In The News

Are you the Psy of American democracy? Competition offers cash prize for new ideas to strengthen nation’s democratic systems

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post

By Emi Kolawole

It’s time to take that great idea you have about how to rethink American democracy, dust it off and submit it for a cash prize. The Illinois Humanities Council with financial support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — home of the “Genius” grant — has teamed up with 36 other organizations, including the PBS Newshour, American University’s Center for Social Media and the Maryland Humanities Council, to host a contest called “Looking @ Democracy.” The contest calls on people of all ages to submit their answer to the question, “How can we work together to strengthen our democracy?”

The competition is digital media agnostic. Music, video, Web sites, mobile apps — it doesn’t matter — but keep your audio and video to under three minutes in length. In other words, think viral. In that vein, submissions can be “informative, persuasive, serious, funny, satirical, personal, inspirational or critical,” according to the Web site. Think provocative.  

The organizations hosting seek to ”bring attention to ideas, perspectives and stories that are not currently featured in our mainstream political conversation,” according to the site, and offers a total of $100,000 in cash prizes. Win first prize, and you get $25,000. Seven $5,000 prizes of the $100,000 total, are dedicated to an “emerging artists” category. Students, young people and non-professionals qualify. “We are trying to reach younger folks” primarily teenagers and young adults,” said Kathy Im, director of the Media, Culture and Special Initiatives Program of The MacArthur Foundation during an interview on Friday.  

“We are trying to tap everyone in our networks, and the networks of the Illinois Humanities Council,” said Im. “We’re hoping to tap our geniuses, our grantees, our friends near and far to think about and create pieces that will be funny and engaging and touching and inspiring — all about how to strengthen our democratic institutions.”  

The competition judges, among them NPR host Maria Hinojosa and filmmaker Byron Hurt, are looking for ”short, finished pieces,” said Im. Once the winners are determined, the Council and its partners will do a large, extensive push to get the pieces out.  

“We think that a lot of how lawmakers are influenced are by the mood of the public, the culture and the court of public opinion,” said Im.

Before starting work on the competition over a year ago, the Council and the Foundation consulted with academics, current and past elected officials, and organization chiefs. “We did a lot of research and thinking and consultations before deciding to start this work,” Im said. The competition Web site provides a number of idea suggestions, among them data visualization, releasing a Super PAC ad that answers the question “If I were President,” or addressing a topic that is “critical to our country’s future, but absent from the debate.”  

Perhaps there is someone out there who can do for America’s democratic institutions what Psy was able to do for South Korean pop music — provide an entirely new, viral way or looking at the nation’s democracy. It may seem far-fetched. But, as X PRIZE Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis has written, “The day before anything is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”

The competition opens today and submissions are due by 3 p.m. EST Apr. 30.