Author on race, tap dancer, eviction specialist among 2015 'genius grant' winners

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    CHICAGO — A tap dancer who has spent her life demanding respect for an overlooked art form. A writer at the center of the national conversation about race. A sociologist who lived in a trailer park to study evictions.

    They are among the 24 winners of this year's "genius grants," each to receive $625,000 over five years to spend any way he or she wants, no strings attached, thanks to the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Each of them found out in recent weeks through a phone call out of the blue.

    "You think it's a prank until you hear everyone on the (conference) call describing your work," said Matthew Desmond, the sociologist, who works at Harvard University.

    The 2015 winners have studied everything from the brain to prehistoric Greek societies. One created a university in Africa, another a community organization in Chicago.

    Some have gained fame and fortune for work that, in the case of Ta-Nehisi Coates, landed him atop best-seller lists for what he has written about race. Another winner is playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose play, "Hamilton" has been a hit on Broadway.

    Others come from worlds little understood outside their fields. For them, the award is a reminder that what they are doing is important — and the money may just help keep what they do alive.

    "I can finally pay my debts that I have to create what I have created," said Michelle Dorrance, a tap dancer and choreographer. "But what is so much more important is this will turn heads toward this art form."

    Kartik Chandran said he sees his grant as validation for something bigger than his work as an environmental engineer at Columbia University turning wastewater from a pollutant into a valuable resource. It is recognition, he said, that something must be done about the many millions of people without clean water.

    Maybe, said Matthew Desmond, the Harvard sociologist, the work he's done can remind people that there are human beings behind statistics and quiet tragedies going on around them.

    Evictions "used to be so rare that they used to draw crowds," he said. "Now families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks early in the morning."

    More than 900 people have been given the grants since they were first handed out in 1981. Shrouded in secrecy, the selection process doesn't involve applications. Instead, anonymous groups make nominations and recommendations to the foundation's board of directors.

    That secrecy extends to the winners who, when they are notified of their grants are asked not to tell more than one person until a public announcement is made a couple of weeks later. That has led to some difficult times for recipients.

    But Dorrance didn't have to be a genius to figure out how to alert both her parents to the news.

    "I strategically told my mom who I knew would tell my dad even though I told her she could not tell anyone," she said.


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