Thursday, September 30, 2021

MacArthur seeds change with `genius grants' -- Sept. 30, 2021 column


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

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 sentence 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.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, September 23, 2021

A well-traveled trunk gets a new home -- Sept. 23, 2021 column

                                                                                            Photo by Abby Davi 


In his memorable short story “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien tells about the things foot soldiers carried in Vietnam.

I want to tell you about a trunk that carried the things an immigrant family brought to the United States almost one hundred years ago. As improbable as it sounds in our age of disposables, the trunk has a future.

For 15 days in August 1923, Raffaele and Maddalena DeGennaro and their four children under the age of 10 made a voyage of faith aboard the SS Dante Alighieri from Italy to Ellis Island.

In a somber immigration photo, Maddalena holds in her arms a baby who was not yet 2 years old. That’s my father.

The DeGennaros also brought a domed wooden trunk painted green with metal straps. It was 40 inches long, 26 ½ inches high and 22 ½ inches wide and weighed about 47 pounds, empty.

It contained their hopes, dreams and what they needed to start their lives anew.

The family settled in Connecticut and the trunk went to their attic, where the boys slept. The family grew to eight children, and the trunk became a plaything for generations.

The family assimilated. My dad and a couple of his brothers Americanized their names. They served in the military, traveled, pursued educations and careers -- but never lost their sentimental attachment to the old trunk.

In the mid-1980s, my dad, Guy DeGenaro, living in Richmond, worried what would happen to the trunk with the older generation gone. He wanted to keep it safe.

My dad’s older brother, Augie DeGenaro, shipped it by Greyhound bus from New Haven to Richmond. My mother was not as fond of the old trunk as my dad, and it went to their attic for about 35 years.

My dad died in February at 99, and I began going through his and my late mother’s houseful of belongings. When I opened the Italian trunk, I was astonished to find it full of newspaper clippings.

Unbeknown to me, my parents had saved almost every story and column I wrote for Richmond newspapers for decades. My dad stored the pages in clear plastic bags by year.

The trunk’s interior had been restored at some point and covered in patterned paper. Someone – my grandma? – had written in Italian inside a list of the things the family had carried in the trunk. A translator deciphered some of the words:

Shirts or blouses, a knit or jersey suit for Augie, a tablecloth and napkins with bobbin lace, an embroidered sheet, a red skirt with bobbin lace, a bodice, cotton towels, a cover-all and diapers.

My grandma made lace, a lost art, and my guess is lace was the nicest thing they had.

I struggled with what to do with the trunk. My dad had desperately wanted it to stay with the family; so did I. But I live in a small townhouse in Alexandria and don’t have room for it.

Nor does my Uncle Richard DeGennaro, my dad’s last surviving sibling, who is in his 90s and lives in Florida. I asked his son, Rafael, to email the family to see if there was any interest.

Instantly, Abby DeGenaro Davi in Branford, Connecticut, the daughter of my first cousin Gregg, Augie’s son, spoke up. She didn’t even wait to read the entire email. She knew.

“I’m a total traditionalist,” she said. “I want it to stay in the family.”

Abby and her husband Brian Davi and their children Violet, 11, and Colton, 6, live near her dad, who played in the trunk as a child.

She decided to ship the trunk back to New Haven by Greyhound. Christian and Grant Smith, sons of a friend, double-bubble wrapped the trunk, hoisted it into their SUV, and drove us to the Richmond Greyhound station.

Several days later, the trunk arrived safe and sound. It now has a place in the Davi family room next to a highchair Gregg made for his grandchildren.

Violet and Colton play in the trunk, though they say “it smells like old people.”

No, their mother replied, “It smells like 1923.”

They call it a “treasure chest” – and, for my family, it is. A treasure chest that’s ready for its next hundred years.

 ©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Wednesday, September 15, 2021

`Open a Book, Open the World' -- and rethink -- Column of Sept. 16, 2021


Even in the best of times, news is rarely uplifting.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is more than a catchy TV phrase. News thrives on quarrels, conflict and chaos.

That said, we’ve all endured a particularly sad run of news of late.

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks brought back the day’s horror and sorrow. The precipitous end of the war in Afghanistan made us question, well, everything.

The pandemic tightens its deadly grip on our country because too many of us refuse to take simple, free precautions. Our ailing planet repays us for our disregard of climate change with disastrous storms, floods and fire. Need I go on?

No wonder so many of us are disgusted, disheartened and dispirited.

Usually, when the world is too much with me, I go on vacation, but for various reasons, I haven’t taken a vacation in more than two years.

