How The David Prize turns activists into cultural properties
The David Prize brands itself as a no-strings-attached granting program for New Yorkers. Funded by billionaire real estate developer David Walentas, it doles out five $200,000 grants annually to individuals who are creating “a better, brighter New York City.” Walentas, a key developer of Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood has been criticized for accelerating New York City’s gentrification. Now in his 80s, he’s focused on building a legacy through philanthropy.
His eponymous prize reflects an evolving approach to giving. As philanthropy reckons with its roots in a white-savior industrial complex, it’s beginning to address traditional gatekeeping methods. The David Prize seeks out New Yorkers with “a big idea” and funds their projects with no restrictions on how the money can be spent and no reporting requirements. In this way, the Prize models itself on the MacArthur Fellowship, which awards individuals who demonstrate “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.’’
But Walentas’ own real estate empire suggests another template for analyzing The David Prize. In this model, the funder invests in a valuable cultural property in order to burnish his reputation or acquire prestige. Philanthropic gentrification performs an institutional sleight of hand, celebrating individual activists while obscuring the root causes of the issues their “big ideas” address. Moreover, the David Prize, which touts the diversity of its winners while co-opting the language of community and shielding itself from critique, offers a case study in how reform-minded philanthropy turns activists into cultural properties.
In June 2021, I was selected as one of 21 finalists for the David Prize. I checked a lot of boxes as a disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent designer. I worked closely with Alex Haagaard, a chronically ill and neurodivergent researcher, and other advisors to develop a proposal for the prize. Our project sought to redesign the diagnostic process for chronic, invisible illnesses, by centering the knowledge of ill people and communities.
The David Prize claims that the submission process “should take no more than 30 minutes. Yes, 30 minutes.” At first glance, the application seems straightforward: ten questions, with a maximum of 280–1,500 characters per answer. But it is a process that will disproportionately impact many chronically unwell and racialized individuals, as well as non cis men, who will recontextualize their ideas to appeal to a billionaire philanthropist. Alex and I spent roughly 80 hours over the course of two weeks to complete the written application. This sort of request for proposals, Alex pointed out, creates temporal lotteries, in which the buy-in isn’t money, but time.
The funder whose giving is informed by his own investment portfolio strategy may believe himself to be buying into a lottery, too. It is a gamble that only makes sense when success is measured in terms of scale, which is what The David Prize Executive Director repeatedly told finalists that we needed to demonstrate during our final presentations. Like New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation, which invests in scaling programs that fight poverty, the David Prize offers a lump sum to be invested, accrued, and grown, rather than simply infusing money into under-resourced spaces. As anthropologist Anna Tsing, author of The Mushroom at the End of the World’ writes, “Scalable projects are those that can expand without changing. Scalability banishes meaningful diversity, that is, diversity that might change things.”
In September, CBS announced The Activist, a reality show in which six casted activists competed for a chance to lobby world leaders at the G20 Summit. That month, I noticed I was referring to myself as a David Prize contestant. Then people began Tweeting that real activists don’t pitch the G20, they protest it. I realized why I was uncomfortable being publicly announced as a David Prize finalist: institutional recognition might neutralize my work. By casting activists in the role of the traditional philanthropic savior, philanthropic gentrification works to accomplish what Ursula Le Guin wrote in The Dispossessed: “If you can’t uproot it, domesticate it.”
The Activist, put on indefinite hold after critics lambasted its creators, contestants, and hosts, highlights the ways that historically underfunded individuals become vulnerable in diversity-oriented ‘opportunity’ programs. Front of mind is the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, in which applicants vie for a single $100 million grant that funds a proposal promising “real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” MacArthur touted data on the diversity of its 100&Change applicants. But its 2021 finalists included a Clinton initiative, a Murdoch Institute, and a National Geographic program; its winner was a former MacArthur Fellow. A friend of mine, with relatively fewer resources to expend and relationships to draw on, instinctually knew he shouldn’t apply because of MacArthur’s lack of transparency about applicant experiences of the program.
In the absence of meaningful data about applicant experiences, we’re made privy only to the winner’s experience. As @Thricemarked, a Black, disabled, transracial adoptee, remarked on Twitter: “Why is it that we are so eager to trot out someone who had a good experience in an oppressive system, and use then to argue that the system is not oppressive?”
A key marker of philanthropic gentrification is the winner’s circuit, in which a foundation puts its grantees on display in a very public forum to advertise their beneficence, so as to attract more positive earned media. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, The Robin Hood Foundation partnered with iHeartRadio, the largest radio broadcaster in the United States, to air a one hour infomercial-style show on “virtually every radio and television outlet in New York City.” The show, which featured an array of celebrities, including Al Pacino, Eli Manning, and Mariah Carey, situated its grantee stories within narratives of New Yorkers’ resilience, which were popularized after 9/11 and during Covid.
