El Sawyer was 17 years-old when he was sentenced to a maximum-security prison for a drug-related shooting.
He served eight years in Graterford. When he got out, he felt the pull back into what got him incarcerated, he found himself calling it a gravitational pull. Like others in a city with a 65 percent recidivism rate, Sawyer could have stayed stuck in a cycle. But Sawyer’s story is different than most re-entrants.
Two decades after his sentence, the filmmaker and educator is now at the helm of a nonprofit, has produced a successful feature-length documentary about recidivism and has been called upon by President Barack Obama to help reform criminal justice policy. He’s quickly becoming a leader on issues of returning citizens, both locally and beyond.
Funders are taking notice.
Last week, Sawyer, who now lives in Brewerytown, was named one of ten Robert Rauschenberg Foundation ‘Artist as Activist’ fellows and awarded a two-year, $100,000 grant for his work with Media In Neighborhoods Group (MING), the nonprofit film company he cofounded with fellow filmmaker Jon Kaufman, whom Sawyer met through their work at the celebrated Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia.
For an artist, activist and social entrepreneur, the fellowship is a major moment. Not only is the grant unrestricted, but it’s the highest amount the New York-based foundation awards its fellows.
It won’t surprise those who have come to know him. Today, he’s friendly and fun, full of smiles and naturally welcoming to anyone from funders to returning citizens. He’s affable and energetic, trying to keep up with an increasingly demanding work schedule with the help of people like Kaufman. With the funding, Sawyer will continue producing works that humanize mass incarceration, marginalization and re-entry, he said.
“We recognize artists and their collaborators too often go uncompensated for the important work they do,” said Megan Canning Manager of Media and Special Projects at the Rauschenberg Foundation. “In addition to this monetary investment, the Artist as Activist program will bring El together with other artists, thought leaders, and activists working in the space of social justice so that he has access to a national network of peers, advisors, and potential collaborators.”
Sawyer will also participate in a month-long residency on the foundation’s campus in Captiva, Florida. Sawyer is the beneficiary of growing enthusiasm for supporting sustainable pathways for work of meaning — he and Kaufman of MING are graduates of the City of Philadelphia’s FastFWD incubator program.
“Persistent, systemic challenges like mass incarceration require more than temporary policy fixes, but also a transformation of our values and cultural practices, which is the terrain of artists,” said Rauschenberg Foundation’s Director of Philanthropy Risë Wilson in a statement. “Artists also have much to add to the process of practical problem solving — bringing creative lenses that expand our sense of possible approaches and solutions — and yet they are under-tapped resources in the ‘business’ of creativity.”-30-
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