Fortunately, fall means festivals, and in a rare benefit of COVID-19, many festivals are again virtual, inviting us to attend wherever we are.

The National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress, continues through Sept. 26, with live author conversations online daily. Only two festival events are ticketed and in person at the library in Washington.

More than 100 popular authors from a range of fields are participating in various formats. Among them: historian Joseph J. Ellis, fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, business magnate Bill Gates, historian Annette Gordon-Reed and journalist Isabel Wilkerson.

Children and teen authors include Traci Chee, Kate DiCamillo, Meg Medina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas.

Dozens of videos are available to watch on demand, including with actor Michael J. Fox, social commentator Roxane Gay and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. Question-and-answer sessions with authors are scheduled as well.

New this year is a “Festival Near You” section on the festival website that shows local events. See more at

First lady Laura Bush brought the National Book Festival to Washington on Sept. 8, 2001, three days before the world changed utterly. That the festival has survived 20 years and evolved to meet today’s challenges is cause for celebration at a time when we don’t have many.

The theme this year, “Open a Book, Open the World” celebrates the power of books to change our lives as well as our perspective.

“Books have been everything to me,” poet Amanda Gorman said in an interview with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden on a PBS special about the festival, available on the library’s site. Actor and child literacy advocate LeVar Burton hosts the special and also is a festival speaker.

Gorman became a worldwide sensation at age 22 last year when she read a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. She knew she wanted to become a writer in third grade, when her teacher read Ray Bradbury’s novel “Dandelion Wine” to the class, she says.

Bill Gates says he was lucky as a child to have a grandmother who read to him and his sisters. He also credits summer reading contests at the local public library for encouraging his keen love of reading.

“An addiction to reading has been a key secret of my success,” Gates says.

If, like me, late September makes you feel like you should be back in school – cue Rod Stewart – the festival offers plenty of food for thought, reflection -- and action.

Adam Grant, author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” says it’s important to avoid letting our beliefs harden into fossils.  

“The problem is we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as thinking,” he said on the PBS special. Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, suggests: “Don’t let your ideas become your identity.

“Look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you might be right. Listen to the ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good.”

I haven’t read Grant’s book, but I plan to. In the meantime, his advice makes me want to give rethinking my beliefs a go. What about you?

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

End of Roe? Texas law threatens abortion rights everywhere -- Sept. 9, 2021 column


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott offered a bizarre defense of his state’s new, unconstitutional anti-abortion law.

Asked Tuesday why the state would force victims of rape or incest to carry pregnancies to term, he denied the law does that.

“Obviously, it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion,” Abbott said. No, it doesn’t.

The Texas state law known as Senate Bill 8 prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually four weeks after conception or two weeks after a missed menstrual period. That’s before most women even know they are pregnant, before the embryo becomes a fetus and months before fetal viability, generally at 24 weeks.

The law effectively prohibits about 85% of the abortions in the state and will force most abortion clinics to close, providers say.

The Republican governor also said: “Rape is a crime, and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas.”

Really? Eight in 10 rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim, often a family member or family friend, according to the anti-sexual violence group RAINN.

Critics said Abbott is ignorant, but it’s more likely the governor, a graduate of the University of Texas and Vanderbilt University Law School, knows the facts and is playing to his constituents.

About a dozen other states have passed anti-abortion “heartbeat” laws but courts have tossed them out, at least temporarily, as unconstitutional. What makes the Texas law different, and threatening to abortion rights nationwide, is its enforcement mechanism.

Unlike other states’ laws, Texas specifically blocks state or local officials from enforcing it and leaves enforcement to individuals. Any private citizen anywhere – not just in Texas -- can bring suit against anyone in Texas who performs an abortion or “aids and abets” one.

The patient may not be sued, but anyone who pays for an abortion, the doctor, nurses, abortion counselors, even someone who drives a patient to a clinic can be sued.

State courts are required to award the private citizen $10,000 for each abortion identified. The defendants – abortion providers -- cannot recover their court costs even if they win.

The Supreme Court last month ruled 5 to 4 to allow the Texas law to go into effect, although it did not rule on its merits. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal justices in dissent.

“The Court’s order is stunning,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent. Calling the Texas law “flagrantly unconstitutional,” she said the majority of justices “have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

The clever way the law was written has made combatting it difficult, but the Biden administration is preparing to sue Texas.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee wrote Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department urging them to prosecute “would-be vigilantes.”

