Danielle Allen: scholar of democracy with urge to fix it

Danielle Allen, a scholar of Athenian democracy with two PhDs, has decided she has something to offer to the practice of 21st century democracy in Massachusetts. In December, the Harvard professor launched an exploratory run for governor and has embarked on a series of what she calls “Commonwealth conversations” with residents as she weighs a full-fledged campaign for the 2022 Democratic nomination. 

While the leap from academic scholarship to the on-the-ground business of state government looks large, Allen has spent much of her career trying to bridge the worlds of university research and ideas and the here-and-now of strengthening democracy and taking on immediate public policy challenges. 

“I’ve always been a practitioner of democracy first, and I’ve been a scholar of democracy to support my work as a practitioner of democracy,” she said this week on The Codcast. “I’ve always been a practitioner of democracy, of empowerment, of connecting communities in order to empower people. You need ideas to do that well. So universities have been a good place for me for nourishing my work as a practitioner of democracy.” 

That impulse, she said, was nurtured growing up in a family “with a longstanding commitment to service and engagement.” Allen has great-grandparents on her mom’s side who fought for women’s right to vote at the turn of the century in Michigan, while her paternal grandfather helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in northern Florida.

While on a meteoric rise in academia that saw her become dean of humanities at the University of Chicago at age 30, Allen managed to serve as regional field organizer for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. 

She also extended her teaching reach to a population not often in classrooms with professors from elite universities. Working with the Illinois Humanities Council, she developed evening courses for low-income adults in the poor South Side neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. 

“I found myself in Chicago teaching at the University of Chicago, these kids getting an amazing access to this extraordinary education. And then all around me on the South Side of Chicago, all kinds of folks struggling with no path between them and the same kind of opportunity that the kids I taught in the day had. That just felt to me deeply wrong,” she said. “What I’ve been trying to do my entire life is to make sure that we knit ourselves back together as a society and that the best possible kinds of opportunities are available to all.” The night course program was, she says, “a small effort to put our society back together again, but it does capture the basic direction of my effort and hope.”

Among the issues that have her most concerned are the growth in economic inequality in the US in recent decades and the surge in incarceration rates that took place alongside it. 

Those trends also helped shape Allen’s political evolution from a conservative when she arrived as an undergraduate at Princeton in the late 1980s to a progressive-leaning Democrat today. Her father, also a university professor, was a leading black Republican in California who once ran for Senate there, she said, as a “Reagan conservative.” Allen, 50, grew up shaped by his thinking — though she says family political discussions were always freewheeling affairs, with an aunt who ran for office on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party, a left-leaning third party. “I loved these arguments, the fights that they had trying to really define equality, define emancipation,” she said. 

It was during a college internship she had at the conservative National Review that Allen says her thinking began to pivot, as she found herself sharply at odds with the magazine editors’ laissez-faire thinking on growing economic inequality. 

As she ponders a run for governor — Allen said she’ll decide whether to move ahead with a campaign by June — she said she is convinced that “there is an appetite in the Commonwealth to set a higher standard of leadership. I have learned that a lot of people see that we’ve been settling for a status quo where too many are left out, too many are experiencing disconnection or isolation or abandonment.” 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

To the question of what a political philosopher would bring to the nuts-and-bolts business of managing state government, Allen replies with a story that suggests both management chops — and a background that equips her quite literally to deal with any punches thrown in the rough-and-tumble of political battle. 

Her management background, Allen says, includes her stint as a 30-year-old dean in Chicago, where she oversaw a $60 million budget and 250 faculty and staff members. “I would sit in the room with the 12 deans and the president and provost for our weekly meeting. Sort of wood-paneled rooms. Everybody was much older. I was the only person of color in the room, one of two women. And in that moment I realized I would have to really learn how to make space for myself in the conversation, help drive and shape the agenda. And the way I went about building up the capacity to do that is I went in and signed up for boxing lessons in the Chicago housing projects. My coach was a guy named Heavy, who was extraordinary. Looked just like his name, no teeth, lots of tattoos. And he’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. And he did really teach me how to control space, how to understand people’s time, get inside people’s time. And that was an important set of lessons.” 

Allen said her lessons from working on the Obama campaign were “about building coalitions of people to build power, coordinating around common purpose, building out partnerships and coalitions. That’s the way I prefer to get things done is pulling people together in order to build power. But I have my boxing lessons in the back pocket.”