The David Prize, too, touts finalists and winners on highly public platforms, including a billboard atop one of Walentas’ buildings along the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO. The prize’s Executive Director told me some first cohort winners expressed discomfort over having their faces plastered on the billboard, so I was surprised to see the billboard reappear this winter, displaying its second year winners.
The winner’s circuit doesn’t just risk coercing some grantees, it also serves to bury the experiences of those also in consideration, some of whom may have felt misled during the process. A David Prize finalist that I spoke with expressed a desire and a reluctance to open up about their experience, both wanting to warn future applicants about some deeply troublesome assumptions this program makes while fearing they would be interpreted as a sore loser.
These programs could build trust through transparency, by publicly releasing the results of an independent survey of the experiences of every applicant, finalist, and winner. I got this idea because The David Prize told me they were going to send me a survey. I have not yet received it. This was over 3 months ago. [Update: 6 weeks after I published this piece, I was made aware that The David Prize disseminated a survey to its second cohort finalists. I emailed them to request a copy of the survey to take, but I never received it or a response. I believe I am the only second cohort finalist to not receive their survey.]
In total, the application for the David Prize required nine months and hundreds of hours to get to my final presentation. The small selection committee included David Walentas, his son Jed, and two white, wealthy board members from Pioneer Works. During my seven-minute pitch, Walentas walked out of the room to take a call. A week later, the Executive Director of The David Prize informed me I was not a winner and instead offered me an anonymous unrestricted ‘contribution’ of $15,000 from the Walentas family foundation to support my work. She asked me to sign a “simple standard contract,” which included a non-disparagement clause: “Honoree shall not make any statements, orally or in writing, including on any website or other internet posting, regardless of whether such statements are truthful, nor take any actions, which: (a) in any way could disparage the Foundation, its Board members or employees, or which foreseeably could harm the reputation and/or goodwill of the Foundation.”
The website claims The David Prize is no-strings-attached; but for me, a tourettic with a cocktail brain of oppositional tics and intrusive thoughts, imposing silence was the biggest string of all. I had the opportunity to speak about the contract with a high profile attorney and media personality who has been vocal about the abuses of non-disclosure agreements. She reached out to The David Prize and requested to review the contract. Ultimately, she reiterated to me the response I had received from David Prize personnel, after I referred to The David Prize as the NDAvid Prize: a non-disparagement clause is legally distinct from an NDA. She added that the David Prize had committed to make the language about the clause “more plain and clear.”
Whether intentional or not, this is a common derailing tactic that I and other marginalized people experience when critiquing abuses of power: an emphasis on our use of terminology, implying that we have simply misunderstood the abuses we are critiquing. But this prize is trying to attract people who lack such institutional savviness, and for us, a non-disparagement clause has the same structural effect as an NDA, in that it prevents those who sign it from speaking out. Although I used the incorrect terminology, what I was critiquing was the substance of the clause, and not its nomenclature.
The David Prize positions itself as a change maker, addressing a range of city-wide challenges, including healthcare, housing, criminal justice reform, immigration, education, sustainability; but the non-disparagement clause shields the Foundation from critique, including any suggestion that its founder and its policies might be be implicated in the problems he claims to address.
The contract’s non-disparagement clause was followed by a moral turpitude clause: “In the event that Honoree is convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude that adversely and significantly affects the reputation of the Foundation or its programs, the Foundation shall have the right to terminate the Award and, in the Foundation’s sole discretion, request the return of any funds granted pursuant to this Agreement.” Moral turpitude is a legal concept in the United States that refers to “an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.” As litigator Elijah Staggers observes in “The Racialization of Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude,” moral turpitude has been weaponized since slavery and reconstruction to “systematically target, condemn, and exclude racial groups deemed socially undesirable.”
Why would an organization privately compel the individuals it publicly recognizes — some of whom are doing work that either focuses explicitly on or intersects with decarceration movements — to sign a punitive clause that reinforces carceral norms?
By imposing its power-sustaining values on the individuals it spotlights, philanthropic gentrification works to defuse radical messages. It also propagates what Adam H. Johnson, in his online critique of The Activist, describes as authorless problems: “There’s poverty but no persons or institutions making anyone poor. There’s hunger but no one is hoarding resources and food. It’s not activism against anything in particular, just abstract social problems with no authors.”
Thank You For Your Feedback
When I was nominated for The David Prize, there was no accessibility policy on their webpage. Their social media lacked any sign of access. This is not uncommon in philanthropic spaces, as evidenced by The MacArthur Foundation’s failure to incorporate an audio description in their video announcing Josh Miele, a blind technologist, as one of their 2021 fellows. I applied for the prize knowing the systemic nature of accessibility failures in philanthropy and understanding that if I became a finalist, the labor of enacting basic accommodations would fall on me.
I didn’t realize how precarious this process would feel. I was now in a position where I needed to advocate for access without harming my chances of winning.
