The call. MacArthur fellows remember the call as a blur, a fog, a shock, a what? Especially in this era of cell spam and the season of incessant political solicitations and polls, many recipients failed to answer calls from an unknown number. Repeatedly. One fellow went so far as to block the good people at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation when they were calling with the most felicitous news imaginable.
Artist and architect Amanda Williams, 48, recalls standing before her former Cornell University dorm and telling her 9-year-old daughter, “When I was here, my life changed.”
At that very moment, her phone buzzed and her life changed again.
“So many things don’t give us hope, the feeling that we can’t surmount,” says Williams, celebrated for her large art installations on the South Side of Chicago. “This feels like it helps swing the pendulum in the other direction.”
October is awards season for the exceptionally smart. First, the Nobel Prizes and now the MacArthur fellowships, revealed Wednesday: highly remunerative honors that you can’t apply for, forever brand you as a genius and arrive, fabulously, with almost no strings attached.
When his phone rang, Reuben Jonathan Miller believed that the call would only bring more problems that he would have to solve, MacArthur fellows being in the business of solving immense problems the rest of us cannot.
“My work follows people who have been locked away in prison,” says Miller, 46, a University of Chicago sociologist and criminologist. “I thought the call was from a lawyer representing someone who had been in prison.”
Miller, who is rehabbing his South Shore home, was in the midst of repairing some drain issues with the help of YouTube videos. The person on the call asked Miller if he was in “a confidential place” and alone. Foundation staff asks this of all fellows, confidentiality being key. Miller, author of “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration,” thought “Oh, what’s the bad news now?”
The bad news is that Miller, 46, had won one of these “genius grants.” This class of fellows is particularly fortunate, literally so. The stipend is now $800,000 paid over five years, a delightful 28 percent jump from the previous cohort and the first increase since 2014.
“It took 60 seconds to register the information,” Miller says. Then, he screamed. A minute later, uncontrollable laughter. Did he ever imagine this? “Never. I thought about the 19 reasons I wouldn’t be chosen.”
This year’s diverse class includes musicians, artists, writers, activists, plenty of hyphenates and many, many academics. It is composed of 15 women and 10 men, who hail from 15 states. The group includes nine Black fellows, seven Asian American, two Indigenous and one Chicana. The youngest recipient is 35 and the two eldest, age 69. So, possibly, there’s still time for the rest of us.
Among this year’s better-known recipients is Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who wrote the stealth bestseller “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which blends Indigenous wisdom with scientific learning, asking readers to reconsider how they view and treat the natural world. Kimmerer ignored multiple calls from MacArthur administrators, to the point that they employed the ruse, which they’ve used to inform other winners, that “they wanted my confidential evaluation of a candidate,” she says. So she pulled to the side of a road on her way to a faculty retreat.
Cries to remove books from classrooms and library shelves is nothing new. Some of what has shifted are the storylines, characters and authors being silenced. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)
This year’s group includes Kiese Laymon, the Black Southern author of “Heavy: an American Memoir,” which has been acclaimed by critics, named one of the best personal histories of the last half century and banned by several school boards. Martha Gonzalez, another newly minted fellow, is a professor, “Chicana artivista,” feminist music theorist and member of the Grammy-winning ensemble Quetzal.
The fellows are “architects of new modes of activism, artistic practice and citizen science,” program director Marlies Carruth says. “They are excavators uncovering what has been overlooked, undervalued or poorly understood. They are archivists reminding us of what should survive.”
Winners spoke of the fellowship as an honor, a responsibility, a gift and an enduring seal of approval for their work. But it’s also a magnet for more. It has the ability to attract interest, investment and legitimacy to fellows’ projects. The stipend may last for five years but the title MacArthur fellow, the sobriquet of “genius,” is forever.
Melanie Matchett Wood, 41, a Harvard number theorist who also studies algebraic geometry, is an infectious mathematician. Her conversation frequently erupts into fireworks of laughter.
