Nikole Hannah-Jones Named a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow

By the TWW Staff

Because we work in the field of education, we pay attention to the way that education is covered in the press Sadly, what we find, for the most part, is disappointing. Even the New York Times, one the nation’s best newspapers in all other respects, often treats education as an afterthought.

If our leading newspapers dedicated half the amount of energy to education as they do to sports, we’d have a far more robust and well-informed public conversation on how we educate our children.

That said, there are a handful of writers who impress us with their in-depth writing on issues related to education. One of them is Nikole Hannah-Jones — an investigative journalist who primarily focuses on issues of racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine, but who does so often through the lens of education. So we were thrilled to learn that Jones was named as one of the 24 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellows for 2017. First of all, it’s great to see a journalist receive the prize. But it means even more to us to see a journalist who focuses on education acknowledged for her insightful work.

In giving her the award, the foundation made it clear she deserved the fellowship for “chronicling the persistence of racial segregation in American society, particularly in education, and reshaping national conversations around education reform.”

Because we are committed to helping white educators develop their cultural competencies in an effort to create highly functional, inclusive schools that work well for all students, we encourage white educators to read Hannah-Jones. Among her writing to date are three essential articles on education:

“Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?” is an in-depth exploration of the ongoing dismantling of public education driven by the commodification of education, white opposition to school desegregation, and the politics currently informing the U.S. Department of Education.

“Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” uses the occasion of finding the right public school for her daughter as an opportunity to deeply explore the machinations of segregation and correlating inequity in funding and political power in the New York City schools.

“The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” explores efforts in Alabama to undo the hard fought gains for school integration following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The article offers both a detailed history of school segregation in the South as well as an exploration of the complex struggle to protect integrated schools today — in this case, through the efforts of one town, Gardendale, to form its own school system. “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity,” Hannah-Jones writes, “is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”

Hannah-Jones also makes it clear in her writing, however, that there are many who defend and support and champion public education as essential to our democratic health. As she puts it, “If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix.”

Hannah-Jones is hard at work on a book about school segregation called The Problem We All Live With, to be published this fall. We’re sure this, too, will become a must-read.

Also on the MacArthur 2017 list is photographer Dawoud Bey, who teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

About Bey’s work, the MacArthur Foundation writes, “Dawoud Bey is a photographer and educator whose portraits of people, many from marginalized communities, compel viewers to consider the reality of the subjects’ own social presence and histories.”

We would add that his images are stunning works of art. The quality and composition are exquisite. He not only has a way of capturing a moment but also of revealing the deep humanity of each subject.

As educators, we are particularly taken by his Class Pictures, large-scale color portraits of students representing a wide economic, social, and ethnic spectrum from across the United States.