This post was updated Oct. 3 at 12:27 a.m.
Kelly Lytle Hernández, a UCLA professor of history and African American studies, was announced in September as one of 26 winners of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
Lytle Hernández was one of two historians to win the award internationally.
“The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” the foundation’s website stated.
Lytle Hernández has published two national-award winning books on the history of the U.S. border patrol and mass incarceration in Los Angeles. She currently directs the Million Dollar Hoods project at UCLA, a database for tracking the money spent by authorities in LA County to incarcerate residents in specific neighborhoods between 2010 and 2015.
Carla Pestana, chair of the UCLA history department, said that while the award is in league with the Nobel Prize in terms of prestige, it also comes with an expectation of future accomplishment.
“She has to make some decisions about what this is going to mean … it comes with a certain amount of money and opportunities to do other things,” Pestana said. “So she’s deciding a lot right now about what programs she’s got underway that she’s going to support further with this.”
Lytle Hernández said although the award is generally understood as an indication of academic prestige, she prefers to look at it as a reflection of the opportunities she was given.
“I want to make sure this moment is not seen as one of rarified intellectual excellence, but rather one of opportunities that were made available and taken advantage of,” Lytle Hernández said.
Lytle Hernández was born in San Diego, where she grew up during what she described as a war on drugs and a war on immigrants in the United States.
“It was those experiences, of watching immigrants, friends, neighbors, being disappeared through deportation and … mass incarceration that really pushed me to try to understand why this was happening to us, and why it seemed OK with everyone around us,” Lytle Hernández said.
When Lytle Hernández was a senior in high school, her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, which prevented Lytle Hernández from leaving home to go to college. She received her bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies at UC San Diego, and later taught in South Africa at a school outside of Johannesburg.
When she returned to the U.S., Lytle Hernández applied to several different kinds of graduate programs. When she applied to UCLA’s history program, she had never taken a history class, and was admitted as an unfunded student, Lytle Hernández said.
“That means that … you are good enough to get in, but not at the top of the list. As an unfunded student, I had to hustle constantly, to come up with funding so I could pay for my education,” Lytle Hernández said. “You don’t always have to be at the top of your class to do well.”
Lytle Hernández spent four years earning her doctorate, moving through the program like a hot knife through butter, she said.
“I just had this passion in my belly that was driving me to want to write this history of the border patrol, so it wasn’t just an academic enterprise. I really wanted to understand why this was happening,” Lytle Hernández said. “I had a couple openings to get into the records, and I just dove in.”
Lytle Hernández was admitted to UCLA’s faculty shortly after participating in the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. The program “was established in 1984 to encourage outstanding women and minority Ph.D. recipients to pursue academic careers at the University of California,” according to their website.
She received tenure in 2010, the same year she published her first book, which stemmed from her dissertation on racial profiling and the history of the U.S. Border Patrol. The MacArthur Foundation called it “the first significant academic history of the enforcement organization.”
In 2016, Lytle Hernández cofounded MDH, which has identified 31 neighborhoods in which the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had spent at least $6 million incarcerating residents between 2010 and 2015.
Lytle Hernández has prioritized bringing students into the project, said Toby Higbie, faculty chair of the UCLA labor studies department.
“She’s really … giving them the tools to analyze data in a critical way, which of course is important today because data is all around us,” Higbie said. “If you don’t know how to at least look at it and work with it a little bit, you’re really behind the times.”
MDH’s website now releases rapid response research reports, which summarize emerging trends in local policing, including the disproportionate effects of bail on predominantly African American and Latina/Latino communities.
“She’s got a good sense of social justice issues, the implications of the things she’s studying, and what they really mean for people, instead of thinking about it in abstract terms, and issuing a report, and then thinking, … ‘Someone else will figure out how the community can make it work,’” Pestana said.
Lytle Hernández, along with other research team members of MDH, regularly campaigns for incarceration reform.
“She goes and she testifies in the legislature, and she’s down at city hall with her students to speak to different groups,” Pestana said. “A lot of (academia) is just ‘writes books,’ but she makes it relevant in the media moment as well.”
Lytle Hernández said she feels indebted to the people who forged key opportunities, such as her postdoctoral fellowship, for her own success.
“We do well in life not because we are excellent, but because people make it possible for us, they create opportunities. That there are shoulders that we stand upon, that there are structures and systems that have been created to make an individual success possible,” Lytle Hernández said.