Danielle Allen: a scholar of democracy with an urge to help 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.” 

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.”



Offshore wind appears to be slowly getting back on track, but Massachusetts’ other big bet on clean energy – hydroelectricity from Quebec – is far from a sure thing. A proposed transmission line carrying the hydropower down into New England is facing two potential roadblocks — a ballot challenge in Maine this fall and a looming deadline for a needed equipment upgrade at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Both would-be roadblocks can be traced back to NextEra, a Florida-based energy company that believes the transmission line will be bad for its business. Read more.

Is Kim Janey in violation of the city charter by calling herself mayor of Boston rather than acting mayor? Read more.


Ben Forman and Simone Ngongi-Lukula of MassINC say it’s time to scale up early college to give more students a shot at a university degree. Read more.

Mass. sanctions against Iran could be tested by President Biden’s latest moves, says Tom Barnico of Boston College Law School. Read more.

Of all the ways proven to help reduce the likelihood that someone who has been in prison is going to commit another crime, the one that has the greatest impact for the lowest cost is education. Lane Glenn of Northern Essex Community College and Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger team up on this issue. Read more.

Deanna Moran of the Conservation Law Foundation celebrates a recent court decision but says more needs to be done to protect Boston’s waterfront as a public asset. Read more.





The House begins debate this week on its proposed $47 billion state budget for the 2022 fiscal year. (Boston Herald

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr wants to require a two-thirds vote any time lawmakers withdraw money from the rainy day fund. (Salem News)


A Salem city councilor apologizes for using a derogatory term for people with intellectual disabilities in a lengthy Facebook post that discusses his brother’s disability. (Salem News)

Bill Walczak draws attention to trash and debris along the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester, and gets quite a response. (Dorchester Reporter)


St. Vincent Hospital and its nurses will resume contract negotiations for the first time since they reached a stalemate last month. The nurses have been on strike since March 8. (Telegram & Gazette)

More on the vaccine pass front: The European Union signals that it will allow visitors from the United States as long as they are vaccinated. (New York Times)

Seafood processing workers in New Bedford say a machine that cuts and debones fish is causing health problems for current and former workers. (Standard-Times)

Millions of Americans — about 8 percent of those who received a dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines — have not returned to get a second COVID-19 vaccine, raising alarms among public health officials. (New York Times


As Democrats ramp up a push for new civil rights legislation, the efforts have not drawn the support of a single Republican member of Congress. (Boston Globe


Parents who have been claiming pandemic unemployment benefits as caregivers, saying they could not return to work because their children had no school, may lose those benefits now that schools are reopening full-time. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Seasonal vacation spots expect a busy summer, but a lack of seasonal foreign workers due to COVID and visa restrictions means many businesses are struggling to staff up. (Associated Press)


Private and Catholic schools, which saw an influx of students this year, say students are planning to stay next year, and many schools now have waiting lists. (MassLive)

Phoenix Charter School plans to make remote learning a permanent option, after finding that it helped some nontraditional students. (MassLive)


Bank of America has pledged $1 million to the King Boston initiative, which is planning a memorial on Boston Common to Martin and Coretta King. (Boston Globe)


State officials intend to reclaim ownership of a former quarry on Mount Tom in Holyoke, to preserve it for outdoor recreation and prevent a company from turning it into a clean-fill operation, where dirt from construction projects would be dumped. (MassLive)


The federal corruption trial of former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia gets underway today in Boston. (Boston Globe


Beth Williams, the president and CEO of Roxbury Technology Corp. and a leader black business leader in Boston, died at age 57. (Boston Globe