Meet the Newest Class of MacArthur Geniuses Making the World a Better Place

Journalists, economists, and even a puppeteer are among those being honored for their ability to create and inspire.

image via (cc) John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded their highly coveted “genuis” fellowship grants to nearly eight hundred recipients in total, each of whom receives $625,000 (raised from $500,000 in 2007) over the course of five years. The criteria for being named a fellow are surprisingly simple. One must possess:​

1) Exceptional creativity.
2) Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment.
3) Potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

In the past, the fellowship has been extended to include artists, academics, scientists, and even a clown. Billing itself as a “no strings attached” institution, the award is given not on the merit of past accomplishments, but as “an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential.” While grantees’ prior work is part of the foundation’s selection process, the groups website makes it clear: “the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.” As such, the grant is muck more akin to patronage for a recipient’s potential future accomplishments, rather than a reward for their past ones.

Late Monday evening, the MacArthur Foundation released the highly-anticipated names of this year’s fellows. Like in fellowships past, recipients come from a wide variety of disciplines, and fields. The 2015 class of “geniuses” (a term the foundation avoids for its connotation of “a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess”) contains familiar names and faces, as well as less well-known individuals, thrust suddenly into a much brighter spotlight as a result of their having being included in the fellowship’s illustrious roster. Among them are:

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose writings about racial politics and the African American experience have propelled him to the forefront of a new generation of cultural critics and social justice advocates.

Composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musicals In the Heights, and Hamilton, which have helped infuse musical theater with the contemporary vitality of hip hop, R&B, and pop music.

Basil Twist, a master puppeteer responsible for groundbreaking advances in both the artistic and mechanical potential of his chosen medium.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Heidi Williams, who focuses on exploring the market conditions that feed into, and result from, innovations in health care.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose photography and visual art focuses on topics of race, inequality, family, and identity in the postindustrial age.

Historian Marina Rustow whose work with centuries-old texts is helping uncover new details about how Jewish and Muslim communities lived with one another in the medieval middle east.

The full list of this year’s twenty four fellows can be found on the MacArthur Foundation’s website. As Foundation president Julia Stasch put it simply: “Their work, their commitment, and their creativity inspire us.”

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

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