execution of a vision. Most would think of building bookshelves in prison as “crazy,” and the few that would think of doing so would build them in prison libraries, she said. But Betts, by building bookshelves in prison housing units with MASS Design Group, was able to expand the scope of readers the project reached. 

“Dwayne is the kind of leader who doesn’t get trapped by habit or laziness into the more convenient way, or even trapped in the battling of inconveniences; he is an ultimate stepper back to imagine a truer, more interesting, more ambitious solution,” Freedom Reads project manager Tess Wheelwright told the News. “Also, he never fails to interrupt any meeting for a call from family or from prison. I think this combination of giant vision and fierce loyalty are why people … are inspired by and trust Dwayne.”

Martinez, another recipient, is a public historian who has raised awareness of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border. Having grown up in South Texas, Martinez shared with the News her desire for a more widely accessible and “truthful Texas history.” 

Currently, through her work with the Mapping Violence project, Martinez works to build a digital archive of “truthful Texas history” to supplement the more commonly found myths and archives that are “often corrupt” in cases of “state-sanctioned violence” targeting various racial groups in the early 1900s. She investigates overlooked records and connects with individuals who have preserved their histories with personal records — such as photographs — and plans to use the grant to further contribute to the Mapping Violence project, with the belief that “reckoning with the past is intertwined with current efforts for social justice.”

“What most impressed me [about Martinez] was that she had really close relationships with descendant communities… the children and grandchildren of people who had either survived these horrific instances of violence or lost their lives … and [Martinez] was able to not only bring them into the conversation, but bring them to the table,” Benjamin Johnson GRD ’00 said.

Johnson met Martinez after graduating from Yale and has worked with her on Refusing to Forget — an award winning non-profit Martinez and Johnson co-founded alongside fellow academics — to bring public awareness to violence towards Mexican Americans in Texas, according to the organization’s website. Johnson shared that what is most remarkable about Martinez is her  all-inclusive and collaborative approach to “build bridges” and her “generosity of spirit.”

Casteel, the third recipient, is a painter who has worked to encapsulate the proximity of the people and environments — ranging from the New York subway to classrooms—  in art. She often depicts people of color in her work and addresses relevant social issues. Many of her paintings are created based off of photographs and depict her subjects in forward-facing positions conveying intimacy. Casteel’s artistic style is also notable for its unique use of vibrant colors. Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the New Museum in New York, permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, among many others.

In our one on one and group conversations about politics, color and space, Jordan Casteel was always attentive, open minded, and grounded,” Anoka Faruqee, director of graduate studies in Painting and Printmaking, told the News.

Currently, Casteel is installing her new exhibition at the Massimo De Carlo gallery in London, a gallery that brings together the works of prominent artists around the world. She continues to strive to use art as a medium to reflect upon our “shared humanity.”

We couldn’t be happier for [Casteel] on the incredible achievement of MacArthur,” Veronica Levitt, who works at the Casey Kaplan gallery where Casteel’s work is displayed, wrote in an email to the News. “We’ve had the privilege of witnessing the evolution of Jordan’s painting practice, but also the unwavering commitment to the nuanced language around the work, which is integral in valuing the people and landscapes depicted.”

MacArthur is one of the largest independent foundations in the United States. 

Eda Aker is a WKND Editor and previously covered Yale Law School for the University Desk. She is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.