Philly Geek Awards honor all things nerdy at annual bash

Yasmine Mustafa, the CEO of Roar for Good, won a Philly Geek Award as technologist of the year for developing wearable self-defense technology for women

A few of the winners at this year's Philly Geek Awards: An Afro-futurist collective recording oral histories in a North Philadelphia neighborhood. A pioneer of wearable technology aimed at preventing violence against women. An 11-year-old collecting books featuring protagonists of color for classroom libraries.

"I feel so incredibly proud," software engineer and past winner Ather Sharif told a crowd of several hundred Sunday night at the Philly Geek Awards, "that this is not just white dudes giving awards to other white dudes."

The Free Library of Philadelphia hosted the sixth Geek Awards Sunday night, the annual black-tie affair celebrating all things nerdy and Philadelphian. 

Anyone can submit nominations - for categories ranging from Geek of the Year to Comic Creator of the Year to Movement of the Year; judges from the local blog Geekadelphia and the tech news and charity websites Technical.ly and Generocity then pick the finalists and winners.

Organizers were proud of the diversity of this year's nominees and winners. All three Geek of the Year nominees were women; the Movement of the Year - 1,000 Black Girl Books - is an initiative to get more books about black girls into classrooms launched by 11-year-old Marley Dias (who contributed an essay to the Inquirer's Black History Untold series earlier this year).

"This is an award ceremony pulled together from the community, and it's very representative of the huge diversity and creativity of leaders in the city," said Mo Manklang, a community manager at Generocity and a member of this year's organizing committee. "It highlights a lot of people who might not otherwise get recognition."

Why award the geeks of our city, though? Because they're often the unsung minds behind projects that benefit a wide swath of Philadelphians, Manklang said. 

The Comics Creator of the Year, Maki Naro, uses comics as a form of science education, drawing panels where the superheroes are scientists and the villains are, say, politicians dragging their feet over the Zika virus.

The Geek of the Year, Kathryn Killebrew, is a software developer and hobbyist biker who created an app that records users' bike trips and sends the data to local transportation planners in an effort to make it easier to bike in Philly. It's already been implemented in other cities, she said. Another project, Go Philly Go, made for her day job at the development company Azavea, helps users plan trips in and around the city.

"Anyone who has ever explored sustainable transportation options in and around Philadelphia has likely been assisted by one of her software applications," the organizing committee wrote of her work.

The Impact Organization of the Year, the Community Futures Lab, is an Afro-futurist gallery - think science fiction with a particular focus on the black experience - located in the rapidly changing Sharswood neighborhood. The organizing committee wanted to honor projects based outside of Center City, Manklang said, and the Futures Lab, with its musings on displacement, gentrification and memory in a community in flux, fit the bill.

"I wanted to document what was happening in Sharswood in a way the residents could participate in," said the lab's co-director, Rasheeda Phillips, a public advocacy attorney by day. "They talk about beautiful memories here - not just this blighted community that needed to be erased."

People of color have always been involved and interested in traditionally nerdy pursuits, but are not always welcomed there, Phillips said. She developed the Afro-Futurist Affair, the organization that runs the Futures Lab, out of "the frustration of not feeling welcome in the nerd community in Philly, period. Out of going into spaces dominated by white men." Her recognition on Sunday night was "a hard-fought win" and a pleasant surprise, she said.

 

"Someone can say this a very niche group of people," said Manklang, "but all of the people from this year and years past have been huge contributors to the city at large. It's important to highlight all the different ways you can engage Philadelphia."

This year's winners:

A full list of the award winners and nominees can be found here.