On Nov. 30, the MIT Media Lab hosted its second annual Disobedience Award presentation. It was a celebration of individuals who defied the law in conscientious efforts to promote justice in the areas of gender equity, immigration rights, economic fairness and environmental well-being. There were three winners, five finalists and two honorable mentions — every one of them was a woman.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT Center for Civic Media, opened the presentation by highlighting the importance of civil disobedience: When we dare to follow our conscience and face our opponent, we make our humanity known. “It’s harder to look someone in the eye and deny their humanity,” he claimed. “One voice helps others speak out.” Zuckerman painted civil disobedience as honorable, moral and necessary.
Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy took the stage and immediately ramped up the energy. “Fuck the patriarchy,” she said, not as an accusation, but as a call to action. She spoke about “Feminism in 3D: disobedience, defiance and disruption.” Without letting the patriarchy know we are willing to take risks, she stated, the establishment won’t take us seriously. Eltahawy has a long history of defying and disrupting patriarchal, racist structures.
While covering the protests in Tahrir Square, she was arrested and treated brutally by law enforcement, who broke both her arms and sexually assaulted her. Only a year later, she was arrested for tagging an Islamophobic New York City subway ad. Eltahawy stirred the audience by telling stories of several courageous women who risked jail, torture, and their lives to fight for freedom and human rights. One story was about the Argentine women of the “Not One More” movement who stated: “We will not be burnt this time because the fire is ours.” This powerful protest inspired the beautiful piece of art presented to the winners: a glass globe housing a smoke-like flame.
Entrepreneur and event sponsor Reid Hoffman and MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito introduced the three winners, who shared the $250,000 cash prize. First to speak was Tarana Burke, original founder of the Me Too movement. Humble and down to earth, Burke thanked everyone who helped make the movement strong, including those who found the courage to tell their Me Too stories. While the media may portray the movement as a comment on gender or race, she said that “bottom line, it’s about helping survivors of sexual assault and harassment get the resources they need.” If we want to promote Me Too, Burke suggests, we should speak to that truth.
Burke’s work highlights the role that intersectionality plays in civil disobedience. “It’s not lost on me that I’m the only woman of color being awarded today,” she said matter-of-factly, with no trace of anger or malice. Although she founded the movement in 2006, it wasn’t until a white woman told her story about the sexual predation of Harvey Weinstein that Me Too went viral. The fact that Burke worked for over 10 years in relative anonymity reminds us that feminism receives media attention only when white women speak out against injustices done against them.
Winner BethAnn McLaughlin is the leader of what has come to be known as the MeTooSTEM movement. She put her career and her funding at risk by calling on such organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS — which funds her research — to hold sexual predators accountable. As one of the few women in STEM on college campuses, McLaughlin’s droll tone and delivery on stage showed how she puts “mansplaining” and misogyny deftly in its place: “If I had half the confidence of a mediocre white man,” she quipped. Refusing to be silenced or ignored, she exposes sexual predators on social media via online petitions and Twitter posts to put pressure on the NAS and other institutions to expel all individuals found guilty of sexual misconduct. Although her work has earned her harsh criticism and threats from her colleagues, she persists.
As a doctoral student at Duke University, the third winner, Sherry Marts, risked her academic career by calling out her harasser on campus. Her recounting of how young women are too often treated by prestigious professors was chilling. It felt as if she was giving a step-by-step narrative of my own experiences. To paraphrase: “First the professor compliments you on your work, tells you he’d like to hear more about it, then says he may have an opening in his lab. He then gets you to move to a more isolated spot where it’s quieter. Then he leads you to a place in the corner where he puts his hand on your shoulder, your thigh or wherever.”
Although Marts finished her degree and earned her doctorate, she was not welcomed in academia after calling out her harasser. She left to become a consultant, helping organizations develop policies and practices that incorporate genuine inclusion. Her experience as a student not only resonated with many women in the audience, it was highlighted by the three women at the event who were given honorable mention: those who spoke out against recent sexual harassment at Dartmouth.
Finalist Katie Endicott helped lead the West Virginia teachers’ strike. She shared the stage with other finalists, Tara Parish and Deborah Swackhamer. Endicott energized the room with articulate passion about the necessity for movements to be organized, networked and unified, a lesson today’s resistance could benefit from greatly. Parish, who pioneered new, innovative legislation in Massachusetts on immigrant rights, showed calm strength and resolve as she spoke about opposing the Springfield mayor by ensuring the safety of refugees seeking sanctuary at the Springfield South Congregational Church. Swackhamer is the former head of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. She refused to succumb to the EPA’s pressure to change her testimony before Congress by downplaying the Trump administration’s failure to reappoint the majority of the board’s executive committee. “Scientists need to stop hiding behind their papers,” she said. They need to take a stand because the government is politicizing climate change.
Sarah Mardini addressed the audience via a recorded video message. She and her sister Yusra, the fourth and fifth finalists, helped refugees get safely from their boats onto the shores of Greece, an act which landed Yusra in prison on charges of criminal enterprise and espionage. Sasra and Yusra, a member of the first-ever refugee Olympic swim team, thought of nothing but saving the lives of people who may otherwise have drowned.
Last up were climate activists Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, who are known as “valve turners” for an action in which they temporarily shut down two oil pipelines in Minnesota in 2016. They were joined by their attorney, Kelsey Skaggs. “We don’t have time for the long game,” Klapstein stated. “If you look like me — white, older, middle-classed — then get out there and start taking risks.” Klapstein and Johnston recognized their privilege as white women in how they were treated by law enforcement and by the fact that they were acquitted. Those who enjoy some level of privilege, they urged, need to be on the front lines of the environmental movement, a position that more marginalized people cannot take without putting their safety and lives into jeopardy.
This year’s Disobedience Award presentation not only celebrated the power and courage of women, it also recognized the responsibility of those who enjoy some degree of intersectional privilege to step up and be willing to take risks. More specifically, as Jamila Raqib from the Albert Einstein Institution noted, the event honors those who unselfishly and bravely highlight the essential role that civil disobedience plays. Simply put, civil disobedience can leverage sufficient power to disrupt harmful and oppressive structures and create space for positive, systemic change.