UNC School of Media and Journalism alumna, investigative reporter and former Park Fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (M.A.) was named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow on Wednesday, Oct. 11. The fellowship is considered a $625,000 investment in a person's originality, insight and potential, enabling recipients to exercise their creative instincts for the benefit of human society.
The MacArthur Fellowship — founded in 1981 — is a five-year grant to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future. The Fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements. Individuals cannot apply for this award; they must be nominated.
Hannah-Jones received a bachelor's in 1998 from the University of Notre Dame and a master's in 2003 from the MJ-school. Prior to joining the staff of The New York Times, she was a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer (2003–06), the Oregonian (2006–11), and ProPublica (2011–15). In 2015, she co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting with the goal of increasing the number of reporters and editors of color. One year later, she won a 2016 Peabody Award for her collection of "This American Life" episodes on school segregation called "The Case for School Desegregation Today."
In 2017, she delivered the MJ-school Spring Commencement address to a crowd of fellow Tar Heels.
Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist chronicling the demise of racial integration efforts and persistence of segregation in American society, particularly in education. She combines analyses of historical, academic and policy research with moving personal narratives to bring into sharp relief a problem that many are unwilling to acknowledge still exists and its tragic consequences for African American individuals, families and communities.
Her profile of three generations of a family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in "Segregation Now" (2014) illustrates the historical trajectory of segregation in many school districts in the South. A grandfather attended school before judicial force dismantled Jim Crow–era segregated schools; his daughter, a college graduate, was educated in an integrated school district. But after the district was released from judicial oversight in the 1990s, it effectively became re-segregated; his granddaughter now attends an all-black school that is so poorly resourced it leaves its students far behind their white counterparts. After the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Hannah-Jones spent several months investigating a short-lived integration program in the (mostly white, high-achieving) school district 30 miles from (all-black, almost entirely poor and unaccredited) Normandy School District, where Brown attended high school. The resulting hour-long radio piece, "The Problem We All Live With" (2015), unflinchingly conveys the failings of our educational system and exposes how the decisions we make as individuals and collectively as a society have created and perpetuate our two-tier education system. In a particularly poignant section, Hannah-Jones juxtaposes the delight and joy in the voices of a student and her mother contemplating the opportunity to apply to a high school outside of Normandy with the voices of white parents decrying the violence and drop in test scores that they claim will result from the influx of Normandy students.
Hannah-Jones' deeply personal account of her own experience as a parent in New York City's public school system, "Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City" (2016), shows that school segregation is not an isolated phenomenon but rather a defining factor of most cities across the country. Currently at work on a book about school segregation, Hannah-Jones is compelling us to confront segregation as a fundamental cause of racial disparities and reshaping national conversations about education reform.