MacArthur 'genius' grant winners step into the spotlight: 'Is this really happening?'
October 11 at 2:00 AM
Cristina Jimenez Moreta, co-founder of United We Dream and one of the 2017 MacArthur Fellows, photographed in New York last month. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
When the call first came, Cristina JimÃ©nez Moreta didnât pick up. She was working from her apartment in Queens, another busy day in a busy month, and didnât recognize the number.
But then came a text message from a representative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She took notice: As the co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, a Washington-based advocacy group that helped put the cause of young undocumented immigrants on the national radar, JimÃ©nez Moreta was eag er to take what just might be a we want to help call.
And it was. Just not in the way she expected.
She soon learned that she was among the 24 winners of 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellowships â" a recognition widely known as the âgenius grants,â that comes with a no-strings-attached award of $625,000.
âI felt like it just took me a few minutes to believe â" is this really happening?â JimÃ©nez Moreta, 33, said. âFor me, this recognition is a recognition of the lives of undocumented people, of the work that we have been doing to advocate and create change.â
Shrouded in mystery, the annual awards are legendary for casting a spotlight upon relatively obscure academics, activists and artists. The prize isnât limited to unknowns; this yearâs cohort includes a trio of writers who have already achieved mainstream success â" author Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel âThe Sympathizerâ; playwright Annie Baker , 36, who won acclaim for several off-Broadway productions and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for âThe Flickâ; and novelist Jesmyn Ward, 40, who won the 2011 National Book Award for âSalvage the Bones.â
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The new class also includes a striking number of fellows whose work is tied to themes of global migration, the experiences of marginalized people and cultural drift across borders.
In addition to JimÃ©nez Moreta, grants were awarded to Jason De LeÃ³n, 40, a University of Michigan anthropologist who uses forensic science and archaeological methods to study the journeys of migrants from Latin America to the United States; Sunil Amrith, 38, a Harvard historian studying migration and the consequences of colonization in South and Southeast Asia; and Greg Asbed, 54, of Florida, who has worked to improve working conditions for migrant farmhands.
Others include Rhiannon Giddens, 40, a North Ca rolina singer-songwriter and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who highlights African American influences in folk and country music; and Rami Nashashibi, 45, recognized for his work as co-founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on Chicagoâs South Side. Nguyen, the novelist, came to the United States from Vietnam as a child after the fall of Saigon, and has made the refuÂgee experience central to his writing.
Jason De Leon, an anthropologist studying migration from Latin America, is one of the recipients of the $625,000 grant. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Rami Nashashibi, co-founder of Inner-City Muslim Action N etwork, said there was âfierce urgencyâ in the issues his group works on. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
The foundation says fellows are selected for their work, not their political views. But the recognition is nonetheless particularly welcome for recipients immersed in timely social issues. Nashashibi, a Palestinian American Muslim lauded for helping build partnerships across racial, religious and socioeconomic divides in Chicagoâs most impoverished neighborhoods, said there is a âfierce urgencyâ to the current political climate.
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âMuslims in America are still subjected to a more intense antagonism than theyâve ever been,â he said. âSo although the mission of our work did not necessarily emerge to speak to that, it is still one of the more significant indirect outcomes â" weâre able to lift up another illustration of who the American Muslim is.â
The prizes ha ve a special mystique because of the way they are announced â" via out-of-the-blue phone calls to recipients who had no idea they were in the running.
âI was a little at a loss for words, which is rare for me,â said De LeÃ³n. âYou spend the rest of the day wondering if you really just had that conversation.â
There is no application process; instead, leaders across a wide range of fields are invited to submit nominations that are evaluated by an anonymous selection committee. Once fellows are called, they are allowed to share the news with only one other person until the announcement is made public weeks later.
Keeping that secret is âunbelievably difficult,â De LeÃ³n said. âThis is going to impact everybody who works on this project in a lot of really important and wonderful ways. Itâs so hard not to tell them.â
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The stipend, paid in installmen ts over five years, can be used however a fellow sees fit. Since 1981, the foundation has recognized 965 fellows with only one stated expectation: that the acclaim and financial boost might help them continue to improve human society.
Even for fellows who have already spent time in the public eye, the honor can be daunting.
Before Nguyenâs novel debuted to widespread praise, âI was working for 20 years in obscurity, so the pressure was being applied to me by myself, and now the pressure is more from the outside,â he said. âAnd so I know thatâs going to transform the creative and intellectual process in some way, but Iâm not sure yet how.â
Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of two 2017 MacArthur fellows who has also won a Pulitzer Prize. He expects his new recognition is âgoing to transform the cre ative and intellectual process in some way.â (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
De LeÃ³n said he is eager to lead more archaeological expeditions and build a research station along the Arizona border. And âI can pay off my student loans!â he laughed. Nashashibi wants to grow an endowment to further his groupâs work; he also hopes, for the first time, to join the Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
As for JimÃ©nez Moreta, she said she has been too focused on the lives of others â" and the uncertainty surrounding the fate of young immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents, now that the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is in jeopardy â" to think much about how the grant might change her own.
But âI have a vision,â she said, âof building a generation of young people of color, immigrants and others who are working to transform communities at the local level and the n ational level, to work for justice and the pursuit of happiness,â she said. âI know that this award will support me in this vision.â
Other winners of the 2017 MacArthur Fellowship:
âNjideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, a painter from Los Angeles.
âRegina Barzilay, 46, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
âDawoud Bey, 63, a photographer and educator at Columbia College in Chicago.
âEmmanuel CandÃ¨s, 47, a mathematician and statistician at Stanford University.
âNikole Hannah-Jones, 41, a journalist with the New York Times Magazine.
âTaylor Mac, 44, a theater artist from New York.
âKate Orff, 45, a landscape architect and associate professor at Columbia University.
âTrevor Paglen, 43, an artist and geographer working in Berlin.
âBetsy Levy Paluck, 39, a psychologist at Princeton University.
âDerek Peterson, 46, a historian at the University of Michigan at An n Arbor.
âDamon Rich, 42, a designer and urban planner in Newark.
âStefan Savage, 48, a computer scientist at the University of California at San Diego.
âYuval Sharon, 37, an opera director and producer in Los Angeles.
âTyshawn Sorey, 37, a composer and musician at Wesleyan University.
âGabriel Victora, 40, an immunologist at Rockefeller University.Source: Google News