A historian devoted to keeping alive the stories of long-dead victims of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border and a civil rights activist whose mission is to make sure people who leave prison are free to walk into the voting booth are among this year’s MacArthur fellows and recipients of “genius grants.”
The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Tuesday announced the 25 recipients, who will each receive $625,000.
The historian and the activist are part of an eclectic group that includes scientists, economists, poets, and filmmakers. As in previous years, the work of several recipients involves topics that have been dominating the news — from voting rights to how history is taught in schools.
Race figures prominently in the work of about half of them, including that of Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning.” He will contribute an essay to the forthcoming book “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” that’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” that centers U.S. history around slavery.
The selection process for the MacArthur grants is shrouded in secrecy. Instead of applications, anonymous groups make nominations and recommendations to the foundation’s board of directors.
COVID-19 was clearly on their minds. It comes up in the work of no fewer than four recipients, including a computational biologist building tools to track and forecast viruses and a physician-economist working to better communicate the need for the COVID-19 vaccine to communities that distrust medical institutions.
“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us re-imagine what’s possible,” said Cecilia Conrad, the foundation’s managing director of fellows.
Much of what is going on, from the COVID-19 pandemic to efforts in the U.S. to alter the way elections are held and the way students are taught in school, has added a sense of urgency to this year’s awards, some recipients said.
“This award is so timely for me, personally … to remain committed to make sure the public has access to the truth, true history, even when it is troubling (and) especially when that history can help us build a better future,” Monica Muñoz Martinez, a historian at the University of Texas, Austin, pointing to efforts in some states to limit how teachers discuss racism.
Martinez was recognized, in part because of her book “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” about a period a century ago when hundreds Mexicans and Mexican Americans were slaughtered by vigilantes as well as the Texas Rangers.
Desmond Meade, who led a campaign that resulted in the passage of a measure in Florida that restored the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences, said the recognition — and the money — will help him continue his work to help former prison inmates. Meade’s effort had a setback last year when a federal appellate court upheld the position of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led Legislature that Florida felons must pay all fines before regaining their right to vote.
Meade noted that he struggled with drug addiction and homelessness and has served time in prison himself.
“The country needs to see stories of triumph and everyday regular people who are impacting their communities,” he said. “This (genius grant) means that each and every one in this country has the capacity to do something great.”
The 2021 fellows are:
Hanif Abdurraqib, 38, Columbus, Ohio, music critic, essayist, and poet forging a distinctive style of cultural and artistic criticism through the lens of popular music and autobiography.
Daniel Alarcón, 44, New York, writer and radio producer chronicling the social and cultural ties that connect Spanish-speaking communities across the Americas.
Marcella Alsan, 44, Cambridge, Massachusetts, physician-economist investigating the role that legacies of discrimination and resulting mistrust play in perpetuating racial disparities in health.
Trevor Bedford, 39, Seattle, computational virologist developing tools for real-time tracking of virus evolution and the spread of infectious diseases.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, 40, New Haven, Connecticut, poet and lawyer promoting the humanity and rights of individuals who are or have been incarcerated.
Jordan Casteel, 32, New York, painter capturing everyday encounters with people of color in portraits that invite reciprocal recognition of our shared humanity.
Don Mee Choi, 59, Seattle, poet and translator bearing witness to the effects of military violence and U.S. imperialism on the civilians of the Korean Peninsula.
Ibrahim Cissé, 38, Pasadena, California, 38, cellular biophysicist developing microscopy tools to investigate the subcellular processes underlying genetic regulation and misfunction.
Nicole Fleetwood, 48, New York, art historian and curator elucidating the cultural and aesthetic significance of visual art created by incarcerated people.
Cristina Ibarra, 49, Pasadena, California, documentary filmmaker crafting nuanced narratives about borderland communities, often from the perspective of Chicana and Latina youth.
Ibram X. Kendi, 39, Boston, American historian and cultural critic advancing conversations around anti-Black racism and possibilities for repair in a variety of initiatives and platforms.
Daniel Lind-Ramos, 68, Loiza, Puerto Rico, sculptor and painter transforming everyday objects into assemblages that speak to the global connections inherent in Afro-Caribbean and diaspora legacies.
Monica Muñoz Martinez, 37, Austin, Texas, public historian bringing to light long-obscured cases of racial violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and their reverberations in the present.
Desmond Meade, 54, Orlando, Florida, civil rights activist working to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens and remove barriers to their full participation in civic life.
Joshua Miele, 52, Berkeley, California, adaptive technology designer developing devices to enable blind and visually impaired people to access everyday technologies and digital information.
Michelle Monje, 45, Palo Alto, California, neurologist and neuro-oncologist advancing understanding of pediatric brain cancers and the effects of cancer treatments with an eye toward improved therapies for patients.
Safiya Noble, 51, Los Angeles, digital media scholar highlighting the ways digital technologies and internet architectures magnify racism, sexism, and harmful stereotypes.
J. Taylor Perron, 44, Cambridge, Massachusetts, geomorphologist deconstructing the physical processes that create landforms on Earth and other planetary bodies.
Alex Rivera, 48, Pasadena, California, filmmaker and media artist exploring issues around migration to the United States and exploitative labor practices with an activist orientation.
Lisa Schulte Moore, 50, Ames, Iowa, landscape ecologist implementing locally relevant approaches to improve soil and water quality and strengthen the resilience of row crop agriculture.
Jesse Shapiro, 41, Providence, Rhode Island, applied microeconomist devising new frameworks of analysis to advance understanding of media bias, ideological polarization, and the efficacy of public policy interventions.
Jacqueline Stewart, 51, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures/University of Chicago, Los Angeles, cinema studies scholar and curator ensuring that contributions of overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have a place in the public imagination.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 49, Princeton, New Jersey, historian analyzing the political and economic forces underlying racial inequality and the role of social movements in transforming society.
Victor J. Torres, 44, New York, microbiologist investigating how bacterial pathogens overcome the immune system and identifying potential therapies.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, Tallahassee, Florida, choreographer and dance entrepreneur using the power of dance and artistic expression to elevate the voices of Black women and promote civic engagement.