Four Yale alumni receive MacArthur ‘genius’ grants
Four Yale alumni — the legal scholar Tendayi Achiume ’05, ’08 J.D.; incarceration law scholar Andrea Armstrong ’07 J.D.; democracy advocate Ian Bassin ’06 J.D.; and the scholar and writer Imani Perry ’94 — are among 20 recipients of 2023 MacArthur Fellowships, a prestigious award known informally as the “genius grant.”
Awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the fellowships help support people of outstanding talent — and working in a range of fields and disciplines —pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations for the betterment of human society.
Each recipient receives an $800,000 stipend over five years which they can spend however they wish. They are nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and are evaluated by an anonymous selection committee.
In her work, E. Tendayi Achiume ’05, ’08 J.D., a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, has reframed foundational concepts of international law at the intersection of racial justice and global migration. Her scholarship envisions more ethical ways of governing the movement of people across borders in an effort to address the past and ongoing harms of colonial systems of power. Among the legal concepts she has examined is the doctrine of state sovereignty, which grants nations the largely unlimited right to deny entry to people moving primarily for a better life. In a 2019 article, “Migration as Decolonization,” she acknowledged the rights of political communities to regulate membership but proposed a reconceptualization who is part of that community in light of the legacies of colonialism.
From 2017 to 2022, she served as United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. In that role, she monitored, advised, and reported on human rights situations related to racism and xenophobia worldwide. Her UN thematic reports addressed such topics as efforts to combat the glorification of Nazism and neo-Nazism, the racially discriminatory impacts of emerging digital technologies, the unjust roots and consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, and the need for reparations for racial discrimination rooted in colonialism and slavery.
Andrea Armstrong ’07 J.D., a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, is an accomplished scholar of incarceration law who has helped bring greater transparency to incarceration practices in the United States. She has helped call attention to poor living conditions in prisons and jails, and in particular the deaths of individuals in custody. She has written extensively on the racial dimensions of prison labor practices, discipline, and health care. And she has pushed litigators to go beyond conventional litigation strategies anchored in the Eighth Amendment when challenging conditions of confinement, instead arguing for centering the voices of incarcerated people and challenging prison conditions through broader strategies, including environmental justice, anti-discrimination, and workplace safety.
Out of these efforts, she created the Incarceration Transparency project, an online database that has documented deaths that have occurred in every prison, jail, and youth detention facility in Louisiana since 2015. The initiative has inspired similar efforts in other states. Armstrong also created a guide for law professors who want to replicate her approach of teaching law students critical legal skills while serving local communities. It includes resources on obtaining public records from government agencies, trauma-informed interview practices, and how to catalogue and analyze data to better understand conditions in specific facilities.
Ian Bassin ’06 J.D., a lawyer and executive director of Protect Democracy, works to strengthen the structures, norms, and institutions of democratic governance in the United States. In 2016 he co-founded Protect Democracy to counter authoritarian tactics and abuses of power that threaten to undermine election integrity and erode the rule of law. Working across multiple fronts, the organization works to safeguard free and fair elections, counter disinformation, and ensure meaningful checks and balances on legislative and executive bodies through the use of litigation, legislative reforms, research and analysis, election-monitoring software, and strategic communications.
He champions a nonpartisan, multidisciplinary approach at Protect Democracy, enlisting staff members and advisors from across the political spectrum to stand together to defend democratic institutions. One of the group’s early projects, the software platform VoteShield, supports election officials by monitoring the integrity of voter registration data. The platform is now operational in 24 U.S. states and has been used by both Republican and Democratic election officials. In 2019, Bassin and colleagues assembled the National Task Force on Election Crises to prevent and mitigate a range of election crisis scenarios. They have also emphasized the importance of truth telling and accountability for deterring future abuses. Their work informed the design and practices of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, helping to ensure that its findings were brought to public attention.
Imani Perry ‘94, an accomplished writer and a professor of studies of women, gender, and sexuality and of African American studies at Harvard, has written about African American social conditions and experiences along dimensions of race, gender, and politics. Drawing from law, literature, history, philosophy, and popular culture, she explores how Black Americans — and often Black women in particular — have resisted, survived, and thrived by forging singular paths in the face of oppression and injustice.
In her 2011 book, “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States,” Perry illustrated how foundational narratives socialize people into racism. Her other books include “Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation“ (2018), which traces modern patriarchy from the Enlightenment to the present; “May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem“ (2018), which examines music’s role in the struggle for justice; and “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry“ (2018), a portrait of the political and literary activism of the 20th century author. In her 2022 book, “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” Perry shared aspects of her own life, including reflections about family living in Alabama, and explored the central role that the U.S. South — which she describes as both a geography and a psychology — plays in American culture.
Other 2023 MacArthur recipients include the composer and pianist Courtney Bryan; cellular and molecular biologist Jason D. Buenrostro; environmental ecologist Lucy Hutyra; and the poet Ada Limón.
A full list and biographies of all recipients can be found on the program’s website.
Since 1981, 1,061 people have received the grants. Twenty previous fellows were actively serving as a Yale faculty or staff member at the time of their award, including 2022 recipient Dr. Emily Wang, a professor at Yale School of Medicine and Yale School of Public Health.