Now This Is My Kind of Genius

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation selects between 20 and 30 individuals as MacArthur Fellows, commonly referred to as Genius Grant winners.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.

The Foundation does not require or expect specific products or reports from MacArthur Fellows and does not evaluate recipients’ creativity during the term of the fellowship. The MacArthur Fellowship is a “no strings attached” award in support of people, not projects. Each fellowship comes with a stipend of $625,000 to the recipient, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.

There are three criteria for selection of Fellows:

  1. Exceptional creativity
  2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments
  3. Potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Since 1981, 1,014 MacArthur Fellows have been named from across numerous fields of human endeavor. Many Fellows work across multiple disciplines or move their work from one field to another over time.

I first became familiar with the program when I was selected as a recipient (oops, there I go fantasizing again) when a juggler and performance artist, Michael Moschen, was awarded a grant in 1990. Since then, I usually try to check in to see who the latest award winners are.

This year’s winners were just announced this week, and many of the recipients I found quite inspiring. I plan to profile a few of them in some upcoming blog posts, and I thought I’d start with Lisa Daugaard, a Criminal Justice Reformer.

Here is a brief bio of Lisa from the MacArthur Fellows web site:

Lisa is a criminal justice reformer developing an alternative to standard drug law enforcement that improves policing, outcomes for individuals suspected of law violations, and public safety. A former public defender, Daugaard is skilled at seeing beyond individuals to the systemic problems that inhibit change. She is a primary architect of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in King County (Seattle, Washington), a program that replaces punitive policing policies with public health and harm reduction services that address the underlying causes leading to participation in the drug trade.

LEAD diverts individuals suspected of low-level offenses related to behavioral health problems or extreme poverty from the criminal justice system into social services such as housing, health care, job training, drug treatment, and mental health support. The program requires a cultural transformation for law enforcement, asking that police and prosecutors serve as frontline partners in public health. At the time of an arrest, police officers screen the suspected offenders for eligibility for LEAD. If eligible, the individuals do not undergo standard jail booking and criminal prosecution; instead, they are referred to a LEAD case manager, who completes an intake assessment that evaluates an individual’s substance-use frequency and treatment, time spent in housing, quality of life, psychological symptoms, interpersonal relationships, and health status. LEAD participants then receive low-barrier, harm-reduction-style case management in which the case managers engage with participants in their communities and connect them with existing resources. LEAD also assists with other pending criminal cases that participants have in local courts and with civil legal problems.

Lisa received a BA (1983) from the University of Washington, an MA (1987) from Cornell University, and a J.D. (1995) from Yale Law School. She has been affiliated with the Public Defender Association since 1996 and has served as director since 2015. Prior to becoming a public defender in 1996, she directed the Urban Justice Center Organizing Project (1995–1996). From 2014 to 2015, she was interim deputy director of the King County (Washington) Department of Public Defense, and she was a member of Seattle’s Community Police Commission from 2013 to 2019, serving as co-chair from 2013 to 2016.

That is an impressive educational background. I am sure coming out of Yale Law School, Lisa could have joined a big-time law firm, starting with a six-figure salary. Instead, she opted to work with a non-profit, the Urban Justice Center Organizing Project, where she launched a leadership development program for homeless activists. From there, she joined Seattle’s Public Defender Association, a non-profit corporation which advocates for justice system reform and develops alternatives that shift from a punishment paradigm to a system that supports individual and community health.

While I am sure Lisa is earning a living wage as a result of her efforts, it is likely nowhere near what most of her Yale classmates are earning.

She has found a noble cause that she is committed to, and it is wonderful that the Macarthur Foundation has recognized Lisa for her efforts. Hopefully, this will encourage more people to develop innovative and just approaches to criminal reform.

Here is a short video featuring Lisa and her work:

*image from the MacArthur Foundation

13 thoughts on “Now This Is My Kind of Genius

  1. how wonderful is Lisa, for so many reasons. I am also taken by the stories behind the grant winners each year and look forward to reading about more of them on your blog


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