The MacArthur Foundation Oct. 4 announced its 2018 cohort of “genius grant” awardees, with Indian Americans Raj Jayadev and Vijay Gupta among the 25 recipients.

The MacArthur Fellows, or the “genius awards,” include academics, activists, artists, scholars and scientists, who will receive $625,000 over five years to use as they please. The Chicago-based foundation has awarded the genius grants each year since 1981 to help further the pursuits of people who have shown outstanding talent. 

"Working in diverse fields, from the arts and sciences to public health and civil liberties, these 25 MacArthur Fellows are solving long-standing scientific and mathematical problems, pushing art forms into new and emerging territories, and addressing the urgent needs of under-resourced communities,” Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, said in a statement. “Their exceptional creativity inspires hope in us all," she said.

Activist Jayadev, of San Jose, Calif., is a community organizer leveraging the potential of community organizing to create a model of legal assistance that provides education and criminal defense resources to families in need, the foundation said.

His work in criminal justice reform has grown out of his social activism work with Silicon Valley De-Bug (De-Bug), an organization he co-founded in 2001. De-Bug began as a magazine about issues affecting low-wage manufacturing, temporary workers, and it has since evolved into a multidimensional platform for community organizing, social justice advocacy, and multimedia storytelling by low-income, minority, incarcerated, and other disenfranchised communities, the foundation said.

De-Bug’s most notable initiative is the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project and its “participatory defense” model. Participatory defense adapts community organizing principles to criminal justice reform; it brings together a network of community members to help families navigate a complex criminal justice system and to enable chronically under-resourced public defenders to more effectively defend their clients, it said.

Participants assist in the case discovery process, review allegations and evidence, and help construct humanizing personal biographies and videos of defendants. The practical support for attorneys and empowerment conferred on defendants and their families through participatory defense often prevents individuals from taking plea bargains out of ignorance or expediency, the bio noted.

Former defendants and their family members often continue to volunteer with ACJP at the conclusion of their cases, using the knowledge they gained to assist and advocate for other families. 

Participatory defense is now spreading beyond California. Hubs have been established in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Tennessee as part of the National Participatory Defense Network, and Jayadev is conducting training workshops in communities across the United States, according to his bio.

Collectively, the hubs have saved nearly 4,000 years of potential prison terms for defendants through cases won or reduced sentences. De-Bug is also expanding its advocacy efforts for systems-level change in the justice system, engaging in campaigns around bail reform, sentencing reform, and police accountability, the organization noted.

By empowering ordinary people to take collective action in the defense of low-income individuals, Jayadev is addressing a critical issue in criminal justice reform—the imbalance of power between prosecutors and overworked public defenders, it said.

Jayadev received his B.A. from UCLA. He co-founded Silicon Valley De-Bug in 2001 and continues to serve as coordinator and an organizer with the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project. He has contributed to the San Jose Mercury News and Huffington Post and is co-editor of De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley.

Musician Gupta, of Los Angeles, Calif., is a violinist and social justice advocate forging effective pathways to bring music to the marginalized and establishing new possibilities for social connection and support, the foundation said.

After joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a young violinist, Gupta began to give lessons to Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-trained musician whose mental illness had led to homelessness. This experience motivated him to play for the homeless and mentally ill living on Skid Row, an area of concentrated poverty and homelessness in downtown Los Angeles and, eventually, to cofound the not-for-profit Street Symphony, it said.

Street Symphony harnesses the power of the arts to foster social connection and support. Along with nearly 80 musicians he has recruited from the L.A. Philharmonic and elsewhere, Gupta and Street Symphony present regular monthly programs of live musical performances at shelters, county jails, and treatment and transitional housing facilities. Street Symphony also offers musical education through workshops and its recently launched Fellows Program, which pairs emerging artists from local universities with talented individuals from Skid Row for a year-long instruction program, his bio noted.

One of Street Symphony’s most notable efforts is its annual performance of Handel’s Messiah on Skid Row. In free community workshops, residents are invited to perform or create their own pieces, culminating in a final performance of new original works alongside selections from Handel’s oratorio, the foundation said.

Gupta’s model of outreach to marginalized individuals in places that offer other social services and his strategy of generating musical projects through extended engagement and by forging interpersonal relationships has begun to inspire other performing groups in the Los Angeles area to be more socially conscious.

Dedicated to bringing beauty, respite, and purpose to those all too often ignored by society, Gupta is demonstrating the capacity of music to validate our shared humanity and focusing needed attention on interrelated social issues that cluster at places such as Skid Row, the bio added.

Gupta received a bachelor’s from Marist College and an M.M. from Yale University. He joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007, where he is currently the Mark Houston Dalzell and James Dao-Dalzell First Violin Chair.

He has served as co-founder and artistic director of Street Symphony since 2011; he is also a faculty member of the Longy School of Music of the Bard College Masters of Arts in Teaching Program and the Colburn School.

Gupta has performed as a soloist with the Israel Philharmonic and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestras, among others, and as a guest concertmaster with the LA Opera and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Gupta has also performed as a recitalist and chamber musician on an international scale since the age of 8.

Working in a variety of fields, each Fellow will receive a no-strings-attached $625,000 award, encouraging them to continue to innovate, take risks and pursue their creative vision. The Fellows were chosen for their innovation and creativity and their potential to make important contributions to our communities and society. 

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