October 01, 2012

MacArthur 'Genius' Winners Include Leader of Antipoverty Nonprofit

Maurice Lim Miller, founder of a nonprofit that's trying to reshape social services for low-income people, is one of 23 people to receive a "genius" grant this year from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For the past decade, Mr. Lim Miller has led the Family Independence Initiative, which  The Chronicle profiled in 2010. Until recently, the group, which eschews professional case workers in favor of direct cash awards to poor people, has struggled to win foundation support.

"It's a game changer," Mr. Lim Miller said of the MacArthur Fellows award. "We've been kind of swimming against the current for 10 years. We have the data. I know it works. But our work is counterintuitive. This kind of credibility will, I think, get people who are skeptical to really stop and think about some of the core pieces that are essential to do this work."

Other winners this year include the founder of the nonprofit International Contemporary Ensemble, two photographers, an astronomer, a neurosurgeon, and an economist.

Winners receive $500,000 over five years to spend however they choose. Mr. Lim Miller says he will use some of the money to further his work, perhaps by exploring how prefabricated, factory-built housing can benefit poor people and by introducing his anti-poverty approach overseas.

For now, he's relieved simply to be able to talk about the award. He was instructed to keep the news under wraps since learning of the honor two-and-a-half weeks ago during a phone call with MacArthur's president, Robert Gallucci.

"The first thing he asked me was, 'Are you alone?' " recalls Mr. Lim Miller. "I thought that was a strange question, but he's the president of the foundation, he can ask whatever he wants."

When Mr. Gallucci told him he'd been selected for a MacArthur Fellows award, Mr. Miller says he had a question: Is that the same thing as a "genius" award?

"It was really a great surprise," says Mr. Lim Miller. "I think I laughed a lot. I'm still laughing."