By Connor Collins
When long-form journalist Sarah Stillman (ΦBK, Yale University, 2006) of The New Yorker received word of her selection as a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, news that fewer than a thousand people have received since 1981, she reacted as one might imagine: with astonishment, and ultimately, gratitude. Her reaction comes as no surprise given the ultra-selective and prestigious nature of the fellowship. Although it may be shocking to win the no-strings-attached award, also known as a “Genius Grant,” Stillman exemplifies the program’s mission. The MacArthur Fellows program recognizes “creative individuals who have demonstrated past accomplishments that suggest the potential to shape the future in significant, beneficial, and unexpected ways,” according to the Foundation’s 2012-2013 review. Her accomplishments include the 2012 National Magazine Award for Public Interest, the 2012 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism—both for her piece, “The Invisible Army“—the Molly National Journalism Prize, a George Polk Award, and others noted in her profile for The New Yorker.
Stillman uses long-form journalism to weave intimate personal narratives into a larger story, such as in her piece on civil asset forfeiture, “Taken,” while her background in anthropology bolsters her ability to navigate the complex intersections of individual behaviors and greater institutional forces. Stillman champions the virtues of truly listening to her subjects and diving into each story to shine a light on otherwise murky problems. “…The deeper collective forces at work in people’s otherwise isolated traumas, especially—is exciting to me, and a way of engaging deeply with the human side of public policy,” she wrote to me in an email. Although making sense of her often overlooked subjects and the hidden social forces that affect them can be a difficult process, bringing topics like civil asset forfeiture, debtors’ prisons, and the treatment of private military contractors into the public’s consciousness motivates Stillman to pursue her stories.
Stillman credits her mentors and the friendships she cultivated in her studies at Yale University and the University of Oxford, which she attended as a Marshall Scholar, for preparing her for a career in journalism. She also credits her background in anthropology. She explains how it contributes to her career in journalism: “I constantly draw upon the methodological approaches I acquired through the study of ethnography: how to dig deep, immerse across time, and pay attention to the granular minutia of people’s daily lives.”
The MacArthur Foundation recognized the power of Stillman’s work to craft intimate, yet far-reaching stories into an accessible package to raise awareness and prompt public discourse. The same creativity, ingenuity, and passion that Phi Beta Kappa recognized in Stillman during her undergraduate years at Yale University have developed as Stillman has produced socially and culturally resonant pieces like “The Invisible Army,” “Swat-Team Nation,” and “The Throwaways.” Her anthropology background, the connections she fostered at school and with the people whose stories she has told, and her dedication to informing the public not only exemplify the characteristics of a MacArthur Fellow but also those of Phi Beta Kappa, which promotes the value of a liberal arts and sciences education in preparation for a wide world of opportunity. As one of the youngest fellowship recipients of 2016, Sarah Stillman has plenty of time to pursue her passion for storytelling and to use long-form journalism as a mechanism for promoting public discussion and social change.
Connor Collins is a senior at Case Western Reserve University double majoring in political science and sociology. Case Western Reserve University is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.