Urbana scholar awarded MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

Rebecca Sandefur, University sociologist and legal scholar, is one of the 25 people to received the $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship this year.

The Fellowship awards people with interests in a wide array of fields, including writers, teachers, entrepreneurs and similar fields, for their creativity and talent, according to the fellowship’s website. 

“When I learned that I had won a MacArthur, I was completely shocked. It’s just not something that you ever expect to happen. It is also a wonderful opportunity to bring new attention and new energy to respond to the crisis of access to civil justice in this country,” Sandefur said in an email.

Sandefur said she became a sociologist to work on problems of inequality to help understand these issues and take action to fix them for both intellectual and practical reasons.

“I find inequality intriguing — why is it there? Is it inevitable? Is it necessary?” she said. “Inequality in the United States is at one of the highest points in history. We know something about how we got here. Now we are thinking about how to get out of this mess; we are trying to figure out how to deal with the profound and vast inequalities in our society.”

Sandefur’s research focuses on the obstacles low-income people face when they have civil legal issues and shows that finance is just one of many factors they encounter.

Her research also shows many people are unable to recognize their problems as legal issues, leading them to attempt to solve their own problems.

“Probably the most promising development that can help people understand and use their rights are new kinds of programs in which people who are not lawyers provide assistance with different aspects of civil justice problems,” she said. “There is a lot that people who have some training, but are not fully qualified attorneys, can do.”

As a faculty member of the American Bar Foundation, Sandefur’s research also focuses on new technology and how it can help people get assistance and support from others when trying to solve complicated problems. Sandefur said the people who provide this assistance can be members of the communities they serve.

“Lawyers will always be necessary for some things, and technology will be part of the solution. But lots of us really want assistance and support from other people when we try to solve complicated problems in our lives,” she said.

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