By 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
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
Among the better-known winners is Ibram X. Kendi,
author of the 2019 bestseller book “How to be an Antiracist,” which sold 2
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
Monica Munoz Martinez, a public historian, studies and
writes about cases of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border in the 20th
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
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
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.