“The Department of Justice cannot permit private individuals seeking to deprive women of the constitutional right to choose an abortion to escape scrutiny under existing federal law simply because they attempt to do so under the color of state law,” the letter said.

Bounty-hunting on healthcare workers is a novel twist on laws aimed at rewarding private citizens who are whistleblowers against fraud in government programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, or defense contracts.

So-called “qui tam” statutes allow individuals to bring fraud cases and incentivize them with an award. Congress passed the False Claims law in 1863 to combat fraud by companies that sold shoddy supplies to the U.S. government during the Civil War.

 A law professor who clerked for the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly helped Republican lawmakers craft the private-enforcement strategy. By empowering citizens to bring lawsuits against abortion providers, Texas has succeeded so far in circumventing a constitutional challenge.

Other Republican governors are already using Texas as a model for stricter anti-abortion laws.

Regardless of how you feel about abortion, stop and think about the precedent of a state using vigilantism to enforce laws.

It’s one thing for private citizens who observe fraud to be rewarded for coming forward, but Texas has enlisted residents of any state to enforce a social standard.

This is a slippery slope, and any state could incentivize individuals anywhere to enforce its pet social mores.

Conservatives are celebrating now, but liberals can turn out to be just as ingenious in using these laws.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Masks, vaccines turn classrooms into battlegrounds -- Sept. 2, 2021 column


This Labor Day weekend, my candidate for Worker of the Year is a professor who quit.

Irwin Bernstein, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, walked off the job Aug. 24 because one of his students refused to wear a mask properly in class.

“That’s it. I’m retired,” Professor Bernstein reportedly said and left.

Bravo, Professor, for drawing your personal red line and for your long run in the classroom. Bernstein began teaching in 1968. He is 88. That’s not a typo.

He retired in 2011 but returned to teach part time. This school year he was teaching two classes.

But Bernstein has Type 2 diabetes. His age and other health problems put him at higher risk for complications of COVID-19.

It’s not too much for him and other teachers in the nation’s classrooms to expect their employers to follow the guidance of public health authorities and require masks and vaccinations.

The University System of Georgia offers vaccinations and encourages masks inside campus facilities -- but does not require them.

So, Bernstein adopted his own “no mask, no class” policy.

Two of his students missed the first day of class after having tested positive for COVID-19, the student newspaper The Red & Black reported. On the second day, 25 students in Bernstein’s seminar did wear masks, but one student refused to pull the mask over her nose, saying she had “a really hard time breathing.”

Bernstein asked her twice. An Air Force veteran, he said he risked his life in the military but wouldn’t do so during the pandemic.

Bernstein’s last stand came as the delta variant is ravaging the country.

The daily average of hospitalized COVID-19 patients topped 100,000 over the last week, the highest level since last winter, The New York Times reported.

Hospitalizations nationwide have risen 500% in the last two months, primarily in the South, and intensive care units are reaching capacity. About 1,000 people a day are dying of COVID in the United States, the most since March, the Times said.

With such devastating numbers, mask and vaccination mandates in schools and universities should be welcome.

And yet, anti-maskers and anti-vaxers, spurred by irresponsible Republican politicians, still complain that requiring a mask or vaccination is an infringement of their personal freedom and rights. Critics of mandates complain of “tyrants,” and worse.

Some flout the rules with appalling consequences. Consider a case from California the Centers for Disease Control reported this week.

In Marin County, an unvaccinated elementary school teacher removed their mask while reading aloud to the class last June and half the pupils, who were too young to be vaccinated, got COVID-19. Removing the mask was against school rules.

And yet, as students return to schools and campuses this fall, classroom conflicts are spreading.

The Republican governors of Florida and Texas have fought school districts that have imposed mask mandates. The federal Education Department is investigating whether five states that have prohibited mask mandates have violated the civil rights of disabled students.

At least 16 states have statewide school mask mandates, according to tracking by the Times. But that doesn’t always matter to misguided local officials. A rural school district in Oregon just fired its school superintendent because he followed the state guidance and required masks.

Virginia requires all students, teachers and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, even if vaccinated. Most colleges and universities in Virginia also require vaccinations and masks.

Virginia Tech disenrolled 134 students and the University of Virginia disenrolled 238 who failed to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. It’s unknown how many of these students had made other plans for the school year.

Fortunately, with full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, more employers – including governments at all levels -- are requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, with a few exceptions.

That’s good news. Few teachers or other public employees can afford to say, “Take this job and shove it.”

Universities and schools that hold in-person classes, especially where children are too young to be vaccinated, should protect everyone involved with vaccination and mask mandates. And they should get community support when they do.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.