Introducing the 2020 Freedom Scholars

A $3 million investment in social and economic justice scholarship by Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation

The nation’s boldest scholars stand at the forefront of movements for economic and social justice – they are creating the catalytic ideas for transformative change. Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation are placing power in the hands of these changemakers through new Freedom Scholars Awards, $250,000 grants that give leaders greater freedom to build a truly representative economy that works for working families and people.

The $3 million Freedom Scholars program is a commitment to scholarship that is rooted in and supports movements led by Black and Indigenous people, migrants, queer and poor people, and People of Color. The awards support scholars who are shifting the balance of power to families and communities that have been historically excluded from the resources and benefits of society. With this award, Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation are recognizing the role that scholars play in cultivating the intellectual infrastructure necessary to nurture movements toward freedom.

Today’s Freedom Scholars work at the forefront of abolitionist, Black, feminist, queer, radical, and anti-colonialist studies and critical fields of research that are often underfunded or ignored. Support for their research, organizing, and academic work is pivotal in this moment when there is a groundswell of support to hold our political and economic leaders accountable.

Freedom Scholars reflect the commitment of Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation to work as partners in service of these scholars and their work – to help these leaders be freer. We know if these scholars have resources and support they will shift the balance of power in this country toward economic and social justice. The awards honor the long arc of freedom organizing by and for Black, Indigenous, queer and poor people, migrants, and all People of Color.

Dr. Ruha Benjamin

In this moment of planetary shift, scholars cannot afford to cede all the intellectual space to diagnosing deadly structures. We must also seed new patterns, practices, and politics for a more just and joyful world. Coupling critique with creativity, I am determined to take the imaginative terrain of world building seriously.

Dr. Ruha Benjamin is an Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Founding Director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, and author of the award-winning book “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.”

She is an internationally recognized scholar who has been studying the relationship between innovation and inequity, health and justice, and knowledge and power for more than twenty years. Her other books include “People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontierand “Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life.”

Dr. Alisa Bierria

Dismantling conditions of violence requires rebellious imagination, and the most powerful and revelatory ideas emerge from grassroots social movements. Thinking collaboratively with survivors of violence, organizers, artists, scholars, and care workers about transformative politics, radical care, and strategic action is a practice that is at the heart of my work.

Dr. Alisa Bierria is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. A Black feminist philosopher who has been active in the feminist anti-violence movement for more than 20 years, Bierria’s writing, advocacy, and collaborative projects focus on racialized gender violence and critical acts of survival.

Her forthcoming book, “Missing in Action: Agency, Race, & Invention,” highlights insights from Black women’s agentic practices in conditions of violence and proposes a pluralistic framework for agency. She is also a co-founder of Survived & Punished, a national organization that challenges the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and advocates for the abolition of carceral systems.

Charlene A. Carruthers, MSW

I have consistently moved between the worlds of movement building as a strategist and community organizer, and the academy as an intellectual and cultural worker. My work now is to focus on my intellectual and cultural work in order to deepen my study and craft as a historian and theorist. The communities I belong to within Black, gender and sexuality studies fortify me and give me the courage to keep going in what is absolutely a protracted struggle. We can tell our own stories, develop our collective leadership and continue to shape worldviews at the same time.

Charlene A. Carruthers is a political strategist, cultural worker and PhD student in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. A practitioner of telling more complete stories, her research includes Black feminist political economies, abolition of patriarchal and carceral systems, and the role of cultural work within the Black Radical Tradition.

Her work spans more than 15 years of community organizing across racial, gender and economic justice movements. She is the author of the book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.”

Dr. Nick Estes

When the humble shrug, the world shakes. This is the history of all freedom struggles. My research comes with the urgency of global environmental collapse. Now more than ever are Indigenous movements, and understanding the knowledge they create, essential for building a future premised on justice. It’s decolonization or extinction.

A citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Dr. Nick Estes is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is a historian, journalist, and host of The Red Nation Podcast. Estes also is a founding editor of Red Media Collective, which publishes books, podcasts, and stories highlighting Indigenous intelligence in all its forms. His writing and research engage decolonization, Indigenous histories, environmental justice, and anti-capitalism and have been featured in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Nation, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Jacobin, NBC News, and The Intercept. In 2019, Estes was awarded the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Non-Fiction.

Estes is the author of the book “Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.” He is a co-author of two books coming out in 2021 on police abolition and Indigenous environmental justice, and is currently working on a book on the history of Red Power.

Dr. Megan Ming Francis

My research and teaching focus on the structuring role of racial violence in United States politics. I am driven by the belief that if we tell full truths and confront who this country actually is - only then will it be possible to begin a process of repair.

Dr. Megan Ming Francis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, a Senior Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and a Fellow at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

Francis specializes in the study of American politics, with broad interests in criminal punishment, Black political activism, and racial justice philanthropy. She is the author of the award-winning book “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State.” Francis is currently working on a second book that examines the role of the criminal punishment system in the rebuilding of southern political and economic power after the Civil War. In addition, her research and commentary have been featured in numerous academic and public outlets, including a popular TED talk.

Dr. Darrick Hamilton

Throughout human history, and, in plain sight, racism, sexism and ‘other isms’ are strategically used to consolidate economic and political power for some, at the expense of others. As a scholar, I have a moral responsibility to contest empirically unsubstantiated rhetoric that situates inequality in ignorance, so-called grit, and personal responsibility of insinuated 'defective people,' and instead, to craft innovative, informed bold scholarly work that empowers people with necessary resources and structures for economic security, dignity, and 'authentic' agency.

