Yale News

Four alumni of Yale College and Yale Law School — E. Tendayi Achiume ’05 LAW ’08, Andrea Armstrong LAW ’07, Ian Bassin LAW ’06 and Imani Perry ’94 — were selected from scores of scholars to be 2023 MacArthur Fellows, as announced in a press release on Oct. 4.

The MacArthur Fellowship, known colloquially as the “Genius Grant,” is awarded each year to 20 to 30 individuals from varied academic and professional fields who have demonstrated exceptional creativity and promise in their work and potential that the fellowship can help them continue, according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website. The prize consists of a “no-strings-attached” monetary stipend of $800,000 paid out over five years. The fellows were notified that they had been selected through a phone call about two weeks before the Foundation issued the press release, Achiume said.

“It was a total shock,” Bassin wrote in an email to the News. “At least with the lottery you have to buy a ticket, but in this case I’d neither applied for it nor had any idea I was even under consideration.”

An anonymous selection committee determines each cohort of MacArthur fellows from a pool of nominations. The only requirements for nominees are that they must be either residents or citizens of the United States, and they must not be government officials at the time of nomination. 20 fellows were recognized this year for their excellence in fields ranging from art, music and literature to anthropology, environmental science and statistics.

Bassin, a former associate White House counsel, currently serves as the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to defending democracy through a multidisciplinary approach. Bassin was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for his leadership in addressing the structural vulnerabilities in democratic institutions with the goal of making American democracy more “representative and resilient.” He wrote that he hopes that the fellowship will uplift the urgency of his fight to protect democracy and inspire others to get involved.

“My job is also to make sure this attention shines a deserved light on all my colleagues at Protect Democracy and our partners who are doing incredible work to protect democracy to give them greater reach to do that work,” he wrote. “Receiving this award for work that is not yet done underscores for me that this is not just an opportunity but a responsibility to finish the job of not just protecting democracy, but helping achieve the inclusive, multi-racial democracy we’ve long aspired to but never had.”

Achiume, a law professor at Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles, also noted the sense of responsibility that comes with the fellowship.

Achiume has dedicated her career to studying the intersections of international law, transnational migration and racial justice through academic research and through her role as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, which she held through 2022. An article she wrote in 2019, called “Migration as Decolonization” argues for a reframing of transnational migration and sovereignty that takes into account the legacy of colonialism.

“The [MacArthur] award is an incredible opportunity and incredible opportunities come with a fair amount of responsibility,” she said. “I really want to spend the next few months thinking about the work it makes possible, and the space it opens up to pursue projects that were previously unfunded that I could now fund.”

Achiume’s current research focuses on how transnational corporations and non-state actors play a role in international migration issues. She also said that she is interested in pursuing how global policymaking processes through the United Nations can affect social justice movements.

Armstrong, a law scholar studying incarceration, is currently on the faculty of the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. She has written extensively on incarceration law and co-founded Incarceration Transparency, an online database that tracks and reports significant harms from the conditions of incarceration. The Foundation recognized Armstrong for “bringing much-needed transparency to incarceration practices in the United States.”

Armstrong wrote in an email to the News that she is excited to learn from and collaborate with the other MacArthur fellows whose fields intersect with her own.

“There are fellows thinking about the climate and water, for instance, both of which impact incarcerated populations,” she wrote. “I also hope the work that we do to document and prevent deaths is generative for their projects and visions.”

Armstrong told the News she hopes that the award will help shine a light on the importance of her work. Specifically, she said she hopes to raise awareness of how incarceration can make us less safe.

Achiume, who graduated from Yale Law School one year after Armstrong, told the News she remembered Armstrong as an inspiring colleague.

“She was involved in the kinds of projects that are related to the work that she is being recognized for now,” Achiume said. “She was also just a really encouraging and warm mentor to me and other people in law school.”

Perry, a professor of studies of women, gender and sexuality and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, has authored several books on Black American historical thought, most recently “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation”, which garnered a National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2022. Her scholarship has covered topics including gender and racial inequality throughout modern history, the history of the Black national anthem, the politics of hip-hop and the biography of Lorraine Hansberry. 

The MacArthur Foundation website noted the interdisciplinary nature of Perry’s work, which draws on legal, political, historical, sociological and literary lenses. On the Foundation website, Perry added that she views her work as “an effort to haunt the past” by using and uplifting the Black Southern intellectual tradition.

Each of the fellows expressed their appreciation for the award and a fervent commitment to continuing the work for which they were recognized in interviews with the News.

“I am a curious person, I ask a lot of questions,” wrote Armstrong. “For me, this award means I am asking the right questions.”

The first recipients of the MacArthur Award were recognized in 1981.