Imagining Freedom: The Mellon Foundation’s $125 Million Grant to Uplift Marginalized Voices

Today, The Mellon Foundation announced Imagining Freedom—a $125 million, multiyear grantmaking initiative that will support arts and humanities organizations that engage the knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity of millions of people and communities with lived experience of the US criminal legal system and its pervasive forces of dehumanization, stereotyping, and silencing. The Imagining Freedom Presidential Initiative is a cornerstone of the Mellon Foundation's aim to build equitable and intellectually stimulating communities.[0]

Through these grants, Imagining Freedom is supporting work to ensure a broad public history and primary source record of mass incarceration and its impacts. The goal of Imagining Freedom is to bring to light the perspectives and stories of those affected by the criminal justice system and to encourage individuals and communities to question and reimagine the current structures, so that we can collectively work towards a more equitable justice system.

The four newest Imagining Freedom grantees are The Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, the Flashlights Project from The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, storytelling, publishing and arts-based initiatives at Interrupting Criminalization, and the group Study and Struggle, which organizes political education, study groups and mutual aid.[1]

The U.S. prison system is expansive, expansive, and disproportionately harmful to people of color and those living in poverty.[0] Approximately 50% of grown-ups in America have a family member who has been incarcerated or spent time in prison; and roughly 20% of kids have a parent who is either currently behind bars or has been in the past.[0] Of the close to two million individuals currently in prison, over half are Black and/or Latinx, with Native people being incarcerated at nearly four times the rate of white individuals.[0] U.S. history is full of events—from the conquest and enslavement of Native Americans to the so-called “wars” on crime and drugs and the ongoing racial violence—that are closely intertwined with the criminal justice system and have had a tremendous impact on the present. This is no coincidence.[2]

Imagining Freedom is devoted to aiding those whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system, as well as those attempting to create connections between individuals and bring together wider intellectual and creative groups. This includes artists, writers, thinkers, humanists, memory workers, and storytellers.

0. “Mellon Foundation Announces Imagining Freedom, An Arts & Humanities Initiative Supporting Creatives and Thinkers …” Mellon Foundation, 15 Feb. 2023,

1. “‘Imagining Freedom' will give $125 million to art projects focused on incarceration” WRVO Public Media, 15 Feb. 2023,

2. “Imagining Freedom” Mellon Foundation, 15 Feb. 2023,