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Genius Awardees Given Freedom to Explore Interests

The MacArthur geniuses, as they are colloquially called, are known for their intellectual prowess and innovative contributions to their respective fields. The 2017 cohort of awardees lives up to that legacy.

The MacArthur Fellowship, an annual grant funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, announced its selection of 24 individuals last week, a list that includes novelists, scientists, activists and artists from an array of different backgrounds. The award will gift a sum of $625,000 over a period of five years, giving the winners full discretion over how the funds are used. Diverse interviewed four of the awardees whose commitments to rigorous research and social justice make clear the wide range of scholars being celebrated by the Foundation.

Dr. Rami Nashashibi was named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.Dr. Rami Nashashibi was named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.

“It gives me the freedom to do things on my own terms, which I think is really important to me as an artist,” said Dr. Tyshawn Sorey, an assistant professor of music at Wesleyan University who has earned prominence as a composer and a performer. As a label-evading musician, Sorey looks forward to completing collaborations commissioned by the Opera Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall. For another project called “Cycles of My Being,” which is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Sorey will be working with another MacArthur Fellow, poet Terrance Hayes.

The prestigious grant also alleviates some of the financial concerns that come with fieldwork, according to Dr. Jason De León, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan. He was awarded the grant for his interdisciplinary work that blends forensic science, archeology and cultural anthropology to study and record the migrant experience in parts of the Southern United States and Latin America.

De León said that he finds the greatest reward in “being able to show people that anthropology is a really important tool to improve our understanding of the human condition, and in this particular instance, to improve our understanding of this poorly understood and highly polarizing issue of undocumented migration.”

His work documents the perilous journeys of undocumented individuals across the border to preserve the memory of their reality. De León argues that other monuments to immigration like Ellis Island have been “white-washed” by history to fit a dominant narrative.

“We sort of understand that some people understand that those great migrations were brutal, painful experiences, and the American public has largely romanticized Ellis Island, which is dangerous,” he explained.

Sorey echoed this commitment to marginalized individuals. He hopes that his work will help to inspire young African-American composers to find alternative musical outlets.

“I’m just trying to be a person who says, ‘Yes you have a voice in this too, and you can also do this,’” he said. “Watching people pursue this in their own way is really inspiring and keeps me going.”

De León added that he intentionally writes for a wider audience that reaches beyond the academy. Being a first-generation college student from a working class, immigrant family has kept De León’s feet on the ground.

“I think I’m a pretty bad academic. I don’t speak academese, at least not most of the time,” he said. “I want to write for the general public because I think these are important issues that the general public needs to understand.”

For Dr. Rami Nashashibi, the grant will allow him to advance his commitment to a non-academic public, which drives his community leadership work.

“I hope that it’s a way to shine a light on a different layer of the American Muslim experience that many in this country may not have a full appreciation for and in some cases have no knowledge of,” he said.

As the director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAM, based in Chicago, Nashashibi aspires to go beyond the surface in raising awareness for issues like criminal justice reform that severely impacts Black and brown individuals living in urban areas.

“That idea of re-imagining space, re-imagining possibility, re-imagining collaboration between communities of color and demonstrating what is possible if we can in fact come together has been extraordinary and inspiring to me,” he said.

Dr. Betsy Levy Paluck, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, uses behavioral science to understand violence in a variety of contexts, including in schools, between intimate partners and between races and ethnicities. Paluck’s research has been grounded in fieldwork based in different American cities as well as in Central and Northeast Africa. She hopes to use part of her award to fund an activist-in-residence program at Princeton that would allow for dialogues between scholars and practitioners at the university. This would continue her own method of working closely with experts on the ground.

“We get to meet amazing people who are brave enough to collaborate with a social scientist and put their ideas to the test and open up their process to us,” Paluck said.

Nashashibi, on the other hand, hopes the award will give him an opportunity to look inward for some “spiritual R&R.” He plans to use a part of his award to participate in the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

“I’m going to be using some of the funds to go on a pilgrimage called the Hajj, something that I haven’t done yet, to spiritually renew the core of the work that I draw from,” he explained. “Having that opportunity to take that journey is something [that] first came to mind when I was told of the award.”

After achieving what some consider the apex of academic success, the MacArthur Fellows reflected on their journey in interviews with Diverse.

For Sorey, it’s almost paradoxical to see his past shortcomings as mistakes, considering his achievements. “I wish I would’ve pursued that at a much stronger way, like what I’m doing now in terms of presenting my own work rather than being a sideman in so many different groups,” he said. But he readily knows he would not be here without those previous, more secondary roles. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten to this point.”

De León said his past experiences with self-doubt in academia has empowered him to work with his own students, particularly those who feel out of place in higher education. “What I could do upon completion of my Ph.D. is to present students, especially students of color, working-class students a different model for academic success,” he said.

In his reflection, Nashashibi emphasized the importance of “the courage of your convictions, to be prepared to work outside the box.” He added that he would encourage his younger self to “learn broadly” and to find the best way to serve his world, whether that be a community, neighborhood or an academic field.

“You have to enjoy what you do. Never focus or center your research on a strategic set of questions. Focus your research on questions that have meaning for you and others because that’s what will keep you going,” urged Paluck. “It’s a really long haul with many, many downturns and setbacks. So if you could keep coming back to the center to something that’s meaningful, you’ll get back up again.”

Joseph Hong can be reached at [email protected]

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