Two CUNY alumnae – one also a Hunter playwriting master artist in residence – won coveted “genius” fellowships from the James D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The $625,000 unrestricted fellowships are payable quarterly over five years.
The 22nd and 23rd MacArthur grants won by CUNY alumni go to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker (Brooklyn College MFA), who is co-associate director of Hunter College’s Rita and Burton Goldberg MFA Playwriting Program, and Cristina Jiménez Moreta (Queens College B.A., Baruch College MPA), co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, the country’s largest youth-led immigrant organization.
“These two MacArthur Fellowships highlight our extraordinary students and faculty,” said Chancellor James B. Milliken. “Cristina Jiménez Moreta has been a dynamic advocate for the rights of Dreamers since her undergraduate days and now helps shape the national conversation about immigrants. Playwright Annie Baker not only writes riveting theater, but also helps train the next generation of playwrights. CUNY is proud of them both.”
CUNY has more “genius” alumni than any other public university in the country except the University of California, Berkeley. In 2015, the MacArthur Foundation released data showing that between 1981 and 2014, CUNY ranked eighth in the nation’s top public and private universities and colleges in the number of undergraduate alumni who have gone on to win genius grants. CUNY was tied with Brown University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan, which also had 14 undergraduate winners each. At the time, CUNY also had six alumni who had received graduate degrees.
Hunter College President Jennifer Raab noted that now both college’s playwrights in residence have genius awards. Last year, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won the honor.
The MacArthur Foundation awarded 24 MacArthur fellowships this year. Its website explains that the grants go 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 creative activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.” People cannot apply for fellowships, which are awarded by an anonymous committee from names from any field that are suggested by hundreds of nominators around the country.
The foundation calls immigration reform and social justice activist Cristina Jiménez Moreta, who earned her B.A. at Queens College in 2007 and her MPA at Baruch College in 2011, “a powerful force in the immigrant rights movement.”
Jiménez came to the United States from Ecuador as an undocumented immigrant at age 13. As a co-founder and executive director of United We Dream (UWD), a Washington-based advocacy organization, the foundation said her “leadership acumen and strategic vision” have “shifted public perceptions of undocumented youth and focused attention on policy issues that affect them.” The Washington Post says she “helped put the cause of young undocumented immigrants on the national radar.”
The foundation cited her strategic work to advance DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) after the failure of the Dream Act in 2010. She also co-founded the New York State Youth Leadership Council and the Dream Mentorship Program at Queens College, was an immigration policy analyst for the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and worked as an immigrant rights organizer at Make the Road New York.
Jimenez said she was “deeply honored and humbled” by the MacArthur recognition and saw it as “an opportunity to raise consciousness about immigrant communities” and the impact of the Trump administration’s termination of DACA on families.
“When I got the call, I could only think of my parents and their sacrifice and how they risked everything,” said Jimenez. “It is a celebration of their strength and their resilience, and the experience of immigrants who have defied all odds to come here and make this country their home, and support their families.”
“This is an opportunity for the country to see me, my brother, my parents, to see our humanity,” Jimenez said. “It is at a very critical time when the Trump administration is going after immigrants, and has targeted DACA,” putting “almost a million people at risk of deportation, one of them my brother. … It is urgent for Congress to take action and pass legislation, the Dream Act, to protect young people from deportation.”
Her brother, a student at Queens College, currently has DACA protection, she said. Jimenez has a green card and is a permanent U.S. resident, and her parents are undocumented.
She said she was “very grateful” for the support of the CUNY community, at Queens College and later at Baruch. “My professors played such a critical role in supporting me when I shared my story with them that I was undocumented. They were really supportive, not only of my experience but also encouraging me to take leadership on campus … through different roles, whether through the political science club or Model UN or student government.”
The encouragement, Jimenez said, “really shaped my analysis as a student but also my hope that regardless of my immigrant status and the immigrant status of my family, that I could create action to make change.”
For Baker, “the award means I can now focus on what matters to me: my playwriting, mentoring young writers, and continually educating myself about the world around me. I want to take bigger artistic risks and audit lots of Hunter classes!”
She co-directs the Rita and Burton Goldberg MFA in Playwriting, an affordable, selective two-year program that fuses rigorous academic theater classes with intensive, hands-on writing workshops. A team of master artists in residence work with a small cohort of students who develop their voice, vision and craft under the personal mentorship of these accomplished writers.
Baker, 36, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for “The Flick” just a week after she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Arts Drama & Performance Art. “The Flick” (Playwrights Horizons/Barrow Street Theatre), which draws from the disorientation Baker experienced from watching a digital projection of an Ingmar Bergman movie, that year also garnered the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, an Obie for Excellence in Playwriting and Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominations for Best Play.
Annie Baker’s plays also include “John” (Signature Theatre, Obie Award, Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominations for Best Play), “Circle Mirror Transformation” (Playwrights Horizons, Obie Award for Best New American Play, Drama Desk nomination for Best Play), “The Aliens” (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Obie Award for Best New American Play), “Body Awareness” (Atlantic Theater Company, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Best Play/Emerging Playwright), and an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” (Soho Rep, Drama Desk nomination for Best Revival), for which she also designed the costumes.
Baker is part of the Signature Theatre’s “Residency Five” program, which “guarantees each playwright three world-premiere productions of new plays over the course of a five-year residency.” Her first play under the program was “John” (2015); her second was “The Antipodes” (2017). “The Antipodes” was billed as “a play about people telling stories about telling stories.” Critic Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times: “Ms. Baker hears the roar of eternity in the babble of our existence, and the futile heroism in our unending attempts to tell tales that might make sense of it all.”
During a New York Public Library 2015-2016 Cullman Center Fellowship, she continued to develop “The Last of the Little Hours,” which the Sundance Institute’s 2014 Theatre Lab in Utah chose for development, leading to a performance that she directed. It follows the daily life of a group of Benedictine monks.
Baker also received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in creative arts drama and performance art. She was a MacDowell Colony Fellow in both 2009 and 2014. In 2013, she received the Steinberg Playwright Award, which included a $50,000 prize. In 2011, she was named a Fellow of United States Artists.
Her plays have been produced at more than 200 theaters throughout the United States and in over a dozen countries, including productions at the National Theatre and Royal Court in London and the Moscow Art Theatre in Moscow.
The City University of New York is the nation’s leading urban public university. Founded in 1847, the University comprises 24 institutions: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, the William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, the CUNY Graduate School Center, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, the CUNY School of Law, the CUNY School of Professional Studies and the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The University serves more than 272,000 degree-seeking students. College Now, the University’s academic enrichment program, is offered at CUNY campuses and more than 400 high schools throughout the five boroughs. The University offers online baccalaureate and master’s degrees through the CUNY School of Professional Studies.