Crowdsourcing the MacArthur Awards

Since 1981 the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago has chosen 20 to 40 people each year to receive a $500,000 unrestricted grant. This grant is given to people who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." On its face the MacArthur Awards appear to be a good idea. For example, these awards shone an early spotlight on Richard Stallman, who has made major contributions to the field of computer science--doing so in a very selfless way.

Yet the honor of these awards goes far further than the distributed money. What would happen if the MacArthur Foundation chose 100 people rather than 20 to 40 people each year? The monetary award would be reduced to $250,000 per person--but the overall social good would increase. And what if those extra 60 people per year were crowdsource-chosen? It sure would be interesting to read all the nominations that might come in, especially if all nominations were listed on the MacArthur Foundation Web site, searchable by city and field of work.

In the spirit of the above thought experiment, here are 12 people I would nominate for the MacArthur Award. Anyone who knows these folks would concur that these are MacArthur-quality people. After listing their names, I'll explain why I would choose them for a MacArthur Award.

Daniel Bassill, Chicago, Illinois
Lorraine Kerwood, Eugene, Oregon
Pat Furr, Chico, California
Steve Hargadon, Lincoln, California
Denise Lewis, Fort Washington, Maryland
Paul Lamb, Vallejo, California
Jeffrey Elkner, Mt. Rainier, Maryland
Shireen Mitchell, Washington, D.C.
Christian Einfeldt, San Francisco, California
Alonzo Garbanzo, Los Angeles, California
Jeff Putthoff, Camden, New Jersey
Bob McNally, Rockaway, New Jersey


Daniel Bassill, Chicago, Illinois

Daniel Bassill has been leading a volunteer-based tutoring and mentoring program, serving children and youth, in some of the most needy areas of Chicago for more than 35 years. He has focused his life's work on expanding learning opportunities for children outside of school, tapping into the time and talents of thousands of adult volunteers. His work is impressive not just in the number of youth he and his organizations have been able to reach. It's impressive because he thinks systemically, reaching out and supporting other tutor/mentor organizations in the Chicago area--even organizing a tutor/mentor conference every six months since May 1994 and an interactive map of tutor/mentor organizations in the Chicago area. Bassill has piloted the use of visualization tools and the Internet to help people understand volunteer involvement in tutor/mentor programs as part of a complex, long-term strategy aimed at helping inner-city kids move through school and into jobs. He goes beyond sharing ideas and mentoring others, to creating public visibility intended to increase the number of people who support tutor/mentor programs as volunteers, donors, and leaders. This commitment to help all tutor/mentor programs in Chicago is one of Bassill's unique forms of leadership.

Bassill's name is well known in many online education communities, too. He's often one of the first to show up, the first to explore new online learning and collaboration tools, the first to explain their usefulness to his peers. I recall a few years ago when Bassill taught me about Elluminate, a very useful online tool. He opened my eyes to learning possibilities I had never before imagined. These days I teach a graduate class in educational technology, but I can safely say that Daniel Bassill continues to be far ahead of me in exploring how educational technologies can benefit our youth and our communities. This guy is not only supersmart, he is superfocused on the well-being of inner city youth. I honestly can't decide whether I admire him more for his intelligence or for his passionate, longstanding, and effective devotion to the needs of youth. Daniel Bassill is exactly the kind of person the MacArthur Awards were invented to recognize. If we listened more carefully to what he has to say, we could be bringing the maximum benefit to youth, too.

Lorraine Kerwood, Eugene, Oregon

In 2008, Lorraine Kerwood was chosen to receive the Volvo for Life Hometown Hero award. Her nonprofit organization, NextStep Recycling, in Eugene, Oregon, has recycled more than 800 tons of electronic waste and placed more than 11,000 computers in disadvantaged communities in the United States. Her organization has also sent more than 500 computers to schools, orphanages, and nongovernmental organizations in Guatemala. Read about the award at this link.

Learn more about Lorraine Kerwood in these two compelling YouTube videos.

Lorraine Kerwood - Volvo for life Awards Documentary

Lorraine Kerwood in People Magazine

Lorraine Kerwood is a shining beacon in everything she does.


Pat Furr, Chico, California

Pat Furr is a national leader in the computer refurbishing movement. She is one of the most frequent posters of useful information on the Computer Refurbisher's e-mail.

Pat Furr's organization, Computers for Classrooms, distributes about 5000 refurbished computers per year. I'm particularly impressed with the computers she has set up for migrant families—computers that can be used in Spanish or English.

