Sarah Stillman ’02 Receives MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant

GDS alumna Sarah Stillman ‘02 is a genius. That is what her teachers thought years ago when she was a student at GDS. Now it is official: the MacArthur Foundation awarded Stillman a “Genius” grant this year, recognizing her writing on social justice issues in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

This grant is a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to 20 to 30 individuals, working in any field, who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” as described on the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

Fellows are awarded $625,000 over the course of five years in quarterly installments and may use the money however they choose. “It is just a wonderful opportunity to have a no strings attached investment in the work you are doing for a five-year period and with the faith that you will invest it in creative pursuits,” Stillman said of the grant.

Stillman is best known for her deep, long-form stories covering topics such as immigration, the military, and the criminal justice system. She has notably written about low-wage workers in Iraq and Afghanistan on military bases in “The Invisible Army” (2011), kidnappings of undocumented migrants in “Where Are the Children?” (2015), and about people listed on the sex-offender registry for crimes they committed as adolescents in “The List” (2016).

Stillman, currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written previously for The Nation, The New Republic, and the Washington Post, and has taught literary non-fiction writing at New York University and Yale University. Today, Stillman continues to teach nonfiction writing at Yale, her alma mater, and directs the Global Migration Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“One of the things that is tremendously fulfilling about the Global Migration program is that we are looking at the stories of women and girls caught up in that massive flux of regular economic migration, and also forced migration in refugee issues,” said Stillman. “That has felt like such a unique opportunity to get to dive in, both myself as an investigative reporter, but then also in the context of the journalism school to be working with the team of students and postgraduate fellows and to actually get to do collaborative work,” she added.

Stillman plans to use the grant funds to continue to write and research more complex stories with regard to social justice issues. “I am particularly looking forward to trying to use the grant to explore arenas of the criminal justice system,” noted Stillman. She added, “it will be a chance to pursue more complicated sorts of investigative stories because one of the things that has always struck me as particularly vexing about investigative work is that it’s investigative because by definition the answers aren’t all there on the surface, and you have to wade pretty deeply into swampy territory.”

In addition to receiving the Genius Grant, Stillman has received the National Magazine Award, the Michael Kelly Award, the Overseas Press Club’s Joe & Laurie Dine Award for International Human Rights Reporting, the George Polk Award, and the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism.

“It has always just struck me that in a world with so many intractable social problems and so many complex issues, I have always been drawn towards stories where there’s some clearly identifiable gaping policy problem that, if not fixable, is at least worthy of addressing through both debate and policy changes. One of the things I love about reporting at a place like The New Yorker is that you can actually help to be part of dragging a conversation forward,” said Stillman.

Stillman said she was first inspired to cover social justice issues at GDS. “Every year at GDS, I had multiple courses that really shaped me and changed me as a writer. Kevin Barr certainly taught me a love of literature and reading Moby Dick in his class changed my life. Richard Avidon taught me a kind of rigorous, analytical thinking in Advanced Placement United States History [APUSH],” reflected Stillman.

History teacher Richard Avidon, who taught Stillman’s APUSH class, described her as a mature and thoughtful writer in the classroom. “Sarah was remarkably mature and very calm and cool. I mostly remember her during tests because I would watch how thoughtful she was,” said Avidon. “One could clearly tell from her answers on tests, she had a golden pen. I mean she just wrote really beautifully,” he added.

Associate Head of School Kevin Barr, who taught Stillman’s American Literature course during her senior year, explained how she cared for social issues at a young age and and thought outside of the box as a student. “What was remarkable about Sarah was, first of all, even then she was an extraordinary capable writer, but also someone who was willing to pursue questions that we had not even tackled in class. She also had a really deep interest in ideas and issues outside of herself,” said Barr. “For a young woman who was extraordinarily bright and perceptive, it was not about her. That is, she could easily have dominated a conversation, but she never chose to. She was the kind of person who was as interested in what other students were saying as what she herself was thinking,” said Barr. Sarah Stillman is an example of one of the many talented people GDS has educated, and she is a paragon of how GDS has nurtured many young writers throughout the years.

By: Annalise Myre