Toxic Donors and The Perils of Not Listening to Women

In the fall-out around MIT’s prestigiously respected Media Lab over its acceptance of repeated donations from Jeffrey Epstein, a known sexual predator of underaged girls, a number of sheros shine. Each act of these women highlight a different aspect of the larger cultural problem about misogyny and how deeply masculinist views are entrenched at multiple points in society. I list the women here as the chronology of the story unfolded:

Arwa Mboya, a MIT graduate student, speaks at a rally September 13th on campus organized to protest the university’s accepting Epstein donations. In August she had called for Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab, to resign.

Arwa Mboya, MIT graduate student in Civic Media, a division of the Media Lab

August 29th Arwa Mboya wrote in The Tech demanding Joi Ito, long time director of the Media Lab, resign. “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.”

Prior she’d been advised: “You don’t want your whole image to be about this.” Her response : I thought about it If that’s all someone sees of me, that’s not my problem. In fact, it’s not a problem. I will never change my stance on the exclusion of child molesters.

Kate Darling, Research Specialist, Media Lab

At the September 4th all Media Lab meeting in which Joi Ito worked to salvage his tarnished image and remain director, the Lab’s co-founder Nicholas Negroponte genuflected that he advised Ito to accept the Epstein money. While there is confusion over what Negroponte actually said, his comments justify a mindset “that led so many intellectual luminaries to associate with Epstein.”

Kate Darling called for Negroponte to “shut up” at the meeting when he droned on at the end, after a session that had been relatively hiccup free due to its prescribed agenda. Negroponte actually referred to his privilege as a “white rich man” and demanded holding the floor “because he had founded the lab.” Darling retorted, “ We have been cleaning up your messes for the past eight years.”

Darling was omitted by name from the first version of an article that documented the meeting. Once finally corrected and named, there followed a flood of congratulatory comments on her outspokenness on Twitter here. Dr. Darling leads off with this point: Next time I’m thinking of putting my career on the line by speaking truth to power and ugly-crying in front of 100 people, I’ll try to remember that a man will get credit for it in the press.

Signe Swenson, once on Media Lab’s development staff, the Whistleblower

This worker bee formerly on the development staff still had access to her Media Lab emails. Over 20 emails provided key support for Ronan Farrow’s expose in The New Yorker that was published September 6th.

At the time of her job interview for Media Lab, Swenson worked for the main MIT development office, She knew Epstein was listed as a disqualified donor. Epstein’s file had an article about his conviction for pedophilia in Florida. In the interview she underscored her misgivings about Epstein being a donor. Her feminist antenna was up. She was hired and still had to put up with the Media Lab realities of support. The emails she supplied document the levels of falsification for Epstein’s donations.

Ito finally resigned within 24 hours of The New Yorker story breaking.

In another interview Swenson speaks about how a group of women at the office knew donations from Epstein were wrong. “I saw women at the lab speak out and their word meant nothing because Joi refused to admit the truth.” She left the Lab after three years because of this toxic culture.

Sabrina Hersi Issa, technology, media and human rights, @beingbrina

Seeing the bravery of Arwa Mboya, Sabrina Hersi Issa launched a spontaneous crowd funding campaign on September 9th. The Bold Prize for Courage, Integrity and Leadership is designed expressly to support Mboya’s action. “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,” Issa stated, explaining her motivation. Her initial goal was to raise $10,000. Reached in a single day, on Monday the 16th she upped the goal to $50,000. Now with 153 donors at $10 to $1,000, a hair shy of $13,000.

Update: Sabrina Hersi Issa messaged me: “The initial goal was 10K, it was reached in one day. When I saw the traction, I updated the goal to 50K. A foundation stepped up to contribute 25K. Between GoFundMe, Venmo and that gift the total raised will be about 40K.”

The wonderful contributing foundation was Ruth Ann Harnisch and The Harnisch Foundation. Let’s work to close the last $10,000 by the 20th. Go donors! (Full total is not listed on the Go Fund Me page.)

Sarah Szalavitz, social designer & fellow at Media Lab, @dearsarah

Mentioned by New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo in his Sept 11 piece, Sarah Szalavitz warned Ito as early as 2013 to not accept Epstein’s money. She also told Negroponte the same thing earlier. Szalavitz explained, “What happens when women don’t get invited to these dinners is they lose out on professional opportunities.”

Repeatedly women were ignored, their professional opportunities curtailed while the men gathered. The MIT Media Lab story heated up in the same week that the Chronicle of Philanthropy unveiled, “that women have made barely perceptible advances” in the CEO offices of big charities.

In case anyone forgot, sexual assault is about abuse of power.

Some pointers for the future you guys in power might consider:

  1. let your hair down and be honest;
  2. start listening to, better yet, seek advice of women—you’ll remember better; and
  3. act affirmatively on women’s advice.

Best, put women in more positions of power, so they are adequately paid for their opinions, which are, after all, outgrowths of their work.

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ann Harnisch and the Harnisch Foundation are lead sponsors of Philanthropy Women.


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Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds of films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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