The local work she has been doing in California is impressive enough, but Pat's work extends far beyond her own geographic area. Her organization has been working with Computers for Youth (CFY) in New York in deploying complete systems with software to middle school students and their parents with a focus on the family working on homework together. This year they will place 1100 computers with CFY between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

A true geek, she is both a social innovator and a technological innovator. One of her proud achievements is figuring out a way to wipe (format) 16 hard drives at the same time. See the information she shares on the bottom of her Web site about this.

A very good overview article about Pat Furr was written by Nia Ujamaa, back in 2005. See

Incidentally, Pat will be presenting a workshop on CloneZilla at the upcoming International Computer Refurbishers Conference in Miami, Florida, in October 2009. Jim Lynch at TechSoup Global (formerly CompuMentor) is the organizer of this conference.


Steve Hargadon, Lincoln, California

Steve Hargadon is a teacher of teachers, a person who understands how modern technology tools can expand learning possibilities for everyone. Founder of the free online community Classroom 2.0, Steve moves forward anyone who comes within his orbit. As a testament to the value of his community building skills, Classrom 2.0 has grown rapidly to more than 30,000 members. Last year I asked Steve to videoconference with my graduate students in an educational technology class I teach at American University in Washington, D.C. Steve graciously agreed to do so, showing up in a Skype videoconference using the Linux version of Skype. Steve Hargadon practices what he preaches. I'm a professor of education, but Steve Hargadon is the person who is constantly teaching me. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/stevehargadon. His blog is at http://www.stevehargadon.com.

Denise Lewis, Fort Washington, Maryland

Denise Lewis believes in FIRST Robotics, the very successful annual robotics competition for youth launched by legendary inventor Dean Kamen. Earlier this year Denise Lewis was one of the organizers of Scratch Day, a free event to expose youth to creating games, animations, and graphics using Scratch, the free programming tool from MIT. Denise programs in Scratch herself and showed off some of her Scratch creations at the event. She is also involved with the Robotics Ministry at her church, which naturally enough teaches Google SketchUp, the free 3D drawing program. If you live in the Washington DC-area, you'll see Denise at technology events around town. Denise Lewis does not sit still for long.

You can learn more about Denise in these two profiles.

International Society for Technology in Education Community Ning Profile

Capital Region Society for Technology in Education Profile


Paul Lamb, Vallejo, California

Paul Lamb is a doer and a thinker. And everything he does and thinks relates to building a world that is more inclusive, participatory, and humane. Paul cofounded StreetTech (now called The Stride Center), a nonprofit that gives people computer and life skills training. The Stride Center changes people's lives by giving them an entirely new trajectory. Read more about Paul Lamb in this bio on the SocialText Web site.

Then dip into Paul's thinking in these excellent think-piece articles and radio commentaries.

Yes, Paul Lamb is prolific. More to the point, he's often right on target.

Jeffrey Elkner, Mt. Rainier, Maryland

Jeffrey Elkner values free software in roughly the same way the late Jacques Cousteau values our oceans. It's part of who he is. With a huge work ethic, an infectious optimism, and considerable intellectual smarts, Jeff Elkner moves the world forward faster than the world ever expected. Jeff, a high school teacher in Arlington, Virginia, has accomplished much in his life. One of his greatest achievements is setting up free-to-use computer rooms in several low-income apartment buildings in Arlington, Virginia. Using the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), Jeff brought free, older computers into these apartment buildings, thereby giving the residents access to modern Web browsers, word processing, and much more in a virus-free computing environment. I've visited some of the computer rooms that Jeff and his high school students set up. I walked in amazed and walked out astounded.

Jeffrey Elkner is involved with so many different projects that I can barely keep track of what he is up to. Anyone who knows Jeffrey Elkner can affirm this guy is a walking MacArthur Award.


Shireen Mitchell, Washington, D.C.

Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sisters, is one of the most admired educators and community activists in the Washington, D.C., area. Her interests and talents are many, but she focuses her time on expanding technology access to young women--particularly young women of color. While she is known and admired by thousands in her home town of Washington, D.C., she is widely known in other cities around the country via her leadership as a board member in Community Technology Centers' Network--at one time one of the leading nonprofits fighting for digital inclusion. Would it surprise you that she also takes a leadership role in DC Web Women, one of the largest technology organizations in the D.C. area?

