WATERLOO — You hear someone from the Cedar Valley has won a MacArthur “genius grant.”
What do you assume? Cedar Falls graduate whose parents teach at the University of Northern Iowa? Maybe a product of the area’s parochial schools?
How about a black kid from Waterloo’s east side? Probably not your first thought — and that’s exactly what Nikole Hannah-Jones is talking about.
The 41-year-old was selected for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, based on her work “chronicling the demise of racial integration efforts and persistence of segregation in American society, particularly in education.”
Hannah-Jones’ insights on these issues began with her own experience of segregation when, as a young child, she began taking a bus from her downtown home across the Cedar River to Kingsley Elementary School.
Her parents had enrolled their three daughters at the predominantly white school in a wealthier part of town when she started second grade in the mid-1980s. Previously, the girls had attended Longfellow Elementary School, less than 10 blocks from their Thompson Avenue house. Longfellow, which has since closed, had considerably more minority students and families living in poverty than her new school.
However, she noticed contrasts in Waterloo’s neighborhoods well before getting off the bus at Prospect Boulevard and Sunset Road.
“Even as a kid and bused across town, I would see the difference between what the west side and the east side looked like,” said Hannah-Jones in a phone interview from Brooklyn, N.Y., where she now lives with her family. “You saw a distinct color line. I was very curious and observant of these things at a young age.”
That awareness caused Hannah-Jones to begin calling out racial injustice while a student at Hoover Middle School and West High School, which she graduated from in 1994. It led to a career as an investigative journalist now working at the New York Times Magazine, where she has extensively written about how segregation is maintained through government policy and action.
Her work captured the attention of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which named her a MacArthur Fellow last week. She is one of 24 people who received what is sometimes called the “genius grant” — a $625,000 stipend to be paid out over five years and spent in any way they choose. Recipients work in a range of fields such as psychology, architecture, theater, computer science, art, anthropology, music, community organizing and writing.
The awards, given annually since 1981, are “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations,” according to the foundation’s website. It said Hannah-Jones’ work “combines analyses of historical, academic, and policy research with moving personal narratives to bring into sharp relief a problem that many are unwilling to acknowledge still exists and its tragic consequences for African-American individuals, families, and communities.”
She felt “just shock and surprise, disbelief” upon learning of the honor about a month before the announcement.
“You can’t apply for it. It’s literally a call out of the blue,” said Hannah-Jones. “I have no idea how you’d even come on their radar in the first place.”
“When you’re a journalist, you dream about getting a Pulitzer. I never dreamed of getting a MacArthur,” she said.
“I’m clearly not a genius,” added Hannah-Jones, noting that’s likely the reaction of most recipients to the award’s informal name. “But they probably deep down like being thought of that way.”
Cheryl Hannah is not surprised, though, that her daughter’s career has brought her to this point.
“We always knew Nikole was different than other kids her age, because when she was like in intermediate school she read a lot — she’s always been a reader,” said Hannah, who still lives in the Waterloo house where her children were raised. She “asked us to get a subscription to Time and Newsweek, because those were the magazines she was interested in. I always knew there was more going on in her head than lighthearted things.”
The passion Hannah-Jones brings to writing about racial injustice in this country is really no different than what Sheritta Stokes remembers from her friend growing up. “Nikole has always been that person who (is) into race relations, making sure people are aware of them,” said Stokes, a fifth-grade teacher at Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence.
Hannah-Jones began early on sharing her outlook with the community.
“I wrote and got my first letter to the editor published in middle school or so,” she recalled. It was in response to “a letter to the editor that dealt with race in a way that I felt was offensive, even at a young age.”
She picked up a sensitivity to social justice at home, particularly from her mother. That led to action, starting with the effort to remove the girls from Longfellow through the district’s voluntary transfer program.
“When I visited Longfellow School, where she started, it was utter chaos,” recalled Hannah. “I didn’t feel like any learning was going on.”
On a visit to Kingsley, she encountered a far different atmosphere. “I could just feel the learning going on,” she said. “I didn’t realize, I guess, how much our decision to send her to Kingsley impacted her life and her view of school, because she was definitely in the minority there.”
Certain incidents reinforced that fact: An invitation for Nikole’s Kingsley friends to go swimming was turned down because it was at the Gates Park pool on the east side. Well-meaning parents from the school offered to pay her fees to participate in club basketball.
“Little things like that work on kids,” said Hannah, noting many of the barriers the family faced were discussed at home.
Among those were the fact Hannah and her husband, Milton, were an interracial couple. “I’m white, my husband was black,” she said. He died at the age of 62 in 2007.
“People always said, ‘You shouldn’t have kids. You’ll have biracial kids and you’re going to have trouble. Your marriage isn’t going to make it,’” said Hannah. “We proved people wrong, and those were probably some of the barriers that were probably discussed.”
In high school, Stokes and Hannah-Jones were part of a group of black students who started the Cultural Enrichment Club. Stokes said the club published a newsletter with articles written to raise awareness of black history. Additionally, they were part of a march to the Waterloo Community Schools’ administration building aimed at making African-American studies a required course for all students.
Hannah-Jones also worked on West’s school newspaper, winning an award from the Iowa High School Press Association her senior year. After graduation, she headed to the University of Notre Dame.
“I knew I was not going to college in Iowa,” she said. “I knew from a young age that I didn’t want to stick around.”
By this time, Hannah-Jones was looking at two possible career paths, historian or journalist. She worked for two years after college, decided on journalism and headed to the University of North Carolina for a master’s degree.
She worked for the Raleigh News and Observer, the Oregonian and ProPublica prior to joining the staff of the New York Times in 2015.
Hannah-Jones “almost always knew” she wanted to write about racial injustice. In her first job, she worked on the education beat and glimpsed how schools have “gone back to separate, and it’s not equal,” referencing the 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation.
“Four years ago, I started writing about school segregation exclusively,” said Hannah-Jones, primarily because she sees it as the biggest driver of inequality.
She did an hour-long piece for National Public Radio’s “This American Life” in 2015 looking at the educational system in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of Michael Brown. Last year, she wrote a personal account of her experience as a parent in the New York City public schools. Currently, she is on leave from the New York Times Magazine writing a book about school segregation.
With family still in Waterloo and friends like Stokes working in its schools, Hannah-Jones continues to view segregation as a problem here. In the schools, that can be most clearly seen at Cunningham. Stokes said most of the students there are racial minorities, and in her class there is only one white child, “which should not be a typical setting in 2017.”
She expects the MacArthur grant will only bolster her friend’s efforts to “bring to light things people often like to sweep under the rug.”
For her part, Hannah-Jones hasn’t figured out how she will use the grant money. “I get paid well to do the work that I do, and I’m not a starving artist,” she said. “I haven’t given a lot of thought to it.”
She added, “I’m living my dream, I’m doing more than I thought I could. I’ll still be working at the Times, hopefully, a year from now, two years from now, three years from now.”