Diverting Hate Wins Invent2Prevent Competition

By  | tkenny@montereyherald.com | Monterey Herald

PUBLISHED:  

MONTEREY — A team of students from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey surpassed collegiate peers from across the country last week as they took home top prize in the national campaign competition Invent2Prevent.

The contest, a culmination of work that began in September, invited university teams to address hate, bias and extremism through student-built campaigns. Middlebury was one of three finalists selected to present in Thursday’s final round of virtual competition. Following 15-minute videos summarizing a semester’s worth of work from each team, judges awarded Middlebury students first place and $5,000 to continue their project long-term. The runner-up was Howard University, with the University of South Carolina rounding out rankings at third.

“I’m stoked that with such little time and resources, we were able to come up with an idea that was as promising as it was,” said Kaitlyn Tierney, one of 13 Middlebury students who put together the graduate school’s campaign for Invent2Prevent.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Invent2Prevent is run by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University and EdVenture Partners, an organization that develops industry-education partnership programs.

Through the course of a 15-week term, competing universities — this year there were 20 — identified a form of targeted violence, which occurs when a specific individual or group is subject to attack and discrimination and developed an initiative, product or tool to address their chosen threat.

At Middlebury, the focus landed on male supremacy and how misogyny can give way to extremism, particularly online. To tackle the problem, students explored more sustainable methods for diverting individuals away from these dangerous outlets and instead toward community and mental health support.

All facilitated through a class devoted to the competition, Middlebury’s team completed its own original research and ultimately came up with “Diverting Hate,” where at-risk populations are located online, intercepted and redirected. Through the methodology, which was developed and tested on Twitter, students sought to facilitate healthier outlooks and conversations. To tangibly support that goal, students curated a mental health resource hub they could make available to at-risk users identified online. The idea resonated with the core of Invent2Prevent’s purpose – to address violence with ingenuity.

“Unfortunately, given the increased threat of targeted violence and hate in our schools and communities, each of these campaigns has genuine social impact in positively addressing these issues,” founder and CEO of EdVenture Partner Tony Sgro said in a press release. “I congratulate Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who best rose to the occasion with their Diverting Hate tool and initiative, to earn the top podium spot in this semester’s competition.”

Jason Blazakis, the Middlebury faculty member who oversaw the class where ideas for Invent2Prevent came to fruition, described his students’ win as gratifying.

“I’ve watched this all come together, starting with the nascent stage of planning and debating what they would pursue to creating something novel to fight extremism,” he said. “That’s extremely illuminating and gratifying for me as an instructor.

“And just watching them win the competition amongst a tough set of competitors … I was really happy for them.”

But winning is just the beginning.

Tierney said she and her classmates are now excited for the momentum their first-place finish will bring to their project. Looking ahead, their team plans to put money behind new social media campaigns grounded in the “Diverting Hate” methodology to test out the efficacy of their idea. Students are also looking to make “Diverting Hate” an official 501(c)(3) organization so it can qualify for further grants and funding efforts. Similarly, the group is hoping to explore more partnerships – locally and nationwide – to fill out and widen their reach.

For now, however, Tierney, Blazakis, and their Middlebury cohorts are content just enjoying a satisfying end to a months-long endeavor.

“I’m cherishing this win for this team after a tough competition,” said Balazkis. “There’s such a thing as embracing the moment.”

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