Announcing the winners of the 2018 MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award

MIT Media Lab

by Janine Liberty

Nov. 27, 2018

Update, August 2020: We were disappointed to learn of the unethical behavior of 2018 Disobedience Award winner BethAnn McLaughlin in fabricating a Twitter account to falsely pose as a Native American scientist. However, the Disobedience Award was not made solely to Dr. McLaughlin, but to her and two other recipients as representatives of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements. We continue to wholeheartedly support the work of the other pioneers of these movements, both in academia and outside of it.

In that spirit, we will no longer recognize Dr. McLaughlin as a co-recipient of the 2018 Disobedience Award, and we have removed references to her on the official award website. The Media Lab has no current relationship with Dr. McLaughlin, nor will it pursue one.

The Media Lab remains committed to furthering the cause of justice for members of vulnerable and marginalized communities and to breaking the silence around sexual harassment and abuse.


The MIT Media Lab’s 2018 Disobedience Award is shared by Tarana Burke, founder of the “Me Too” Movement, and Sherry Marts, who helps academic and nonprofit organizations become more fair and inclusive. Both have taken a stand against sexual assault and harassment, and against the marginalization of survivors. The winners will share the award’s $250,000 cash prize. Four finalist prizes of $10,000 each will also be awarded. 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 and Marts represent 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. Both 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 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.”

The Disobedience Award was created to recognize individuals and groups who engage in ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience in service of society. The award was 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, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha—selected the winners and finalists from a global nomination pool.

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.

“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.”

The winners and finalists will be honored in person at the Media Lab’s Disobedience event in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Friday, November 30.

Winner profiles

Tarana Burke

A civil rights activist who was the original founder of the "Me Too" Movement, which she started in 2006, 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."

Sherry Marts

Dr. Marts experienced extensive harassment while in graduate school at Duke. 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.

Finalist profiles

Katie Endicott

A high school English teacher in Mingo County, West Virginia, and member of the West Virginia Education Association, 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.

Sarah Mardini and Yusra Mardini

As competitive swimmers, sisters Sarah 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.

Update, December 6, 2018: During the Disobedience Award event, Sarah’s friend Alex Tarzikhan, who attended on her behalf, noted that Sarah had just marked 100 days in jail—time she spent attempting to improve conditions for everyone detained with her. Yesterday, we were thrilled to learn that she has been released on bail. People should not be prosecuted for saving lives. We wish Sarah the best, and hope the authorities do not pursue these charges.

Tara Parrish

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.

Deborah Swackhamer

An environmental chemist who formerly led the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, Dr. 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.

Disobedience Award Ceremony

The winners and finalists will all speak at the Disobedience event November 30, where 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 by journalist Mona Eltahawy, entitled “Feminism in 3D: 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 by invitation only, but will be livestreamed to the public.

For a full agenda and link to the livestream please visit, and check #DisobedienceAward for updates on Twitter and Instagram.

Related Content