I do not know Arwa Mboya but I am inspired by her leadership and integrity.
Arwa Mboya is a graduate student who wrote a brave call for the immediate resignation of now-former MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito.
“The truth is, I’m only a student. I come from Kenya. I’m a young black woman (running the risk of being called “angry” or “crazy” for speaking up). On the ladder of power, I am on a very low rung. That said, I am educated, I am smart, and I have a voice. As the Media Lab decides how to handle Ito’s involvement, I at least have the power to advocate for the girls and women who couldn’t speak out when they were raped and abused.”
It did not take Ronan Farrow’s rigorous reporting of Joi Ito’s egregious moral failings for Arwa Mboya to know providing cover for a convicted sexual predator was wrong and to use her voice to challenge MIT to correct itself.
But entrenched power is entrenched for a reason and powerful actors tripped over themselves in a rush to close rank, rationalize and rally support for the morally atrocious conduct of Joi Ito. While Arwa, a student concerned for the safety and future of her community, continued to fearlessly call for Ito to step down 9 days before he finally resigned.
“As a self-proclaimed ethicist, Ito should step down in his role as director of the Media Lab. I am not concerned with his job when dozens of girls have been raped and taken advantage of. They will exist with a lifelong trauma because of Epstein, his comrades, and a society that chooses to ignore and forgive the men who empower him.”
Speaking out comes with a risk and cost. Arwa’s bravery follows the arc of many black women who lead out front and endure exhausting pushback. I am uncomfortable observing yet another abuse/response cycle where the public leadership of a black woman inside an institution is summarily ignored and marginalized until it is validated by a white person with prestige.
It should not have to be this hard.
I am writing first and foremost to say thank you to Arwa for acknowledging the risk of speaking out and doing the hard thing anyway.
Joi Ito is responsible for creating MIT’s “Disobedience Award” — a no-strings-attached $250,000 cash award that is billed to recognize “… individuals and groups who engage in responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices.”
I suppose it is easy for someone who does not consider herself part of the MIT community to pop up and stand in support of those who have been mistreated and ignored by its members but I do not believe MIT has any authority on what qualifies for ethical leadership.
Our culture has to embrace the complexities of changing, and to accept that both change and accountability cannot occur without doing the hard work of living one’s values.
I am here to support Arwa, and other leaders like her, who have so generously given the MIT community, time and time again, an opportunity to address accountability, ask hard questions and shift the burden of shame toward those who are complicit in the continuity of sexual violence.
Introducing the Bold Prize
There is a cost to speaking out and for perhaps the first time, many of us are awakening to the reality that to create the type of world we deserve, we must call upon bravery again and again and again. As Audre Lorde said, “revolution is not a one time event.”
I believe we must elevate and champion leaders who inspire bravery.
I decided to crowdfund a prize to thank Arwa for her leadership and I am inviting you to join me.
I know money will not erase the absence of leadership at an institution like MIT (and I am not Reid Hoffman rich), but I hope it will help inspire more people to lead with courage and integrity. Taking sexual violence seriously is the moral fight of our generation and what has unfolded over the last few weeks is the messy, complicated and necessary work required to meet this moment.
The fact that this is unfolding at MIT is incredibly relevant. Increasingly, technology is used to navigate, facilitate and validate our existence as women and people of color in democratic society and public life, but if technology leaders are ill-equipped to reckon with baseline morals and ethics, these structures and systems will continually fail to face the world as it presently exists.
We all deserve better than that.
There are models for building a better world.
We can begin to build together by raising up a new constellation of leaders like Arwa.