“Because I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “You know how sometimes you have to go to sleep and then wake up and see if it’s true?”
It is true. And over the next five years, the MacArthur Foundation will pay Flowers and her 20 fellow grant recipients $125,000 a year to support the continuation of their work.
Flowers says that while the money will be incredibly helpful, she is more excited about the awareness the award could bring to the unglamorous cause to which she has dedicated her life: human waste management.
To Flowers, who was raised in Alabama and still lives there, unsafe waste management systems are a human rights issue and a widespread health hazard. And it is becoming more dire as sea levels rise, which she says is resulting in more families experiencing raw sewage backed up into their homes and yards. “This award will help take away the shame of talking about human waste that comes from our bodies,” she says.
The MacArthur fellowships — commonly known as the “genius grants” — have been given out by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for the past 39 years to recognize “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Winners represent the leading minds in a diverse array of fields, including science, art, technology and social justice. Each year, the process of choosing the fellows is cloaked in secrecy. Professionals are nominated without their knowledge, thoroughly evaluated by a selection committee and then notified out of the blue that they’ve won. Sometimes they’re even lured to pick up the phone under false pretenses.
Nels Elde, a geneticist who lives in Salt Lake City, received an email from a program manager at the MacArthur Foundation saying they wanted to consult with him on a candidate they were considering for the genius award. Elde spent a week trying to figure out which of his colleagues or mentors might be up for the distinction.
“It was a really great exercise, because there are so many great people I know who I think deserve this thing,” says Elde, 47. Then the call started, and MacArthur staffers copped to their lie. “When he said, ‘Actually, it’s you,’ that was a total shock. And great shock. What a humbling and inspiring group of people to be associated with.”
Elde studies the evolutionary processes that result from pathogens interacting with host bodies. His lab is developing tools to help scientists understand how the novel coronavirus is changing and mutating throughout nature.
He also hosts a podcast called “This Week in Evolution,” and he’s hoping the MacArthur funds can, in part, be used to continue shining a light on the work of other scientists. And in his lab, he says, they will give him the opportunity to explore some lines of scientific inquiry that might not otherwise get funding. “That’s one of the real gifts here with this fellowship,” he says. “It really challenges you to pull that crazy idea off the shelf and shake it up and see if there’s anything to it.”
Several of this year’s winners are focused on pursuing social justice and broadening cultural understanding through their respective disciplines. Natalia Molina is a historian who studies the way ideas about race have been constructed in America. Mary L. Gray is an anthropologist working to understand how the digital economy is affecting human rights and identity. Larissa FastHorse is a playwright and advocate pushing for more representation and opportunity for Indigenous artists. Tressie McMillan Cottom is a public intellectual and sociologist known for her incisive analysis of current events, especially those related to race and gender.
Thomas Wilson Mitchell is the lone lawyer of the group. When he left a lucrative law firm job to study the way property rights laws have affected Black landowners since the Civil War, he was told it was a dead end. “What you just described is what we call career suicide,” Mitchell remembers a colleague telling him.
But Mitchell, 55, turned his research into legal activism and has succeeded in getting laws detrimental to Black landowners revised in 17 states. Mitchell, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, calls that work “the job I do between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.”
He is hoping that the MacArthur funds will help him create a law center to bring some of that work into daylight hours and help him tackle other discriminatory property laws.
This year’s class of fellows also includes: Isaiah Andrews, an econometrician; Paul Dauenhauer, a chemical engineer; Damien Fair, a neuroscientist; N.K. Jemisin, a fiction writer; Ralph Lemon, an interdisciplinary artist; Polina V. Lishko, a cellular and developmental biologist; Fred Moten, a poet and cultural theorist; Cristina Rivera Garza, a fiction writer; Cécile McLorin Salvant, a singer and composer; Monika Schleier-Smith, a physicist; Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost, a biological chemist; Forrest Stuart, a sociologist; and Nanfu Wang, a documentary filmmaker.
Perhaps best known of this year’s winners is Jacqueline Woodson, an author whose picture books and young-adult novels explore the lives of Black children and teenagers. Woodson was previously awarded Newbery and Caldecott honors and earlier this year was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
Woodson, 57, said that to her, the award is a gratifying validation. “This has always felt important and necessary to me,’’ she says. It’s nice to know that work is viewed similarly by the wider world. Nobody needed to tell her to keep going, but funds always make it easier to do so. Woodson was most eager to find out who else was named to this year’s class of fellows. Once they’re notified of the award, fellows are sworn to secrecy and are allowed to tell only one other person.
Flowers in Alabama chose to tell a past recipient of the MacArthur award who could tell her what to expect. But she has been most eager to tell her children and grandchildren.
She’s been excited to tell them that other people recognized the importance of Grandma’s decades-long fight for better sewage systems. “That was very, very special to me and moving to me at this point in my life,” she says. “I think it’s important that young people see examples and get inspired.”