An Update on the First Disobedience Award

In April 2015, a mother in Flint, Michigan concerned about the city’s seemingly tainted water supply contacted Marc Edwards, an engineering professor who had previously helped expose a similar issue in Washington DC.

While the initial tests Edwards made on samples the woman provided revealed high levels of lead in Flint’s water, local officials and the EPA ignored his efforts to draw attention to this fact. But Edwards continued to investigate the issue, heading up a team of volunteer researchers and self-funding more research to help show how government officials were covering up the issue.

Later that year, a Flint, Michigan pediatrician named Dr. Mona Hanna-Attishatested lead levels in local children. In September 2015, she took the bold step of publicly releasing her findings before they’d been peer-reviewed – in order to accelerate the process of holding local officials accountable.

Thanks to the efforts of these two individuals, the Flint water crisis eventually received national attention – along with an admission from government officials that the crisis was real.

In July 2017, the pair were honored with the MIT Media Lab’s inaugural Disobedience Award, which was presented during the course of the Media Lab’s Defiance event.

As the funder of the $250,000 prize, I was on-hand to honor Mr. Edwards and Dr. Hanna-Attisha and thank them for their commitment to truth and justice in the face of official attempts to hide the problem.

When MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, my friend and long-time collaborator on a number of different projects, first raised the idea of a prize for disobedience, I was immediately intrigued. I’ve always appreciated prizes and the cultural leverage they create. They’re an extremely effective way to shine light on the values we aspire to as a society, and on individuals who are putting those values into practice.

Joi’s idea of honoring acts of principled and non-violent disobedience seemed both unique and highly useful. Throughout history, human progress often comes from speaking truth to power, in acts of defiance against entrenched interests and the status quo.

That’s why it’s so important to reinforce the idea that principled and non-violent disobedience is a core value that every healthy democracy should nurture and celebrate.

I also liked that a prize for disobedience could apply to both a wide range of domains and a wide range of tactics. Potential recipients included scientists, activists, artists, entrepreneurs, legislators, and others. A prizewinning action might take the form of an individual defying an established institutional protocol, or thousands of people marching in the streets, or something else entirely.

Still, as excited as I was about Joi’s idea, there were also plenty of questions.

Was it impractical to try to formally recognize something as mutable and undefined as disobedience? Would attempts to identify worthy recipients get mired in arguments about what qualifies as principled or not? Would our core message of recognizing the positive social impact of civil and non-violent disobedience be twisted or sensationalized?

Instead of trying to error-proof the Disobedience Award in advance, we decided we would simply experiment. I’d provide the funding for an initial award. In conjunction with the MIT Media Lab, Joi would recruit a panel of multi-disciplinary judges to assess candidates. Eventually, a call for submissions would go out. And then we’d see what happened.

As soon as we publicized the call for submissions, entries started pouring in. Eventually, more than 7800 were submitted, from six continents. As the prize’s funder, I didn’t participate in choosing members of the selection committee, or in the committee’s work of assessing entries. Because of the quality of entries that were arriving, Joi floated the idea of awarding smaller prizes to a limited number of finalists along with the overall winner. I agreed to fund those as well.

The selection committee included Joi; director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, Ethan Zuckerman; reporter and analyst Farai Chideya; Harvard University chemist and geneticist, George Church; scholar, activist, and associate professor of Civic Media at MIT, Sasha Costanza-Chock; filmmaker Jesse Dylan; Stanford University statistics professor Jerome Friedman; senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, Marshall Ganz; hacker, author, and researcher, Andrew “bunnie” Huang; physician and international peace activist, Alaa Murabit; Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution, which promotes strategic non-violent action, Jamila Raqib; and geophysics professor and Vice President for Research at MIT, Maria Zuber.

This multidisciplinary and highly accomplished judging panel put many hours into reviewing submissions and ended up identifying an inspiring range of individuals and groups advocating for positive, principled change.

Along with our inaugural winners, Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the MIT Media Lab awarded three $10,000 honorable mention prizes to the following individuals and groups:

  • James Hansen, a climate science professor at Columbia University, who made early, data-driven predictions about climate change while working at NASA and publicly pushed back against the agency’s efforts to monitor and shape his public disclosures.
  • The Water Protectors of Standing Rock, who led the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 
  • The founders of Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes to undocumented Georgia residents who would otherwise have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend state schools there.

Having all these people on stage at the same event confirmed what we’d hypothesized about the Disobedience Award. It is a powerful and flexible point of leverage that can shine light on a wide range of worthy causes and principled actions.

Amongst our winners and finalists, we had people who had risked their careers and livelihoods for their beliefs. We had people who had put themselves in professional and even physical jeopardy, who’d been ridiculed and harassed and arrested.

These are the dangers that anyone who sets out to challenge entrenched interests with unwelcome truths inevitably faces. And yet as our winners and finalists attest, the dangers that attend dissent are never enough to dissuade those who truly have the courage of their convictions.

Such individuals know that standing up for what is right outweighs the sacrifices and penalties such actions may trigger. And we, as a society, are incredibly fortunate we have people like Marc Edwards, Mona Hanna-Attisha, James Hansen, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, and the founders of Freedom University Georgia working on our behalf. Their courage, their passion, and their commitment to truth sets a standard we should all aspire to emulate.

It was my great privilege to participate in honoring them. Inspired by their efforts, we have decided to make the Disobedience Award an annual event.

Information about the 2018 nomination process will be available soon. To receive this information as soon as it becomes available, you can sign up here.