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Announcing the winners of the Media Lab Disobedience Award

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MIT Media Lab

MIT Media Lab

by Joi Ito and Ethan Zuckerman

One year ago, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, encouraged us to explore the idea of a Disobedience Award, providing $250,000 to fund a prize for responsible, ethical disobedience.

We called for nominations in March, not knowing what to expect, but hopeful for a few hundred candidates. Within six weeks, we had passed the 7,800+ mark, with candidates from six continents. The sheer volume wasn’t the only challenge. We needed to define responsible and ethical disobedience, and to select a winner for whom the award would be both an appropriate recognition of their work and fuel for increasing impact.

As the submissions came in, we recruited a team of 10 judges to join the two of us—Farai Chideya, George Church, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Jesse Dylan, Jerome Friedman, Marshall Ganz, Andrew “bunnie” Huang, Alaa Murabit, Jamila Raqib, and Maria Zuber—with expertise in the fields where we expected the most nominees: activism, journalism, science, and the arts. Our fellow committee members are distinguished, smart, and very busy people, unlikely to have time to read 7,800 submissions, so we whittled down the duplicates and identified the strongest candidates. At our first meeting, we had 220 finalists to evaluate.

Ultimately, the two winners we selected for this year’s Disobedience Award are people whose work reflects the hopes that led to the prize in the first place: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Professor Marc Edwards. Both are scientists who became activists, using rigorous research to investigate the concerns of citizens in Flint, Michigan to unravel a mystery that many in positions of power would have preferred to keep under wraps. Both faced harassment and ridicule for their work and risked academic sanctions for defying conventions of peer review as they sought to bring attention to Flint's water crisis before more people were affected. Their work shows that science and scholarship are as powerful tools for social change as art and protest, and it challenges those of us in academia to use our powers for good.

At the start of the selection process, we didn’t intend to offer honorable mentions, but the strength of our candidates compelled us to distinguish several. Reid generously offered to fund an additional $10,000 for each of the following: Professor James Hansen, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, and the founders of Freedom University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jim Hansen is widely recognized as a pioneer of climate change research. At NASA, he faced substantial pushback as he made bold, data-backed predictions in climate science. His work from within a powerful institution defended what is right in defiance of pressure. For this, the committee decided it was important to honor his many contributions.

The Water Protectors of Standing Rock brought together the largest gathering of Native Tribes in more than a century to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Members of the movement like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Phyllis Young, Jasilyn Charger, and Joseph White Eyes held a prayer vigil in defiance, drawing an historic gathering of tribes, allies, and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity.

Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes on Sundays, was founded by Professors Betina Kaplan, Lorgia García Peña, Pamela Voekel, and Bethany Moreton at the University of Georgia. They were outraged that undocumented students had to pay out-of-state tuition to attend state schools. Students in the program have gone on to universities in other states where laws are more flexible and just.

Many of the nominations were expected, and came in by the dozens or even hundreds. Other nominees we strongly considered were put forth by just one or two people. All received due deliberation. These include Rafael Marques de Morais, the Angolan journalist who risks his life to shed light on closed societies around the globe; Omar Barghouti of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) nonviolent movement to end Israeli occupation of Palestine; and Alexandra Elbakyan, the Kazakhstani graduate student who has deeply challenged the scholarly publishing industry by using academic credentials to "unlock" millions of copyrighted research papers.

And finally, a note about Aaron Swartz, about whom we received many questions. We both knew Aaron, and hosted a memorial at the Media Lab for him shortly after his death. While an award in Aaron's memory would have been a fitting recognition of Aaron's principled and disobedient activism, we felt it was important that the award go to a recipient who could leverage both the award and its visibility to advance the issues they work on. While we chose not to award him posthumously, we can report that Aaron was very much on our minds as we chose honorees.

With this first Disobedience Award, the selection committee realizes that we must refine our process, but we are proud of the results. Our deliberations sparked deep conversations and—at times—disagreement on how best to organize and award such a public prize. But seldom are we given the opportunity at this scale to witness and congratulate such selflessness and dedication. It was a hopeful experience. We look forward to next year.

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