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MacArthur ‘genius’ grant winners ponder a new future: ‘Your life can change in an instant.’

Kristina Olson has always been fascinated by questions of gender. As a psychologist, she’d studied how children behaved in social groups, and five years ago, she decided she wanted to know more about transgender children who were living as their self-identified gender.

“At least initially, transgender kids feel they are a part of a gender group that the whole world doesn’t believe they’re in, and that’s a really unique experience, and I wanted to understand what that experience was like,” said Olson, 37, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington and the director of the Social Cognitive Development Lab there. “And I was very surprised to learn that there was no empirical research, there were no quantitative papers about the experience of these kids.”

At first, she said, she figured she’d wait until another researcher tackled the project. “But then I was like — what if I was the person who did that?”

Her TransYouth Project, the first large-scale, longitudinal study of transgender and gender-nonconforming child development, has now grown to include hundreds of families across the nation. And it recently caught the attention of some particularly influential benefactors.

On Thursday, Olson was named among the 25 winners of 2018 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships — widely referred to as the “genius grants,” a recognition that comes with a no-strings-attached award of $625,000.

“My first thought was that it was a joke,” she said. “I asked them if they were sure they’d called the right Kristina Olson. I was sure it was a mistake.”

It wasn’t a mistake. But her sense of shock and elation was echoed in similar calls that went out last month, as members of this year’s fellowship class — described by the foundation as a lineup of “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals” — were notified that they now ranked among the recipients of one of the nation’s most elite and famously secretive awards.

Each class of between 20 and 30 fellows typically includes a mix of familiar and relatively obscure names, representing a broad spectrum of professions — scientists, writers, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, humanitarian activists, civil servants, inventors and others whose work defies simple categorization. In keeping with the foundation’s long-standing protocol, the fellows have no idea they have even been nominated, which makes the out-of-the-blue phone calls all the more stunning.

“My heart started racing, and I almost passed out,” said Gregg Gonsalves, 54, an epidemiologist and global health advocate at Yale University who spent nearly three decades as an HIV/AIDS activist. “You know how people say that your life can change in an instant?”

The foundation maintains that winners are never chosen for any political reasons or in accordance to any particular theme; the honor is meant purely to recognize work that is “for the benefit of human society.” This year’s class notably includes a number of individuals whose efforts focus on advocating for vulnerable and marginalized communities, often through creative and collaborative work.

In addition to Olson and Gonsalves, grant recipients include the Rev. William J. Barber II, 55, the prominent pastor and social justice advocate who has led a modern revival of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign; Rebecca Sandefur, 47, a sociologist who works to increase access to civil justice for low-income communities; Becca Heller, 36, a human rights lawyer who has mobilized the resources of law schools and firms to defend refugees; Raj Jayadev, 43, a community organizer who pioneered a grass-roots “participatory defense” model that helps people facing incarceration; and Ken Ward Jr., 50, an investigative journalist who has spent more than 25 years reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of the coal, natural gas and chemical industries in rural West Virginia.

Other 2018 fellows have made their art a conduit for social activism — like Vijay Gupta, 31, a violinist and social justice advocate who provides musical enrichment to the homeless, incarcerated and others in Los Angeles; Natalie Diaz, 40, a poet at Arizona State University whose works explores the lingering impact of violence and oppression in the lives of indigenous Americans; and Okwui Okpokwasili, 46, a choreographer and performance artist whose pieces combine storytelling, music and movement to convey the stories of African and African American women.

Though her work elevates specific voices, Okpokwasili sees it as universal: “There’s this preconception that if something is about a black woman, that it doesn’t speak to the larger concerns of humanity,” she said. “I’m hoping that audiences can be open to experiences they didn’t expect . . . and I hope we have undone their idea of how black women and black performers should behave in performance. I hope to counter some of those ideas about how you read and look at black bodies on a stage.”

Fellows do not apply for the MacArthur grants. Instead, leaders across a wide range of fields are invited to submit nominations that are evaluated by an anonymous selection committee. Once the winners are notified, they can share the news with only one other person until the announcement is made public weeks later.

That rule felt especially challenging for Jayadev, the community organizer and co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a storytelling, community-organizing and advocacy group in San Jose that supports low-income, minority, incarcerated and other marginalized communities.

