MacArthur ‘genius grants’ go to a lawyer who fought Trump’s travel ban and the ‘Moral Mondays’ pastor

National/World News

Attorney Becca Heller, reporter Ken Ward Jr., and Rev. William J. Barber II are among the 2018 MacArthur “genius grant” winners.

CREDIT: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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An immigration lawyer who fought the Trump administration’s travel ban, the pastor who founded the “Moral Mondays” movement and an investigative reporter who covers the human toll of coal and natural gas in West Virginia are among 25 “genius grant” winners for 2018, the MacArthur Foundation announced Thursday.

The honor comes with a $625,000, no-strings-attached award. Since 1981, 989 people have earned the acclaim, including best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates and “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The awards go to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” the foundation says on its website.

The full list of winners is here. It includes:

Becca Heller

Heller founded the International Refugee Assistance Project, dubbed IRAP, a legal advocacy organization that played a key role in the fight against the Trump administration’s travel ban.

In the days before Trump’s first executive order dropped, Heller urged IRAP’s network of attorneys and law students to go to airports to protect refugees from deportation. And one client, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, became a lead plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit that blocked parts of Trump’s controversial order.

Though the Supreme Court eventually approved a different version of Trump’s order, Heller and IRAP have continued to fight for refugees, displaced people and immigrants.

Heller plans to use some of the award money to pay off her student loans and cover her family’s child care costs — “None of our plans are very sexy,” she said — but mainly hopes the prize highlights her organization’s work, she told CNN.

“It’s hard to get people to continue caring about refugees and forced migration. There’s so much crazy news all the time,” she said. “Even with things like the family separation policy, you can only hold people’s attention for so long, so I’m hoping that this will help us really shine a light back on refugees, displaced persons, immigration and … on IRAP’s work.”

Rev. William J. Barber II

A pastor in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Barber was selected for “building a broad-based grassroots movement grounded in the moral tenets of faith-based communities and the United States Constitution to confront racial and economic inequalities in America today.”

Barber is best known for organizing “Moral Mondays,” the social justice movement that includes rallies in North Carolina. He is also among the voices pushing for a new Poor People’s Campaign, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s effort at the time of his death, to raise the minimum wage and provide better health care.

Ken Ward Jr.

Ward is an investigative journalist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail who for more than 25 years has closely covered the impact of coal and natural gas on West Virginia and its residents.

Ward’s “in-depth coverage of the coal, chemical and natural gas industries in West Virginia is exposing the true economic, social, and health impacts of industrial abuse on Appalachian residents and communities,” the MacArthur Foundation wrote.

He also writes for the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and recently warned that West Virginia’s new focus on natural gas could take it down the same path that coal did, causing lasting damage to residents.

Other winners

Also among this year’s honorees are health economist Amy Finkelstein, violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta, “Counternarratives” author John Keene and fiction writer Kelly Link.

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