For several years Shireen helped organize the annual youth technology event called the Techno Rodeo, in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. That annual event positively impacted hundreds of youths who honed their technology skills entering various competitions for the event. The high point of this event was the It's Technodemic trivia challenge, organized by Shireen.

As luck would have it, I'm still in touch with one of the youths who had a very positive experience at the Techno Rodeo. This youth once told me, "That single one-day event changed my life." One day I'll introduce this youth to Shireen Mitchell so that she can thank Shireen in person.

Learn more about Shireen Mitchell in this interview by Jill Foster.

Follow Shireen on Twitter at http://twitter.com/digitalsista.


Christian Einfeldt, San Francisco, California

Christian Einfeldt believes there's a better way of getting things done in this world--and that better way revolves around Linux and the associated open, collaborative ways for people to work together. A lawyer by profession, Einfeldt spends hundreds of hours each year setting up and maintaining Linux computers in two schools in his San Francisco neighborhood. And at the schools he supports, he sends Linux computers home with students who need them. And he is creating a collaboratively made documentary about the birth of the free software movement, The Digital Tipping Point, so that future generations can understand the great tipping point that occurred at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first century.

Few people have the vision, resolve, and energy that Christian Einfeldt has. And he's not a techie by profession. He's a human being who understands what we need to do to make the world more human. This guy gets it.

I admire Einfeldt's selflessness and the clarity of his vision. Follow Christian on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/einfeldt

Alonzo Garbanzo, Los Angeles, California

Alonzo Garbanzo has a knack for music the way Picasso had a knack for painting. Alonzo takes musical performance to a whole new level with the large collection of wacky and wonderful YouTube videos he has been making. My all-time favorite is his version of that wonderful American folk song, City of New Orleans. He somehow corralled eight of his closest relatives into performing this song with him, although to my eye every single one of them bears an uncanny resemblance to Alonzo Garbanzo.


Alonzo can play guitar with the best of them, can sing like the best of them and can edit video like the best of them. And when you look into his eyes, you see genius. At least, that's what I see.

Father Jeff Putthoff, Camden, New Jersey

Father Jeff Putthoff, in Camden, New Jersey, has redefined how teenagers learn. In a small townhouse setting, his nonprofit organization, Hopeworks 'N Camden, puts trainees (previously called "students") to work as part of their studies. And trainees get paid for their work and for their studying. And the outcome from all this is success after success after success.

In redefining education, Putthoff literally redefines language, too. His trainees are actively involved in their own education. They're in control. He has taken passive, chair-sitting high school students and as trainees gets them to stand up to walk into their own future.

Putthoff has received national awards and recognitions for this community service work. From the state of New Jersey, Putthoff won the prestigious Martin Luther King Freedom Medal in January 2007.

In addition, Putthoff will soon be completing his master's in organizational dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Read more about Jeff Putthoff in this article.

Bob McNally, New Jersey


They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, but for Bob McNally, creative lightning did strike twice. In the early 1980s Bob invented the Backpacker Guitar, a lightweight and gorgeous sounding guitar that's perfect for travelers of all kinds. This guitar was so well received that McNally sold it to Martin, the widely known and loved guitar maker.

But McNally had an extra card up his sleeve. He then invented the strumstick, a simplified three-string instrument that almost anyone can play and enjoy. The strumstick plays no wrong notes. The strumstick has been embraced enthusiastically by amateur and professional musicians alike. Tracy Chapman, the incredibly talented musician, plays Stand By Me using a strumstick.

I came to appreciate Bob McNally's real genius while watching this recently uploaded, original strumstick video on YouTube, Just Enough Time.


When watching this video you'll see two visible musical performers. There's a third musician participating in this video, and he's invisible to the eye. But he's very much visible to the soul. And his name is Bob McNally.

McNally has invented a world where the playing of music is accessible to all, and where music-making is both portable and plentiful. I consider that a remarkable life achievement and deserving of a MacArthur Award. Because for someone like Bob McNally, lightning could strike several more times.


So as you can see, there are plenty of folks out there who could very credibly receive a MacArthur Foundation award. Let's use the power of crowdsourcing to identify all these individuals--right on the MacArthur Foundation Web site. Doing so would create real benefits to society. In the end, dignity is worth more than money.

Money comes and goes. Dignity lasts forever.

Phil Shapiro

The author works as the public geek at a public library in the Washington DC-area and is an adjunct professor of education at American University. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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