Betts was speechless.
“Did you expect this?’ ” he remembers the voice asking. That’s when he started laughing.
“How can you expect something like this?” Betts told The Washington Post in an interview.
He added: “The phone number they called me on is the same number I got on the day I came home from prison.”
Betts is one of 25 Americans who received similar calls from staffers at the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Known colloquially as “genius” grants, the fellowships are designed to “encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.” The process of choosing each year’s fellows is highly secretive, with experts from a cross-section of professions asked to nominate colleagues who are doing cutting-edge work. Nominees are given no notice that they’re even being considered for an award until they’re congratulated.
Betts, who grew up in Suitland, Md., intended to become an engineer. But before he finished high school he was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking he and a friend committed when he was 16. While serving time he encountered a book of poetry by Black writers that convinced him of the genre’s power. Since his release he’s published three collections of poetry and a memoir, graduated from Yale Law School and served on the Obama administration’s Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He recently started a nonprofit organization to build prison libraries and deliver millions of books to incarcerated people.
“I hope that what I can do for some other folks is show them that somebody cares about their existence,” Betts says.
Other members of this year’s class of fellows includes a painter, a music critic, a cellular biophysicist, a choreographer and a geomorphologist — that would be someone who studies the processes that create a planet’s landforms, in this case J. Taylor Perron, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Perhaps best-known among the recipients is Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and author of the best-selling books, “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”
Trevor Bedford, another new fellow, is a computational virologist who creates tools to help track the evolution of viruses. The past two years have been “cycles of overwork and burnout,” Bedford says of his efforts to analyze and track samples of the virus that causes covid-19. The MacArthur Foundation credits him with creating a “critical source of information about the genetic origins of divergent strains of the virus.”
“I don’t know how to feel,” he told The Post from his home in Seattle. “The only reason any of this is happening is because of the pandemic, and it can feel like this is me getting these awards on top of millions of people. So it’s hard for it to be, like, a good thing by itself.”
Michelle Monje, a neurologist and neuro-oncologist who specializes in pediatric brain cancers, felt her stomach sink when her phone rang and she saw a number pop up with a Chicago area code; she has a patient in Chicago, and feared the worst.
Monje was a medical student 20 years ago when she first encountered a patient with a particularly lethal form of pediatric brain cancer. “I took care of this child from the time of her diagnosis and until her death a few months later. And I was horrified by what it does to children, to families,” she says. “And I have just been unable to turn away from it since then.”
In addition to treating patients, Monje established her own lab that has pioneered research of the disease and created a potential treatment that is now in clinical trials.
“I’m going to need to do some high-risk, high-reward kinds of things in order to really make the next big steps forward,” she says, “and I feel like this award will help me to do that.”
Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera are a married pair of filmmakers who thought they were hopping on a call with a MacArthur Foundation staff member to talk about the underrepresentation of Latinos in the film industry. Soon, though, it became apparent that the pretext was a ruse. Then it became apparent that they’d won not one fellowship but two — a “genius” grant for each of them.
“There are things you dream of, but two MacArthur fellowships in the house is not one of them,” says Rivera. “I never, never dreamed of that.”
Ibarra and Rivera have largely worked on separate, but parallel, filmmaking tracks; Ibarra has made mostly documentaries, while Rivera has focused on feature films. Both make films that explore life along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the experiences of immigrants. In 2010 they began collaborating on a project that wove together documentary and scripted filmmaking styles to create a movie titled “The Infiltrators,” which tells the story of a group of young undocumented activists trying to stop the deportation of other immigrants from inside a for-profit detention center. The movie won multiple awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
But, Rivera says, “there’s a reason it takes us seven or 10 years to make a movie”: relatively few sources of investment. While 1 in every 5 Americans is Latino, he says, only 1 in every 50 filmmakers is Latino. “Our ecosystem of filmmakers has been shrinking. So it’s a field in which, just proportionately, there’s just extremely little support.”
They’re hoping that the award can help spark awareness of not just their projects but of the art being created by their fellow Latino filmmakers. “We feel it as a kind of responsibility because we believe there are others who deserve to feel free and supported in doing the necessary work, ” says Ibarra.
The 2021 grant recipients were notified weeks ago but sworn to secrecy until Tuesday’s announcement of the awards. As a rule, each winner is permitted to tell only one confidant.
Betts, the poet and advocate for incarcerated people, said that in some ways the period between getting the call and celebrating the announcement was the inverse of what he felt while waiting to be sentenced for his crime, as a teenager. With a prison sentence, “You don’t want to tell people,” he explained. “Here, I want to tell people, but I can’t.”
Another parallel: Neither a prison sentence nor a “genius” grant should define a person. “Jail doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person,” Betts says. “And this grant doesn’t mean that my nickname should be Einstein.”
“But,” he added, “it does mean something.”
Full list of 2021 MacArthur fellows:
●Hanif Abdurraqib, 38, music critic, essayist and poet.
●Daniel Alarcón, 44, writer and radio producer.
●Marcella Alsan, 44, physician-economist.
●Trevor Bedford, 39, computational virologist.
●Reginald Dwayne Betts, 40, poet and lawyer.
●Jordan Casteel, 32, painter.
●Don Mee Choi, 59, poet and translator.
●Ibrahim Cissé , 38, cellular biophysicist.
●Nicole Fleetwood, 48, art historian and curator.
●Cristina Ibarra, 49, documentary filmmaker.
●Ibram X. Kendi, 39, American historian and cultural critic.
●Daniel Lind-Ramos, 68, sculptor and painter.
●Monica Muñoz Martinez, 37, public historian.
●Desmond Meade, 54, civil rights activist.
●Joshua Miele, 52, adaptive technology designer.
●Michelle Monje, 45, neurologist and neuro-oncologist.
●Safiya Noble, 51, digital media scholar.
●J. Taylor Perron, 44, geomorphologist.
●Alex Rivera, 48, filmmaker and media artist.
●Lisa Schulte Moore, 50, landscape ecologist.
●Jesse Shapiro, 41, applied microeconomist.
●Jacqueline Stewart, 51, cinema studies scholar and curator.
●Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 49, historian.
●Victor J. Torres, 44, microbiologist.
●Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, choreographer and dance entrepreneur.