The Academy of American Poets in partnership with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City presents a free conversation series each fall exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations pair some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On January 21, 2020, the series featured a conversation about art and action between Mahogany L. Browne, author of Black Girl Magic: A Poem and the forthcoming Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice and multidisciplinary artist Shaun Leonardo, whose work has been featured at The Guggenheim Museum and the High Line.


Tonight we’re excited to present a poet— Mahogany Browne— and an artist and performer Shuan Leonardo— both recipients of Fellowships from the Art for Justice Fund. Established by Agnes Gund and the Ford Foundation, the Fund is focused on “disrupting mass incarceration by funding artists and advocates working together to reform our criminal justice system.”

What is mass incarceration? According to the The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, “mass incarceration is shorthand for the fact that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any nation in the world... and the approach to punishment often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects people of color, and inflicts overly harsh sentences.”

To know, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the total prison population was 329,000. But, picking up the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” rhetoric Richard Nixon employed, when President Reagan left office eight years later in 1988, the prison population had essentially doubled, to 627,000 individuals. 

Since that time, the rate of reported violent crimes has been halved, falling from approximately 750 crimes per 100,000 U.S. inhabitants to closer to 370 in 2018, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet the number of individuals has increased. 

Today, more than 2.1 million individuals are incarcerated. So again, while violent crime has decreased in the past 20 years by 50%, the number of incarcerated individuals has increased 350%.

Can poetry and art help us understand issues of injustice like mass incarceration and create the compassion necessary to drive social change? And if so, how?

Both Mahogany and Shaun work at the intersection of art and action and we’re honored to have them with us this evening. 

Mahogany Browne is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks, and the children’s books Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Roaring Brook Press), Black Girl Magic (Roaring Brook Press, 2018); and Woke Baby (Roaring Brook Press, 2018). An award-winning performance poet, she is also active in the spoken word community. She has released five LPs of her work and has served as the poetry program director and Friday Night Slam curator for the Nuyorican Poets Café. A recipient of an MFA from Pratt, Browne has also received fellowships from Cave Canem and Poets House, among other honors and awards. She is the artistic director of Urban Word NYC.

Shaun Leonardo is a visual and performing artist whose personal work focuses on the intersection of masculinity, race, and culture. He has worked with different populations such as residents in New York City’s public housing, homeless men and women, LGBTQ youth, and formerly incarcerated people. Some of his notable works include The Eulogy (2017, The Highline) and I Can’t Breathe (2016, various venues). Leonardo leads the diversion workshops for Recess, an art gallery that opened in Brooklyn in 2009 that partners with artists to inspire a more inclusive and just creative community. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and is a recipient of support from Creative Capital, Guggenheim Social Practice, and the Jerome Foundation.

Please welcome Mahogany Browne and Shaun Leonardo.