A "Disobedience Award" Gets Huge Response in Tumultuous Times

photo:   imagedb.com /shutterstock

photo:  imagedb.com/shutterstock

When the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award started to pick up some attention, a lot of people were asking its creators a question, one that I find myself asking funders a lot lately: So is this about Trump? 

Award co-creator and Media Lab Director Joi Ito had a pretty straightforward answer that: No, they actually started planning the award a long time ago, and first went public with it in summer of 2016. But Ito also recognized that the current political climate has fueled interest: “…the award may have been different under President Obama because we’re now seeing a wider range of people who are resisting, dissenting, and disobeying.”

And that interest was huge, demonstrating just how much need there is to support activism and acts of disobedience in the face of injustice. Organizers received 7,826 submissions in six weeks from every continent but Antarctica, and whittled them down to 220 finalists for a panel of 10 judges to evaluate. Award funder and co-creator Reid Hoffman ultimately extended the $250,000 grand prize, giving $10,000 each to three runners up. 

The prize, rewarding “effective, responsible, ethical disobedience across disciplines,” went to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Professor Marc Edwards, two scientists who used their research to expose dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan. That’s a solid choice in a year with a lot of competition, as runners up were climate scientist James Hansen, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, and the founders of Freedom University in Atlanta, Georgia. 


It might seem a little strange to see such an award coming out of MIT. It’s not a campus particularly known for its activism. In fact, in recent years, the administration has caught flack for its handling of acts of disobedience, particularly in the case of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz

But the award’s founders—Ito of the MIT Media Lab and Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media—often seem to be closer to the activist side of things. The Media Lab is known for research and ideas at the edges of existing societal rules and norms. A few months prior to the award’s announcement, Ito penned a blog post, “On Disobedience,” following a protest of DRM software restrictions. “You don’t win a Nobel Prize by doing what you’re told,” he wrote, citing the civil rights movement, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, and the Boston Tea Party. Ito was also a speaker at Boston’s March for Science back in April.

As for Hoffman’s role in funding the award, the LinkedIn and PayPal billionaire has previously given to poverty issues, disease research, education, and watchdogging artificial intelligence, among other causes. He’s backed things like Code for America and Change.org, but his main connection to the award seems to be that he sits on the Media Lab’s advisory council.


Ito offers a good reminder that not every injustice these days is about the election of Donald Trump, and that these kinds of struggles have happened throughout history and always will. Even in the years leading up to November 2016, the United States was clearly heading into period of social unrest and outcry. The concept of disobedience can be defined in many ways, and this particular award is a global one.

But the response and the breadth of nominations the Media Lab received indicate just how much protest and resistance is happening out there right now, and how much need there is for financial support and public acknowledgement.  

There are certainly existing funding programs backing such bravery in the face of injustice, including longstanding awards like the Goldman Prizes, and new entrants like the Roddenberry Prize, the Solutions Project’s Fighter Fund, and several other post-election rapid response funds that have emerged. 

But the “disobedience” this award supports is the kind of work philanthropy historically shies away from too often, and work that is clearly hungry for more support. For funders looking to back this type of work, there are at least 7,822 people out there with suggestions.