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Zoeglossia receives Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to expand program

New Mexico State University English professor Connie Voisine, former NMSU visiting professor Sheila Black who now works for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Washington, D.C. and Jennifer Bartlett, disability activist, are poets, academics and friends. In 2017, they co-founded an organization for poets and writers who identify as having disabilities called Zoeglossia. By May 2019 the organization held its first conference in San Antonio, which provided intensive mentoring, classes, roundtable discussions and readings for 11 writers and poets from several U.S. states and the United Kingdom.


Head and shoulders of a woman
Sheila Black, poet and development director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is a co-founder of Zoeglossia, an emerging literary program that dedicates itself to providing inclusive space for poets and writers who identify as disabled. The organization was recently among those receiving a grant from The Andrew W. Melon Foundation to expand services. (Courtesy photo)
Head and shoulders of a woman
New Mexico State University English professor Connie Voisine is a co-founder of Zoeglossia, an organization for poets and writers who identify as having a disability. The organization recently received a $25,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Courtesy photo)
Head and shoulders of a woman
Co-founder of Zoeglossia Jennifer Bartlett is a disability activist, poet and teacher. Zoeglossia, an organization for poets and writers who identify as having disabilities, received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand its programs. (Courtesy photo)

The group then received a $25,000 Ford Foundation grant to do strategic planning and create a sustainable 3-5 year plan. Recently, the group received an Amazon Partners grant and its second $25,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand the program.

The Mellon Foundation made possible a $3.5 million Literary Arts Emergency Fund in 2020, which has benefitted 282 nonprofit literary arts organizations, magazines and presses across the country. Zoeglossia is among them.

“Zoeglossia will use the grant to offer professional support and increase the profile of poets with disabilities in recognition that writers with disabilities are still grossly underfunded and underrepresented in our national literary landscape,” said Black.

As an emerging literary organization, Zoeglossia dedicates itself to providing inclusive space for poets and writers who identify as disabled. Through an open and supportive community, year-round, online programming and annual retreats, Zoeglossia offers poets mentorship from prominent, established writers who also have disabilities.

People can submit work to Zoeglossia and organizers determine whether they can benefit from this kind of mentorship at the annual retreat. It’s a competitive process and the co-founders have kept the groups small to remain effective and enhance the experience.

“The important thing is to get these writers’ and poets’ voices engaged in the larger conversation of American literature,” Voisine said. “At the conference last year we had four instructors. We rotated in groups with different mentors and continued it online. We also published an anthology of the group’s work, ‘We Are Not Your Metaphor,’ available at Squares and Rebels Press online. Zoeglossia is a collaborative organization and has really been a homemade labor of love.

“As an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, we’re grateful for the donation,” said Voisine, “This expansion is a big step for us.”

Black, Voisine and Bartlett started thinking about this project in 2011. What started as three co-founders of Zoeglossia in 2017 has expanded to a nine-member board of writers and poets committed to their mission. As the nonprofit has continued to collaborate with existing organizations, its board has also targeted resources to ensure their vision and goals will remain sustainable in the long run.

“We are hugely grateful to receive this grant and want to express our gratitude to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, CLMP, the National Book Foundation for advocating for funding for community-centered literary arts organizations at this critical time,” Black said.

For more information about Zoeglossia, and how you can help, visit their website at http://www.zoeglossia.org/.