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Marsha Mercer: MacArthur seeds change with `genius grants’
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Marsha Mercer: MacArthur seeds change with `genius grants’

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Marsha Mercer

Marsha Mercer

An acid attack when he was just 4 years old disfigured and blinded Joshua A. Miele for life.

A deranged neighbor came to the Miele family’s door in Brooklyn, N.Y., and threw sulfuric acid in the child’s face.

Miele, 52, didn’t let the tragedy stop him. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley and became a designer of adaptive technology. He currently works at Amazon, helping blind and visually impaired people use everyday technologies.

“I want to be famous for the right reasons, for the work I’ve done, and not for some stupid thing that happened to me 40 years ago,” Miele told The New York Times in 2013. And now he is.

Miele is one of the 25 exceptionally creative people the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced would receive $625,000, no strings attached, paid out in quarterly installments over five years.

The awards are popularly known as “genius grants,” but the foundation does not use the term as it connotes intelligence but not creativity or originality. The foundation calls the winners fellows.

“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible,” Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the fellows program, said in a statement on macfound.org.

This year’s group includes historians, scientists, economists, artists, poets, performers, filmmakers and activists. Many have devoted their careers to raising consciousness about systemic racism, inequality and social injustice, and almost all challenge the existing state of affairs in one way or another.

Proving there are second acts in life, two recipients are former prison inmates.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, 40, is a poet and lawyer at Yale Law School who served nearly nine years in prison for carjacking when he was 16. He turned his life around with books, reading and writing in his cell every day.

A practicing lawyer, he represents incarcerated clients on issues of clemency, cash bail and lengthy prison terms and recently started building libraries in prisons.

Desmond Meade, 54, a civil rights activist, triumphed over addiction, homelessness and a 15-year prison term for possession of a firearm as a felon. He is executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, working to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated persons.

Historian and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton, writes extensively about race issues and has argued that Black elected officials are often complicit in perpetuating systemic racism by supporting policies that maintain the status quo.

Among the better-known winners is Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 bestseller book “How to be an Antiracist,” which sold 2 million copies.

Safiya Noble, an internet studies and digital media scholar at UCLA, is author of “Algorithms of Oppression,” which contends search engines are biased, not neutral, and magnify racism, sexism and harmful stereotypes.

Monica Munoz Martinez, a public historian, studies and writes about cases of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border in the 20th century.

Filmmakers Cristine Ibarra and her partner Alex Rivera each won grants for their work exploring the immigrant experience. Ibarra describes herself as coming from “a long line of border crossers,” and Rivera has long been interested in “society that needs work but rejects workers.”

No one can apply for a MacArthur grant, and winners are nominated and chosen in a confidential process that can take years. Recipients must either live in the United States or be U.S. citizens. Elected officials or anyone who holds a high government office are ineligible.

The grants are designed to liberate recipients to pursue their creative instincts “for the benefit of human society.”

An additional benefit is that the grants program resonates with the rest of us. A 2012 study found it “inspires members of the general public to pursue their own personal creative activities and to think about how they can use their own skills and ideas to make the world a better place.”

Now more than ever, we need our best minds to tackle the persistent problems facing our country and the world. Although popular culture encourages and rewards the lowest common denominator, the MacArthur grants remind each of us to use our talents to challenge the status quo.

Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at marsha.mercer@yahoo.com.

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