Activist who helped ex-felons in Florida regain the right to vote wins ‘genius grant’

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Desmond Meade, who led a successful years-long effort to grant voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions, was awarded a prestigious MacArthur “genius grant” on Tuesday.

Meade, 54, was one of the primary architects of Amendment 4, which nearly two-thirds of voters approved in 2018. Its passage allowed an estimated 1.4 million Floridians to register to vote, which was considered the nation’s greatest expansion of voting rights in decades until Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers enacted a law limiting the amendment’s scope.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Meade among the 25 recipients, who will each receive $625,000.

The eclectic group includes scientists, economists, poets, and filmmakers. As in previous years, the work of several recipients involves topics that have been dominating the news — from voting rights to how history is taught in schools.

The winners include Tallahassee’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, a choreographer and dance entrepreneur “who has forged a style of dance-making and artistic leadership that tethers dance to cultural identity, civic engagement, community organizing, and imperatives of social justice,” according to the foundation.

Meade’s work expanding voting rights to those with felony convictions was severely curtailed when a federal appellate court upheld the position of DeSantis and the GOP-led Legislature that Floridians with felony convictions must pay all fines before regaining their right to vote.

Since then, Meade has collected millions of dollars to help thousands pay off their outstanding court debts, with no requirement that recipients register to vote.

After DeSantis asked Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody to investigate whether Meade’s organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, was improperly paying people to vote, the group faced threats from white supremacists. The investigation found no evidence of fraud.

Meade said Tuesday’s recognition — and the money — will help him continue his work to help former prison inmates.

He noted that he struggled with drug addiction and homelessness and has served time in prison. (DeSantis last year rejected a pardon for Meade because he was dishonorably discharged from the Army in the early 1990s. Meade was caught stealing liquor and electronics on base to support his drug habit, according to a New York Times profile.)

“The country needs to see stories of triumph and everyday regular people who are impacting their communities,” Meade said. “This [genius grant] means that each and every one in this country has the capacity to do something great.”

Race figures prominently in the work of about half of the 2021 recipients, including that of Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning.” He will contribute an essay to the forthcoming book “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” that’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” that focuses U.S. history around slavery.

The selection process for the MacArthur grants is shrouded in secrecy. Instead of applications, anonymous groups make nominations and recommendations to the foundation’s board of directors.

COVID-19 was clearly on their minds. It comes up in the work of no fewer than four recipients, including a computational biologist building tools to track and forecast viruses and a physician-economist working to better communicate the need for the COVID-19 vaccine to communities that distrust medical institutions.

“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible,” said Cecilia Conrad, the foundation’s managing director of fellows.

Much of what is going on, from the COVID-19 pandemic to efforts in the U.S. to alter the way elections are held and the way students are taught in school, has added a sense of urgency to this year’s awards, some recipients said.

“This award is so timely for me, personally ... to remain committed to make sure the public has access to the truth, true history, even when it is troubling [and] especially when that history can help us build a better future,” Monica Muñoz Martinez, a historian at the University of Texas, Austin, pointing to efforts in some states to limit how teachers discuss racism.

Martinez was recognized, in part because of her book, “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” about a period a century ago when hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were slaughtered by vigilantes as well as the Texas Rangers.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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