Update, August 2020: In response to the unethical behavior of BethAnn McLaughlin in fabricating a Twitter account to falsely pose as a Native American scientist, the Media Lab no longer recognizes McLaughlin as a co-recipient of the 2018 Disobedience Award.
The MIT Media Lab’s 2018 Disobedience Award will be shared by three leaders of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movement. Tarana Burke, founder of the “Me Too” movement; BethAnn McLaughlin, who brought “Me Too” conversation to STEM institutions; and Sherry Marts, who helps academic and nonprofit organizations become more fair and inclusive, have all taken a stand against sexual assault and harassment, and against the marginalization of survivors. The three winners will share the award’s $250,000 cash prize. Four finalist prizes of $10,000 will also be awarded.
The Disobedience Award, now in its second year, was created to recognize individuals and groups who engage in ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience in service of society. The award is open to nominations for anyone still living and active in any field, including the arts, academia, law, politics, science, and social advocacy. A selection committee of 11 scientists, social justice experts, and thought leaders — including one of last year’s winners, Mona Hanna-Attisha — selected the winners and finalists from a global nomination pool. All five prizes were funded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
Tarana Burke launched the “Me Too” movement in 2006. In 2017, when the #MeToo hashtag went viral, the movement gained enormous momentum, becoming a galvanizing force not only in giving survivors the courage to speak out, but also in bringing abusers to justice and bringing conversations about gender equality, toxic masculinity, and abuse of authority to the forefront. Burke, McLaughlin, and Marts represent three vital components of the movement — giving voice and strength to survivors, calling on institutions to hold abusers accountable, and helping organizations to improve their values and methods. All three have shown tremendous courage in the face of threats, derision, and professional consequences from peers and authority figures.
“This year’s winners embody the highest ideals of what the Disobedience Award is intended to honor: speaking truth to power, empowering the voiceless, accepting personal responsibility and fallout without a view to personal gain,” says Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab and co-founder of the award. “The #MeToo movement represents a sea change in American culture, in our institutions, in every professional, academic, and political arena. These three women are on the front lines of this movement, and their refusal to back down or be silenced is what will continue propelling the movement forward in the face of every kind of opposition. We have to support that kind of heroism.”
While the selection committee unanimously agreed on #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM as the clear winners for the 2018 award, their choice of finalists speaks to other important themes of responsible disobedience and voices that deserve to be heard: aiding immigrants and refugees, fighting for teachers and other public employees, and standing up for science and environmental protection. The four finalist prizes will go to Katie Endicott; Sarah Mardini and Yusra Mardini; Tara Parrish; and Deborah Swackhamer.
“Ethical, nonviolent disobedience takes many forms, and it was important to the selection committee that we acknowledge some of the many extraordinary people who were nominated this year,” says Ito. “This year’s finalists demonstrated both individual acts of courage, and organized leadership. What they have in common is a commitment to their values and a resistance to powerful authorities who have tried to stop or silence them.”
A civil rights activist who was the original founder of the "Me Too" Movement, which she started in 2006, Tarana Burke has dedicated her life to advocating for those who have experienced sexual trauma or harassment. In particular, Burke focuses on helping survivors who are women of color and from low-wealth communities — people who are frequently ignored or marginalized, even within the #MeToo movement. Burke has been honored as one of The Silence Breakers who were named TIME's 2017 Person of the Year, and named to TIME's "100 Most Influential People of 2018."
A neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, BethAnn McLaughlin is a leader in what’s become known as #MeTooSTEM. Risking her lab’s funding and her professional reputation, McLaughlin began calling on the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to instate consequences for members found guilty of sexual assault or misconduct. She has organized petitions online calling for both institutions to revoke memberships of guilty parties — an act of vocal advocacy that has earned her threats and derision from academic peers. She also organized thousands of scientists and science advocates in calling for National Institutes of Health to stop funding individuals guilty of sexual assault and misconduct, which was particularly risky because her research is funded by the NIH. In addition, she founded a nonprofit to advocate for victims and a site to tell their stories. McLaughlin also launched a successful social media campaign to get the website RateMyProfessors.com to drop its red chili pepper professor “hotness” rating.
Sherry Marts experienced extensive harassment while in graduate school at Duke University. She finished her doctoral degree, but calling out her harasser may have affected her ability to succeed in academia. She is now a consultant with a particular focus on making academic and nonprofit organizations more fair and welcoming, including helping the American Geophysical Union to overhaul its code of conduct.
A high school English teacher in Mingo County, West Virginia, and member of the West Virginia Education Association, Katie Endicott was one of the lead organizers and representatives during the West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018, which ultimately resulted in a 5 percent pay increase for teachers and other state employees.
As competitive swimmers, sisters Sarah Mardini and Yusra Mardini were uniquely qualified to help when their boat foundered on the journey to Europe in 2015. They got in the water and helped pull the rubber dinghy toward shore, bringing their fellow refugees to safety. When they reached Greece, the sisters decided to work to help other refugees. Yusra Mardini was selected for the first-ever refugee Olympic team, competed in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, and became a “goodwill ambassador” for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Sarah Mardini is currently detained in a Greek prison on charges related to efforts to rescue refugees, including espionage, violation of state secrecy laws, and criminal enterprise.
Tara Parrish is the director and lead organizer of the Pioneer Valley Project, which created the Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition. Springfield’s South Congregational Church offered sanctuary to Peruvian immigrant Gisella Collazo and her two children for over two months while she fought for a stay of deportation. The mayor publicly opposed the sanctuary, threatening to strip South Congregational of its tax-exempt status and sending inspectors and fire marshals to try to find reasons to shut it down. Parrish led the effort to mobilize the community to support Collazo and work with the city council to oppose the mayor. The council ultimately passed a resolution to ban city officials from interfering with the church, preventing the mayor or other political bodies from shutting down the sanctuary.
An environmental chemist who formerly led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors, Deborah Swackhamer was pressured by the EPA during a congressional hearing in 2017 to change her testimony in a way that would downplay the Trump administration’s decision not to reappoint half of the board’s executive committee members. Later that year, she was dismissed as the chair of the board.
Winners and finalists will be honored in person at the Media Lab’s Disobedience event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Nov. 30, where they will also speak. Media Lab Director Joi Ito and Reid Hoffman will present the awards. Ethan Zuckerman, head of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, will open the event, followed by a keynote from journalist Mona Eltahawy, entitled “Feminism in 3-D: Disobedience, defiance, and disruption.” Panels with the winners and finalists will be moderated by thought leaders Jamira Burley, Martha Minow, Lauren Duca, Kelsey Skaggs, and Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston. The event is invitation-only, but will be livestreamed to the public. For a full agenda and link to the livestream, please visit disobedience.media.mit.edu.