Dr. Darrick Hamilton – a noted scholar, economist, and public intellectual – is the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, a university professor, and the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School. The Institute will confront the pressing issues of our time and develop pathways and policies that break down hierarchy and promote greater equity, inclusion, and civic participation.

Hamilton has recently been profiled in The New York Times, Mother Jones, and The Wall Street Journal. He has been involved in crafting policy proposals, such as Baby Bonds and a Federal Job Guarantee, which have served as inspirations for legislative proposals at federal, state and local levels; served on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force; was a presidential campaign surrogate for Bernie Sanders; and regularly advises many other government officials. California Representative Ro Khanna offers high praise, characterizing Hamilton as having a “profound impact on policymakers” and calling him an “intellectual giant of his time.”

Ramzi Kassem

My driving ambition is for scholarship that remains rooted in and true to the lived experience and transformative vision of the clients, communities, and movements that have worked with me. Unmoored from the accountability that accompanies a principled praxis, legal scholarship all too often serves and perpetuates prevailing power structures.

Ramzi Kassem is a Professor of Law at The City University of New York. His writing, teaching, and legal practice all aim to contest the expressions and excesses of the sprawling U.S. security state, both domestically and abroad. Kassem’s work with his students has resulted in groundbreaking civil rights litigation challenging state surveillance, and it has led to the liberation of clients incarcerated, often for years, at Guantánamo Bay, other overseas facilities, and federal and immigration prisons. He works within various movements, including Communities United for Police Reform and Movement for Black Lives.

In addition to academic writing, Kassem’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Guardian and elsewhere. Since 2009, Kassem has served as the founding director of the award-winning CLEAR project at CUNY School of Law. A proud immigrant and incorrigible New Yorker, Kassem’s full profile is here.

Dr. Erica Kohl-Arenas

It is my privilege to lift the urgent call of Imagining America, a fierce national network of artists and scholars dreaming up and enacting a more just and liberatory world. Simultaneously, my scholarship asks us to recognize how liberation movements navigate co-optation, and the everyday violence of bureaucracy and philanthropy.

Dr. Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis and the national director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. She is a scholar of grassroots community development and the radical imaginations and deferred dreams of social movements that become entangled with the politics of professionalization, institutionalization and philanthropy.

Kohl-Arenas is the author of the award-winning book “The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty” and is currently working on a book about intergenerational freedom fighters from the 1960s and today. She is the co-organizer of two action research projects, including one on transforming higher education to better support activist and public scholarship, and another on the reclamation of land and agriculture in building self-determined futures in rural Black Mississippi as an ally to the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production.

Dr. Barbara Ransby

As a historian who writes about radical Black women, I take inspiration from my subjects’ fierceness and fortitude. In this moment, I am excited to launch and lead The Portal Project, which will convene cutting edge scholars and front-line activists in conversations about how to change a world deeply in need of change.

Dr. Barbara Ransby is a widely acclaimed historian of the Black Freedom Movement, award-winning author, and longtime activist. She is the John D. MacArthur Chair and Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Black Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and director of the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. She also directs the Social Justice Initiative, which promotes connections between academics and community organizers working on social justice. A founding member of Scholars for Social Justice, she works closely with activists in the Movement for Black Lives and The Rising Majority. She is an elected fellow in the Society of American Historians, as well as a recipient of the Angela Y. Davis Prize for public scholarship from the American Studies Association.

Ransby is the author of multiple books, including the award-winning “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision,” “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson,” and Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Dr. Dylan Rodríguez

I am obligated to contribute my scholarly energy to the advancement of revolts, insurgencies, and abolitionist and liberation struggles that are continuously unfolding nearby and around the world. This is a time to cultivate radical collective genius, and I am committed to challenging all forms of reaction to this genius - including liberal reformism - that threaten to undermine its transformative potential.

Dr. Dylan Rodríguez is a Professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and President of the American Studies Association. He was previously Chair of the UCR Academic Senate, as well as Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies.

Rodríguez’s thinking, writing, teaching, and scholarly activism confront the historical regimes of anti-Black and racial-colonial violence that are normalized in everyday state, cultural, and social formations, including policing, incarceration, and domestic war. His work raises the question of how insurgent communities of people inhabit oppressive circumstances in ways that enable the collective genius of rebellion, survival, abolition, and radical futurity. Rodríguez is a founding member of the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance and co-founder of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association. His next book, “White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logics of Genocide,” will be published in the fall of 2020.

Dr. Ananya Roy

Learning from and accountable to movements and communities on the front lines of dispossession and displacement, I seek to unravel the relationship between property, personhood, and police, which is a key structuring logic of racial capitalism, and its life-long companion, liberalism.

Dr. Ananya Roy is a Professor of Urban Planning, Social Welfare, and Geography, The Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy and inaugural Director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Roy’s work has focused on urban transformations and land grabs, as well as global capital and predatory financialization, with a focus on poor people’s movements. She is the author of multiple books, including “Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development” and most recently “Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World.” With theoretical commitments to postcolonial critique, feminist thought, and critical race studies, her research and scholarship challenge the whiteness of canons of knowledge, forging theory and pedagogy attentive to historical difference.

Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

History is made by ordinary people but their role in this historical change is either hidden or distorted. I am most interested in making that history visible and usable. Scholarship at its best is accessible, digestible, and relevant and easily mobilized by those seeking to understand and change our current condition.

Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is a scholar of racism and inequality in U.S. housing policies. Taylor critiques public-private partnerships in public policymaking and the influence of market-based solutions in resolving trenchant social inequities. Taylor also studies radical politics and Black social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries. She is the author of three books, including the award-winning “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.” “Race for Profit” was a semifinalist for the National Book Award and a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker.

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