Reginald Dwayne Betts knows how hard it is to overcome the odds.
They keynote speaker for the La Crosse Reads program participated in a carjacking at age 16 and landed a nine-year prison sentence. While in prison, he read works by African-American authors, including Ernest Gaines — the author of the Read, “A Lesson Before Dying” — and began to write poetry.
A poet, memoirist and graduate of Yale law school, Betts will share his story of going from prison to activism during a two-day visit to La Crosse starting with his keynote address at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the new student union at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. On Thursday, he will conduct a reading of his works at 7 p.m. in the Western Technical College Lunda Center at 400 N. Seventh St.
“He represents the best of what the read can offer,” UW-L English professor and La Crosse Reads project leader Kate Parker said. “He truly is a remarkable man.”
The community-wide book read is part of a $14,000 National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant received by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse English Department and the La Crosse Public Library. The goal of the program and its events is to draw attention to issues highlighted in Gaines’ eighth novel, which follows the story of a young teacher’s relationship with an African-American death row inmate wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder.
Parker said social and racial justice issues are important to the La Crosse community, and the book and events help people unpack and discuss issues such as an unjust mass incarceration system. Bett’s memoir, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” shares his story of being incarcerated in the worst prisons in Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions and constant violence threatened his humanity.
He is the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, and he writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society, advocating juvenile justice and prison reform. Along with his public events, Betts will visit participants in the La Crosse County jail’s reading program, as well as students in the UW-L English program.
“His writing and work help communities understand the power and potential every person has,” Parker said. “Even with these systems of injustice and discrimination.”