“I am filled with joy doing math — that’s why I love it,” Wood says. “It’s incredibly fun and fulfilling to me to work on. Nothing could beat my love of working on trying to figure out ways to solve new math problems.” As a teenager, she was the first female American to make the U.S. International Mathematical Olympiad Team, receiving silver medals in 1998 and 1999. She was also a cheerleader and editor of her school paper.
“Math can be very specialized,” says Wood, one of the few women on Harvard’s math faculty. (Before that, she was one of the few women on Stanford’s math faculty.) “One of the big parts of my work is bringing together different parts of mathematics to solve problems that we don’t know how to solve.” One potential use for her stipend would be to reduce barriers to finding solutions by funding inter-specialty workshops. “I thought this sounded like fun,” she says. Again, laughter.
Wood is one of two mathematician fellows this year. June Huh, 39, at Princeton, once dreamed of being a poet. Growing up in Korea, his math potential was not first widely acknowledged by graduate schools. “In my first attempt, I didn’t get any offer,” he writes in an email. When he tried again two years later, he received only one, from the University of Illinois. Huh is having some year. In July, his work in geometric combinatorics won him the Fields Medal, given every four years to mathematicians younger than 40 and known as the “Nobel Prize in Mathematics.”
Many of this year’s fellows pursue new interdisciplinary areas of exploration and, with them, fresh job descriptors. Jenna Jambeck, 48, who’s an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia, considers herself an “open data citizen scientist,” sharing information with the public. Her interest in waste dates to early childhood. “As a kid, I was completely fascinated with what we then called a ‘dump,’ ” Jambeck says. She encourages lay people to become involved, recording waste they see in the Marine Debris Tracker mobile app she developed, to provide useful data about plastic waste pollution for scientific research. “I don’t share recommendations. I share data information so that communities around the world can be decision-makers,” Jambeck says.
The MacArthur will “allow me not to have to worry about things. I’m at a public university. I never expected that my work would reward me personally,” Jambeck says. “When you have out-of-the-box ideas, it’s hard to get traditional funding. This is a big surprise. It takes away some burdens.”
Like Miller, Yale University School of Medicine physician and researcher Emily Wang devotes her work to the formerly incarcerated as director of the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice. She’s interested in their long-term health outcomes and care once they’ve been released.
Wang, too, ignored the first calls from the MacArthur Foundation. Then again, she’s immensely busy professionally and the mother of four girls: 12-year-old triplets and a 6-year-old.
“My first response was one of tears,” Wang says. “I’m still kind of processing the enormity and the honor.” Called last month, fellows were instructed that they could share their life-altering news with precisely one person until the announcement. Wang has yet to determine what she might do with the stipend. But she’s thinking big. “I’d like to partner with world health-care organizations,” she says. The MacArthur “gives us some more bandwidth and these big opportunities.”
The MacArthur carries the gift of time. The stipend potentially removes the grind of some tasks — grant writing was mentioned more than once — and frees up hours, potentially weeks and months to invest in essential work and travel.
“It gives me time to stop and think,” says Miller, who is writing a book about countries that have “recovered from slavery” and how they regard people who have committed violent acts. “It gives me the time not to do the other stuff. Time is the premium.”
The grant permits recipients to plan big. Williams needs to purchase red tulip bulbs, 100,000 of them to plant Saturday with volunteers for an “art activation” installation in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood. Titled “Redefining Redlining,” the bulbs will bloom in spring where 16 buildings were demolished.
The MacArthur “is an affirmation to keep pushing, to lean into the way I’ve been thinking about things,” Williams says. “It allows me some much more aggressive life planning. It elevates people’s thinking about what’s possible in the every day.”
She sees the award as something that inspires not only the winners but collaborators and colleagues. “I just want to be open to the excitement and of all the things that are born from other people’s excitement,” Williams says.
Full list of 2022 MacArthur fellows: