Administrator pursues prison arts volunteering, writing

Jessica Bennett holding framed artwork

Jessica Bennett

Every year, Jessica Bennett sets aside a weekend for an unusual road trip: visiting more than a dozen prisons in Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

Bennett goes on this trip with a mission - to select some of the most diverse prisoner-created art in Michigan, for the Prison Creative Arts Project's annual exhibition at the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus.

The 2013 show featured more than 500 works by 250 prisoners, with more than 3,000 visitors experiencing the collection. Bennett has volunteered with PCAP since she moved back to Ann Arbor as a U-M alumna.

"Talking to the artists about their art is the most rewarding part," Bennett says. "There are very few opportunities for people in prison - so this is a way that they can grow through their artwork, as people."

Inspiring Dialogue

Seeing the art in its original context, inside prison walls, is a very different experience, Bennett says. Bringing the art show to U-M inspires dialogue and awareness of prisoner issues.

"When we get it out into the real world, the art changes. Putting it up on the wall as a collection has a different kind of wonder."

As administrative assistant senior at the Dean's Office of Rackham Graduate School, Bennett supports associate and assistant deans, and provides backup support to Dean Janet A. Weiss, typically juggling between six and eight large projects at a time. She works on everything from event planning to laying the groundwork for new initiatives and liaising with other offices across campus.

Bennett describes her career path as "high-level organizing of people, places and things. I pretty much live in my calendar. The secret is planning really far in advance," she laughs.

Before her position at Rackham, Bennett worked in an administrator role at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching for two-and-a-half years.

Making a tangible difference

Whether the project at hand is a Master of Arts to Ph.D. program or one of Rackham's diversity initiatives, "it's really nice to see that these things have a meaningful impact on students," Bennett says. "I love helping to grow programs from infancy to the point where they're making a tangible difference in people's lives."

Bennett's gift for multitasking has benefited her as a writer, as well. In 2008, a friend dared Bennett to participate in National Novel Writing Month, during which writers set a goal to finish a novel of 50,000 words by the end of November.

"I did not make the 50,000-word goal the first time," Bennett laughs. "But that exercise got me started on an interesting story. At first I thought that was the only story I had to tell. But then I realized that it was the first part of a trilogy."

In the six years that Bennett has been writing seriously, she's worked closely with her editor on projects ranging from a fantasy trilogy to a science fiction story, and a coming-of-age novel.

"The ideas are still coming so quickly," she says. "Working on so many things means I've never had writer's block, because I can always move around. I like to keep a lot of balls in the air, keep busy."

By Erika Nestor. Reprinted with permission of The University Record.