By DON BABWIN, Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) _ The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 recipients, who will each receive $625,000 to spend any way they like.

A professor whose research is helping a California police department improve its strained relationship with the black community and a lawyer who advocates for victims of domestic abuse are among the 21 winners of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”

The professor and lawyer, part of an eclectic group that also includes scientists, mathematicians, historians, a cartoonist and a composer, are among several recipients whose work involves topics that have dominated the news in the past year.

“I think getting this (grant) speaks to people’s sense that this is the kind of work that needs to be done,” said recipient Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford University social psychologist who has researched racial stereotypes and crime.

Shrouded in secrecy, the selection process involves nominations from anonymous groups and recommendations from the foundation’s board of directors. Recipients have no idea they’ve won until they get a call from the foundation, and even then recipients have been known to wonder initially if someone is trying to trick them.

John Henneberger, a housing advocate in Texas, said he was so stunned when he got his call that he had to sit down.

“I got really quiet and they (people he was with) were asking me, `Did somebody die?” he said.

Eberhart’s work prompted the Oakland, California, police department to ask for her help studying racial biases among its officers and how those biases play out on the street _ topics that have been debated nationally in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Missouri. Eberhardt, who is also studying the use of body cameras by police _ another topic of particular interest since Brown’s shooting _ said, “I hope this will show the work matters, holds value and promotes social change.”

The justice system is also at the heart of Sarah Deer’s work as a legal scholar and advocate for Native American women living on reservations, who suffer higher-than-average rates of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Deer, a Native American who teaches law in Minnesota, met with women who simply stopped reporting such attacks because their tribal governments had been stripped of the authority to investigate and because federal authorities were often unwilling to do so, she said. The foundation pointed to her instrumental role in reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act by Congress in 2013 that restored some of those abilities to tribes.

“For the first time since 1978 … tribes (can) prosecute non-Indians who have committed acts of sexual assault and domestic violence on reservations,” she said.

Like Deer, fellow recipient Jonathan Rapping has worked to improve the lives of others.

A former public defender, Rapping founded Gideon’s Promise after seeing a legal system that he said valued speed over quality representation of the indigent. The organization trains, mentors and assists public defenders to help them withstand the intense pressure that can come with massive caseloads.

Today, the program that began in 2007 for 16 attorneys in two offices in Georgia and Louisiana has more than 300 participants in 15 states.

The foundation recognized Khaled Mattawa, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, for his poetry and translations of Arab contemporary poets.

Mattawa, who said he started translating the poetry as way to teach himself to write poetry, said the work can connect people from different cultures. “The poets are bearing witness not only to the humanity of their own people but of a shared humanity,” he said.

The awards, given annually since 1981, are doled out over a five-year period. This year’s class brings the number of recipients to more than 900.

Most winners are not widely known outside their fields, but the list has over the years included writer Susan Sontag and filmmaker John Sayles.
List of 2014 MacArthur ‘genius grant’ recipients

The following 21 fellows will each receive $625,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation:

__ Danielle Bassett, 32, Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania physicist who applies mathematical approaches to analysis and modeling of brain connectivity.

__ Alison Bechdel, 54, Bolton, Vermont. Cartoonist and graphic memoirist whose narratives explore family relationships.

__ Mary Bonauto, 53, Boston. Civil rights lawyer, director of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and a leader in the marriage equality movement.

__ Tami Bond, 50, Urbana, Illinois. Environmental engineer at the University of Illinois and expert on global effects of soot on climate and health.

__ Steve Coleman, 57, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Jazz composer and saxophonist who is being recognized for creating a “distinctive new sound.”

__ Sarah Deer, 41, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Professor at William Mitchell College of Law and advocate for Native American women at risk of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

__ Jennifer L. Eberhardt, 49, Stanford, California. Stanford University social psychologist investigating how racial bias and stereotypes affect law enforcement and criminal sentencing.

__ Craig Gentry, 41, Yorktown Heights, New York. Computer scientist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center whose work has led to the possibility of more secure cloud computing.

__ Terrance Hayes, 42, Pittsburgh. Professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh and poet whose work has focused on race, gender and family.

__ John Henneberger, 59, Austin, Texas. Co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Service who has worked to expand affordable housing and make sure all communities have equal access to federal relief funds after natural disasters.

__ Mark Hersam, 39, Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern University materials scientists investigating physical, chemical and biological properties of nanomaterials.

__ Samuel D. Hunter, 33, New York, New York. Playwright whose work confronts what the foundation calls the “socially isolating” aspects of contemporary American life.

__ Pamela O. Long, 71, Washington, D.C. Historian of science and technology who has researched scholarship and craftsmanship in Renaissance societies.

__ Rick Lowe, 53, Houston. Public artist who worked to revitalize a long-neglected Houston neighborhood.

__ Jacob Lurie, 36, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University mathematician who created a new conceptual foundation for derived algebraic geometry.

__ Khaled Mattawa, 50, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Poet and translator of contemporary Arab poetry at the University of Michigan, where he is an associated professor in the Department of English Language and Literature.

__ Joshua Oppenheimer, 39, Copenhagen, Denmark. Documentary filmmaker who has covered topics such as state-sponsored violence.

__ Ai-jen Poo, 40, New York, New York. Labor organizer who has pushed to improve working conditions for domestic or private-household workers.

__ Jonathan Rapping, 48, Atlanta. Criminal lawyer who founded program to help public defenders provide quality legal representation to the indigent.

__ Tara Zahra, 38, Chicago. Professor at University of Chicago whose research and analysis about twentieth-century Europe helped create a “transnational understanding of events,” according to the foundation.

__ Yitang Zhang, 59, Durham, New Hampshire. University of New Hampshire mathematician who is being recognized for a landmark achievement in analytic number theory.

Online: Meet the 2014 MacArthur Fellows