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Daniela Vargas, Anna Deavere Smith, Heather Ann Thompson, and Sonia Kennebeck To Receive 2017 Ridenhour Prizes

March 23, 2017
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Courtesy of The Nation Institute: Annual prizes recognize truth-telling in the public interest

WASHINGTON -- The Nation Institute, Fertel Foundation, and Stewart R. Mott Foundation are delighted to announce the winners of the 2017 Ridenhour Prizes, annual awards given to extraordinary individuals “who persevere in the act of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice, or illuminate a more just vision of society.” 

This year’s awards ceremony will be held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 19, 2017, and emceed by Project on Government Oversight (POGO) Executive Director Danielle Brian.

This year’s winners include: 

● Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old honor student in Mississippi who has spoken out against the deportations of undocumented immigrants at great personal risk. Vargas -- who has been in the US since she was 7 years old -- participated in a press conference after watching federal agents remove her brother and father from their small home in February. Immediately after speaking out, Vargas was herself detained for nine days in a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Louisiana. Though she was released, the Department of Homeland Security has not rescinded the deportation order against her.

● Anna Deavere Smith, an acclaimed actress, playwright and educator whose prodigious work has addressed social and civil unrest, confronted racial stereotypes and documented changes in racial identity, sexual politics, and multiculturalism. 

● Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Thompson peels back the lies and distortions told by authorities for decades about the iconic event and reveals the truth about the terrible abuses that took place in Attica. 

● National Bird, directed by Sonia Kennebeck, follows the dramatic journey of three US military veterans-turned-whistleblowers determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret US drone war. 

The Ridenhour Prizes memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling that whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career. 

ABOUT THE WINNERS

Daniela Vargas
Winner, The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling 

Two weeks after ICE arrested her family members, Vargas took the microphone at a press conference in Jackson, Mississippi to call on the new White House to respect the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“Today my father and brother await deportation while I continue to fight this battle as a DREAMer to help contribute to this country, which I feel that is very much my country,” she said. 

Minutes later, as she rode away from the press conference in a friend’s car, ICE agents stopped and detained Vargas. According to a legal filing in her case, one of the immigration officials who she saw during the raid on her family home said, “Remember me? You know who we are. You know why we’re here.”

The decision by federal authorities to target an immigrant for deportation apparently because she chose to speak openly is an attack on the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

“The decision by federal authorities to target an immigrant for deportation apparently because she chose to speak openly is a direct assault on the spirit of the First Amendment. But the government’s brazen attempt to silence Vargas has failed,” said the Ridenhour committee. 

Vargas said she took the opportunity to speak up because she “believes deeply that immigrants in the United States are an asset to our country and deserve full citizenship.”

“Our immigration system is tearing families apart and the immigrant community lives in fear. I want to help change that, so I felt I had to stand for what I believe and show who we are and why we matter,” she said.

Anna Deavere Smith
Winner, The Ridenhour Courage Prize

Anna Deavere Smith is an acclaimed actress, playwright and educator who has spoken out fearlessly on behalf of unpopular truths. Through her art, Smith has advanced public understanding and social progress on issues of fundamental importance.

The Ridenhour selection committee says Smith “has redefined the role of the artist as an engaged citizen and communicator.” Her work has explored important issues of race and identity in America, and her performances are celebrated for their journalistic detail and her empathetic treatment of the people she portrays.

In 1996, Smith was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” for creating a “new form of theater” — ”a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, and intimate reflections.”

Anna Deavere Smith’s newest endeavor, “The Pipeline Project,” centers around her play, “Notes from the Field.” Using her signature form of theater, based on interviews with hundreds of individuals, the play shines a light on the lack of opportunity and resources for young people living in poverty and often suffering with regard to their physical and mental health, and how these circumstances often lead them into the criminal justice system. “The Pipeline Project” also seeks to extend the conversation on these pressing issues beyond the theater into America’s communities through audience discussions, public convenings, and other events.

“I am honored to receive the Ridenhour Courage Prize for my work on kids whose lives are obstructed by poverty and the conditions surrounding it,” said Anna Deavere Smith. “The real courage of course belongs to the extraordinary people I met in courtrooms, judges’ chambers, on Indian reservations, in classrooms, in doctor's offices — even funeral parlors — who are facing those conditions head on and changing lives.”

Smith is the recipient of two Tony nominations and two Obie Awards. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her play Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.

In popular culture, she has been seen in Nurse Jackie, Black-ish, The West Wing, The American President, Rachel Getting Married and Philadelphia. Books include Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines.

National Bird, directed by Sonia Kennebeck
Winner, The Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize

National Bird follows the dramatic journey of three whistleblowers who are determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret US drone war. 

Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, three US military veterans decide to speak out publicly, despite the possible consequences. The film gives rare insight into the American drone program through the eyes of veterans and survivors, connecting their stories as never seen before in a documentary.

The Ridenhour selection committee called the film a “chilling expose of the consequential direct personal and social trauma of drone warfare.” 

Kennebeck called it a great honor to win the award and said it “encourages me and my team to continue our work in the spirit of Ron Ridenhour.”

“National Bird documents the lengths the US government will go to silence whistleblowers, highlighting the courage and conscience of those who decide to come forward and speak out against the drone war,” she said. 

Heather Ann Thompson
Winner, The Ridenhour Book Prize

Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan, is author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.

On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions during the four long days and nights that followed. 

On September 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed thirty-nine men — hostages as well as prisoners — and severely wounded more than one hundred others. In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. And, ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors and the families of the men who had been killed. 

Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, Thompson’s book sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement. 

“I am, deeply honored to be the recipient of the 2017 Ridenhour Book Prize,” said Thompson. “Indeed to receive this award for writing about the Attica prison uprising of 1971 is particularly moving to me.”

“Because the truth of what actually happened during this iconic event was denied and distorted for so many decades, hundreds of people — the prisoners and guards who somehow managed to survive the terrible abuses that actually took place there at the hands of law enforcement — were never able to have their trauma recognized and thus were never able to heal. 

Not only was their painful past denied, but the lies told by state officials about Attica had a devastating impact on the future of the nation as a whole. Americans came away from one of the 20th century’s most remarkable civil rights protests calling not for a more humane treatment of prisoners, but rather for one of the world’s most punitive and inhumane justice systems. Blood in the Water tries to tell the truth of what really happened at Attica so that its victims might finally be heard, and so that we all might now imagine a more humane and just future,” she said.

For full quotes from the 2017 Ridenhour selection committee and winners, visit ridenhour.org.

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