Being listed among 2022’s most influential Black Americans alongside icons such as Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Questlove puts Drew Lanham in some lofty company indeed.
But as the only member of this year’s The Root 100 who works in life sciences — as well as the only ornithologist on the list and one of only four in STEM fields, period — Lanham, in some ways, is in a class of his own.
The Clemson University Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology came in at No. 99 on this year’s list by the online publication and newsletter, The Root, which bills itself as “Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude.”
For his part, Lanham said the recognition came as a complete surprise.
“In past years, I’ve seen the list and noted who was on it, with never any sort of inkling that it could happen to me,” Lanham said. “It’s not something that you can lobby for or apply for, from my knowledge, and I found it quite by accident. Someone had tweeted a congratulatory note — and I’m not on Twitter a whole lot — and I looked and there it was.”
While he was the penultimate name on the list, Lanham said simply having his name mentioned in the same breath as some of the nation’s foremost Black leaders and influencers was enough for him — jokingly comparing it to being “Mr. Irrelevant,” the dubious title given to the final player selected in the final round of the National Football League Draft each year.
“It was shock and surprise and also a great deal of pride,” Lanham said. “It’s almost like being Mr. Irrelevant, being 99 out of 100, but I would’ve happily been 100 just to be on the same list with people like Michelle Obama and athletes like Steph Curry and so many others. It just gives me immense pride to be recognized as having some influence in my community.”
The Root 100, now in its 13th year, is its annual listing of the most influential Black Americans, ages 24 to 74. And the list is not just a popularity contest, as the publication explains its methodology for the rankings from the onset.
“By using a unique algorithm, we calculate each honorees’ REACH — the people they touch through media along with Twitter, Instagram and TikTok followers — and their SUBSTANCE — the impact of their work, graded on a scale of 0 to 10 — to discern their INFLUENCE, which determines their ranking,” the website says.
As part of its list, The Root summed up Lanham’s influence neatly: “Andre 3000 once rapped that certain words, including ‘genius,’ get thrown around too lightly. But when you’re a legit McArthur Foundation Fellow, i.e., a recipient of the org’s $800,000 ‘genius grant,’ the description is well-earned. The Clemson University wildlife biologist has one of those, awarded for his work as an author focused on naturalism and conservation. Specifically, Lanham is considered a pioneer for addressing how those topics impact Black people and communities, who generally aren’t considered a group that’s heavily invested in naturalism but who also face grim consequences of climate change and ecological instability.”
As noted, in October, Lanham was announced by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one of its 2022 MacArthur Fellows, which have come to be known by their own descriptive title: “genius grants.”
The Black community, and his own identity as a Black man, has constantly been at the forefront of Lanham’s efforts to translate conservation science to make it relevant to others in ways that are evocative and understandable, as well as to explore how culture and ethnic prisms can bend perceptions of nature and its care.
Lanham is a widely published author and award-nominated poet, writing about his experiences as a birder, hunter and wild, wandering soul. His first solo work, “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” was published in 2016-17.
“When Clemson, my academic home, recognizes me, it means a great deal. When my community recognizes me, it’s like home folks recognizing you, too, so it means a great deal,” Lanham said. “To make the numbers somehow, through all the assessments and formulations, as it were, to determine how one becomes one of that 100, it’s great validation that the hard work is paying off. I want to continue to earn that number, so to speak — it’s validation, but it’s also inspiration.”
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