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MacArthur 'Genius' Betsy Paluck Seeks to Boost Power of Positive Peer Pressure

The best way to prevent bullying is to help students themselves build a culture that doesn't tolerate it, according to Betsy Levy Paluck, one of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's 2017 "genius grant" fellows announced this morning.

Paluck, 39, spent years in post-genocide Rwanda studying how people's perceptions of social norms around intolerance contributed to the conflict. In the United States, she studied how individual students contribute to social networks in schools, and how cycles of fights and retaliation among groups of students could undercut official school attempts to reduce bullying on campus. 

In an interview with Education Week last year, Paluck described an intervention akin to the 1980s movie, "The Breakfast Club," in which a group of influential students from different cliques in the school came together to discuss ways to reduce "drama"—the students' word for bullying—on campus. Unlike many traditional anti-bullying programs, in which teachers nominate participants, the students in Paluck's intervention were chosen based on a social analysis of their influence in disparate social groups 

Paluck and her colleagues found that in nearly 12,000 students in schools using the program in one school year, the total number of discipline incidents fell from 2,695 to 2,012. The average rate of school discipline reports dropped by 60 percent in schools where at least 1 in 5 influential students participated in the program.

"We treated students as politicians, campaigning for a better school," Paluck said. "The theory was that their public behaviors and statements could change norms."

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provides a five-year, $625,000 award to "individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." There are no requirements on how it is used, but Paluck noted that she plans to expand her training of psychologists in using social influences to promote positive behaviors.

Education Journalist Explores Segregation in Schools

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York City journalist, also was named a MacArthur fellow for her groundbreaking work in covering housing and residential racial segregation.

Hannah-Jones conducted a months-long investigation of racial segregation in Tuscaloosa, Ala., coverage of a brief integration program near Ferguson, Mo., and a deeply personal essay on New York public schools, "Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City." 

The foundation also awarded 2017 fellowships to:

  • Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a painter in Los Angeles, Calif., for "visualizing the complexities of globalization and transnational identity in works that layer paint, photographic imagery, prints, and collage elements."
  • Sunil Amrith, a historian in Cambridge, Mass., for "illustrating the role of centuries of transnational migration in the present-day social and cultural dynamics of South and Southeast Asia."
  • Greg Asbed, a human rights strategist in Immokalee, Fla., for "transforming conditions for low-wage workers with a visionary model of worker-driven social responsibility."
  • Annie Baker, a New York City playwright, for "mining the minutiae of how we speak, act, and relate to one another and the absurdity and tragedy that result from the limitations of language."
  • Dawoud Bey, a Chicago photographer and educator, for "using an expansive approach to photography that creates new spaces of engagement within cultural institutions, making them more meaningful to and representative of the communities in which they are situated."
  • Emmanuel Candès, a mathematician and statistician in Stanford, Calif., for "exploring the limits of signal recovery and matrix completion from incomplete data sets with implications for high-impact applications in multiple fields."
  • Jason De León, an anthropologist in Ann Arbor, Mich., for "combining ethnographic, forensic, and archaeological evidence to bring to light the human consequences of immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border."
  • Rhiannon Giddens, a singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter in Greensboro, N. C., for "reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present."
  • Cristina Jiménez Moreta, a Washington, D.C., social justice organizer, for "changing public perceptions of immigrant youth and playing a critical role in shaping the debate around immigration policy."
  • Taylor Mac, a New York City theater artist, for "engaging audiences as active participants in works that dramatize the power of theater as a space for building community."
  • Rami Nashashibi, a Chicago community activist, for "confronting the challenges of poverty and disinvestment in urban communities through a Muslim-led civic engagement effort that bridges race, class, and religion."
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Los Angeles-based fiction writer, for "challenging popular depictions of the Vietnam War and exploring the myriad ways that war lives on for those it has displaced."
  • Kate Orff, a New York City landscape architect, for "designing adaptive and resilient urban habitats and encouraging residents to be active stewards of the ecological systems underlying our built environment."
  • Trevor Paglen, an artist and geographer in Berlin, Germany, for "documenting the hidden operations of covert government projects and examining the ways that human rights are threatened in an era of mass surveillance."
  • Derek Peterson, a historian in Ann Arbor, Mich., for "reshaping our understanding of African colonialism and nationalism in studies that foreground East African intellectual production."
  • Damon Rich, a Newark, N.J., designer and urban planner, for "creating vivid and witty strategies to design and build places that are more democratic and accountable to their residents."
  • Stefan Savage, a computer scientist in LaJolla, Calif., for "identifying and addressing the technological, economic, and social vulnerabilities underlying internet security challenges and cybercrime."
  • Yuval Sharon, a Los Angeles opera director and producer, for "expanding how opera is performed and experienced through immersive, multisensory, and mobile productions that are infusing a new vitality into the genre."
  • Tyshawn Sorey, a composer and musician in Middletown, Conn., for "assimilating and transforming ideas from a broad spectrum of musical idioms and defying distinctions between genres, composition, and improvisation in a singular expression of contemporary music."
  • Gabriel Victora, a New York City immunologist, for "investigating acquired, or adaptive, immunity and the mechanisms by which organisms' antibody-based responses to infection are fine-tuned."
  • Jesmyn Ward, a New Orleans fiction writer, for "exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans in the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential."

Videos: MacArthur Foundation


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