I made sure that the accommodations I sought seemed “reasonable,” avoiding the murkier topic of what I actually needed, which is a common calculus that chronically ill and neurodivergent people find themselves making. Knowing that The David Prize would be distributing content around my likeness, I insisted that social media posts include alt text for its images and captioning for any publicly distributed video.
I wouldn’t have taken it any further, but when the Prize requested that each finalist conceive and facilitate a public-facing event, I offered instead to conduct accessibility-related work for the Prize, so they could reach disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent New Yorkers in the future. The David Prize initially offered to pay me for my time, but we ultimately agreed that they would not hire me or pay me until after the winners were announced, so as not to impact my status as a finalist. This is important, because it changed the stakes for me. I no longer had just the hope of winning $200,000, but the added promise of future earnings.
The David Prize soon sent me a beta version of a new SMS application format they were testing. It would allow individuals without computer access to apply. It used a bot to pose the same questions as the standard application. The SMS gave users a one hour window to respond to each message. It encouraged applicants to “draft and save your responses somewhere safe (like a notes app) before texting them to us.” This was patently inaccessible.
Amused by the absurdity of the access failure, I shared it with my research partner Alex, who came up with a powerful idea as we riffed. I emailed The David Prize, recommending that they scrap the bot until they could allocate time and resources to a meaningful design process. I said if The David Prize doesn’t want an applicant spending more than 30 minutes on an application, then they can’t create a system in which a person can improve their chances by spending more time on it. Instead, what if the bot reached out to interested parties on a weekly basis, asking how their thinking had progressed? What if the submission process became a resource for individuals who need space and time to evolve their ideas?
They thanked me for my feedback, which had the effect of surfacing a series of unformed questions that I could no longer avoid asking. When I am thanked for my feedback, I know I have just lost control over how the information I provided — often the knowledge of lived experience — will be used. “Thank you for your feedback” has become a litmus for me, clarifying power differentials when corporate-oriented individuals claim otherwise.
I’m now relieved by their dismissive response, because The David Prize application should not change until its leadership holds themselves to the standards of accountability they expect of their finalists and winners. What’s the point of a temporally equitable submission process when it brings vulnerable individuals into systems that cause harm?
The David Prize fails to enact the types of change it claims to be invested in. I know this because the winner announcement videos were uncaptioned, and the accompanying images lacked alt text. The other day, as we got back to work on a paper we started well before I was nominated to apply, Alex said to me, ‘You know, we lost a whole year because of The David Prize.’ More than that, we lost our chance to conduct important research that could contribute to a new meaning of diagnosis, in which chronically ill individuals would learn the language of their body, to figure out how to recognize and respond to its needs, to work with it rather than constantly fighting against it.
It was unsettling to navigate the pressures of suddenly being in a “David Prize community” before I had even learned the names of my fellow finalists. Information about them was revealed to me through a shared ‘community’ Google Doc, which was soon followed by ‘community’ events; then there was the email sign off: “in community.”
The first time I was given a concrete directive, in terms of how I was expected to regard this new “community,” I was implored to withhold information from them. The $15,000 that The David Prize offered me was doled out to some finalists on a sliding scale, according to criteria that was never made known to me. Because of this, I was asked to refrain from discussing the gesture and the amount with any other finalist.
I began to feel like one of Walentas’ buildings, with the billionaire gentrifier zoning a group of people and then constructing a ‘community’ out of us. In labeling us as a community, The David Prize attempted to co-opt the forms of mutuality and solidarity that constitute the relationships in my life. One friend, Design Educator and writer Jennifer Rittner, helped me to understand their approach: “The act of suggesting friendship while sowing antagonism among the potential recipients in order to make those who have been disenfranchised by the systems of power fight and beg for resources that colonizers have a) deemed necessary or valuable and b) intentionally withheld or capitalized or weaponized in order to concretize their power — these are core facets of colonialist systems, which are systems of abuse. We’re forced to prove our worth in order to receive the reward that others could make available if they so chose.”
The David Prize deflected my questions about the non-disparagement clause for a while before they stopped responding altogether. Their actions leave me wondering how much longer philanthropic gentrification will remain the “accepted standard of the community,” per the legal definition of moral turpitude. In “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope,” bell hooks writes, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” I have to believe we are reaching a turning point, when the threat of revoked income and institutional exile will no longer be enough to stave off the vigilant awareness hooks described.
It is likely that some finalists will adopt the inevitable position of David Prize leadership: that I am an outlier who is trying to harm this well-intentioned but imperfect program. But I am not giving up. In my last email to The David Prize, I requested to review the updated contract language. I’m still waiting for a response.
(Philanthropic Gentrification is the first piece in a three part series that will be published in 2022. Liz Jackson is a disabled advocate, designer, and a founding member of The Disabled List, an advocacy collective that engages with disability as a critical design practice.)