“The work that we do is a collective enterprise, and this was really a recognition of what my staff has built together, and so the first thing I wanted to do was tell them what they all did,” Jayadev said.

Over nearly a decade, Jayadev said, he and his colleagues have developed a “participatory defense” model, which brings together a network of community members to help families navigate the convoluted criminal justice system and help overworked public defenders as they represent their clients.

“The criminal justice system is isolating by design,” Jayadev said. “Participatory defense is challenging that concept of isolation, so that someone knows that there’s a supportive community with them.”

The MacArthur Foundation’s grant comes with no requirements or expectations — there is no evaluation of a fellow’s work during the fellowship term. The foundation emphasizes that the grant is a “speculative” prize, meant only to help a fellow’s work continue with the benefit of wider recognition and an unexpected financial boost.

For Olson, the psychologist, the fellowship opens the possibility of expanding her work.

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is kids who have intersex identities,” she said, “and I’d like to work outside the U.S., to think about how other cultures, including indigenous cultures, think about gender. What I think is so amazing about this is that it gives me the opportunity to take yet more risks on new projects.”

Jayadev imagines his participatory defense model spreading to communities across the nation: “With this fellowship and the resources attached, we’re going to be able to put this thing in hyper-speed and get it out to more people, to really grow the size of it,” he said.

Okpokwasili, who recalled many prior years of juggling her art with multiple jobs, said she might welcome a long-overdue break. “Maybe I won’t do five or four things at once, maybe I’ll just do two things,” she laughed. “I might like to take a vacation, an actual vacation, just being quiet and still and calm.”

For Gonsalves, the HIV/AIDS activist turned epidemiologist and global health advocate, the recognition came at a moment when he perhaps needed it most. He is fairly new to the world of academia, he explained, and hasn’t always felt certain that a university setting was the right place for the work he wants to do, which requires reaching far beyond the confines of a centuries-old institution and building partnerships on the ground.

“I’m convinced that only by forgetting about the boundaries between the university and the wider world — that’s how you’re going to solve problems,” he said. “I love the work I do, and I love the people I work with, but I was having a little bit of a crisis of faith.”

He paused. “But now I feel liberated,” he said. “This gives me a sense of safety, and freedom.”

The complete list of winners of the 2018 MacArthur Fellowship:

●Matthew Aucoin, 28, a composer and conductor with the American Modern Opera Company/Los Angeles Opera

●Julie Ault, 60, an artist and curator in New York City.

●William J. Barber II, 55, a pastor and social justice advocate with Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.

●Clifford Brangwynne, 40, a biophysical engineer at Princeton University.

●Natalie Diaz, 40, a poet who teaches at Arizona State University.

●Livia S. Eberlin, 32, an analytical chemist at the University of Texas in Austin.

●Deborah Estrin, 58, a computer scientist at Cornell Tech.

●Amy Finkelstein, 44, a health economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

●Gregg Gonsalves, 54, an epidemiologist and global health advocate at Yale University.

●Vijay Gupta, 31, a violinist and social justice advocate with the Los Angeles Philharmonic/Street Symphony.

●Becca Heller, 36, a human rights lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

●Raj Jayadev, 43, a community organizer and co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug.

●Titus Kaphar, 42, a painter in New Haven, Conn.

●John Keene, 53, a writer in the Department of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University.

●Kelly Link, 49, a fiction writer in Northampton, Mass.

●Dominique Morisseau, 40, a playwright at Signature Theatre in New York City.

●Okwui Okpokwasili, 46, a choreographer and performer in New York City.

●Kristina Olson, 37, a psychologist at the University of Washington.

●Lisa Parks, 51, a media scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

●Rebecca Sandefur, 47, a sociologist and legal scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

●Allan Sly, 36, a mathematician at Princeton University.

●Sarah T. Stewart, 45, a planetary scientist at the University of California at Davis.

●Wu Tsang, 36, a filmmaker and performance artist in New York City.

●Doris Tsao, 42, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology.

●Ken Ward Jr., 50, an investigative journalist with the Charleston Gazette-Mail.


Caitlin Gibson
The Washington Post

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