Will Allen, an urban farmer in Milwaukee, Wisc., was one of 25 people to receive a $500,000 no-strings-attached MacArthur Fellowship this year. Allen is the founder and CEO of Growing Power, a nonprofit organization and land trust to provide people with good health via affordable, quality food.
To me, the fact that an urban farmer leading a nonprofit for the benefit of teaching communities to grow, in a slew of meaningful ways, can receive such a prestigious fellowship — and the associated financial boon — is remarkable.
Along with Allen, there was a saxophonist genius, a lighting designer genius, a neuroscientist genius, an astronomer genius, a fiber artist genius, a geriatrician genius and on and on.
The bestest beauty of the MacArthur Fellowships, aside from the distinct variety of talents and contributions to society, is that there is no application process. None of the awardees threw their hats into any ring. They were all identified secretively by in-the-know people. Then a selection committee of 12 people make the decisions.
And for the record, the MacArthur Foundation does not refer to Allen or the others as geniuses. Using the answer from the foundation’s FAQs, here is why:
Journalists and others sometimes use “genius grant” as a shorthand reference for the MacArthur Fellowship. We avoid using the term “genius” to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess. The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.
Allen, a 59-year-old, has been around the block and back. His bio at the MacArthur Foundation site mentions a B.A. (1971) from the University of Miami, a short-lived pro basketball career, some years in marketing for Proctor and Gamble.
Allen has surely squeezed a number of other items into his resume and some additional skills into his repertoire, too. And in 1993 “returned to his roots as a farmer,” and started Growing Power.
Carry on, Mr. Allen, you genius. Carry on.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, via Creative Commons Attribution