MacArthur Genius Professor Dawdy and Her Plans for New Orleans

Shannon Lee gives Fast Company the scoop on where the $500,000 will go.

Shannon Lee Dawdy


University of Chicago Anthropology professor Shannon Lee Dawdy‘s portfolio is part Pirates of the Caribbean, part voodoo how-to. She spends her days researching and restoring buildings such as 18th century churches from the French colonial era, and she talks to New Orleans residents about topics as diverse as food, urban planning, archaeology, history, and religion. With writing that typically focuses on educational institutions and field work that bleeds into community involvement, her work is a reminder that innovation and academia can overlap.

She stands out for her hybrid academic-advocacy role (whether she likes it or not). “I
don’t think of myself as an advocate,” she says. “Perhaps it’s just
that I’m not shy about sharing my opinions, and I have a strong
pragmatic streak that makes me want to see a portion of my research
result in something useful.”

Her efforts just got a boost. She’s been named one of the latest winners of a MacArthur Genius grant–she’ll have $500,000 to spend over the next five years.


“I have several ideas, from the mundane (fix the hole in my bathroom wall) to the crazy (start up Black Mountain College II in New Orleans, with an emphasis on art, history, and sustainability–though maybe we’d call it Back Swamp College),” Dawdy tells Fast Company.

“The biggest opportunity would be not to innovate within my
field of archaeology per se, but to use archaeology’s long term
perspective and information base to come up with creative models for
sustainability, from how we build houses and design our cities to how
we get and share our food,” she says. “There are radical possibilities embedded in
the past that can help us imagine a post-consumer society.”

If she can find partners to match the MacArthur funds, though, she says, she has two specific projects in mind. “The first is a community research and vernacular preservation project at Holt Cemetery in New Orleans; the second is to seed an international initiative to look at the long term political ecology of the Gulf of Mexico, working with colleagues in Louisiana, Cuba, and Mexico, a project long on my ‘to do’ list, but made more urgent by the BP oil spill.”


Dawdy isn’t the only New Orleans-focused Genius grant winner. David Simon, creator of The Wire and the New Orleans-based HBO series, Treme, is expected to focus his funds there, too. He’s also focused on restoration, but of music culture.


“I’ve never met David Simon though we have a mutual friend who works on the show. I’m afraid I don’t even have a working television, so I’ve never seen Tremé. I wouldn’t be averse to entertaining a collaboration if it were to have a real benefit for the community–so long as I don’t end up as a character in the script,” Dawdy says.

[Photos courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation]

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.