Danielle Allen: Teaching Democracy, Leading Change

I want to give a warm welcome to Danielle Allen. Danielle's work to improve the world for the youth has taken her from intructing college classes to the helm of a $6 billion foundation, writing as a national opinion columnist, democracy, reform, civic education, and most recently running for governer of Massachusetts. She made history as the first black woman to ever run for statewide office in the state. As well as being the 2020 winner of the library of congress Kluge prize, recieved for her internationally recognized scholarship and political theory and her commitment to improving democratic practice and civics education. The Kluge prize recognizes scholarly achievement in the disciplines not covered by the Nobel prize. 

Danielle Allen studies classics, democratic theory, politiceal soceology, and the history of political thought. A professor at Harvard, she directs the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics. She has published widely on justice, government, and ctitizenship both in ancient Athens and modern America. She is the lead investigator for Harvards democratic knowledge project striving to strengthen democracies. 

Welcome Danielle Allen!

Learn more about Danielle:

Team America The Indivisible

Danielle Allen: Harvard U

Edmond & Lily Safra: Center For Ethics

Danielle's TED Talk

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equity (video)

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equity (book)

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Emy diGrappa (00:00):

I want to give a warm welcome to Danielle Allen. Danielle's work to make the world better for young people has taken her from teaching college to driving change at the helm of a $6 billion foundation, writing as a national opinion columnist, democracy reform, civic education, and most recently, to running for governor of Massachusetts. Danielle made history as the first Black woman to ever run for statewide office in Massachusetts. She was the 2020 winner of the Library of Congress Clue Prize, which recognizes scholarly achievement in the disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prize. She received the prize for her internationally recognized scholarship in political theory and her commitment to improving democratic practice and civics education. Danielle Allen studies classics, democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. A professor at Harvard, she directs the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She has published widely on justice, government and citizenship, both in ancient Athens and a modern America. She is the lead investigator for Harvard's Democratic Knowledge Project, a research and action lab that strives to strengthen democracies.


This podcast is in partnership with the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, a leading nonpartisan NGO based in Jackson, Wyoming, where they bring leaders and communities together to drive breakthroughs to global challenges. We welcome Danielle Allen and we want to learn from her experiences growing up, what is her why, and what was her journey and what was her path along the way? Thanks, Danielle. Well, first of all, Danielle, I love the name of your book. I've been watching you on YouTube and reading about your background, you have such in-depth experience on this, so I just want to welcome you to What's Your Why? .

Danielle Allen (02:12):

Thank you so much, Emy, I appreciate it. It's great to be here and I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Emy diGrappa (02:18):

Where did you grow up, Danielle?

Danielle Allen (02:19):

I grew up in Southern California. I was born in Tacoma Park, Maryland, but I had my first birthday in Southern California.

Emy diGrappa (02:27):

Wow, so you traveled all the way to the East Coast now?

Danielle Allen (02:31):

Well, I left home for college, as kids do, and went East, so I went to Princeton and then graduate school in England and then graduate school at Harvard. Bounced around to a job at Chicago for 10 years, at the University of Chicago, that was my first academic job. And then from there, after 10 years, spent eight years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and then came back to Harvard in 2015.

Emy diGrappa (02:57):

Such a great and scholarly background, and that's why I wanted to ask you who influenced your love and passion for what you are doing today as a writer and educator?

Danielle Allen (03:07):

Well, what's always the most important influence is the first one, so my parents, as you might imagine, my mom and dad. My mom was a librarian and my dad was a professor, but they also both came from families with deep and long traditions of civic engagement. My granddad, my dad's dad, helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in northern Florida in the '40s and that was super dangerous work. On my mom's side, my great-grandmother and great-granddad helped fight for women's right to vote and she was ultimately president of the League of Women Voters in Michigan in the '30s. I think our family was one where people didn't mind taking on hard fights, important and necessary fights, and where that love of freedom and equality just ran through everything.

Emy diGrappa (03:57):

That's interesting that you mentioned freedom and equality, because you talk about that a lot as I've listened to you. Explain to us how are freedom and equality, as you see it, how are they linked to each other?

Danielle Allen (04:11):

Well, I appreciate your question, Emy, and I know it's always a little unusual to just jump into talking about those grand ideals, they sound so abstract. Here we are, trying to fight our way through daily life of traffic and commuting, or maybe not in Jackson Hole, but where I am, East Coast, and it can be hard to look up from all the day-to-day grind and have the time and space to reflect about the meaning of abstract concepts like freedom and equality. I do, though, take them to be pretty fundamental to human experience. Freedom, for starters, is really what we all need to thrive as human beings.


We have a drive in us, each of us, to make tomorrow better than yesterday, and that means shaping our life in ways that we judge to be those that will bring us safety and happiness. But that human need, it's a need all human beings have, so if we're all going to have access to that freedom, then we've got to have equality, too. We can't have some folks dominating others or some groups dominating others, so freedom and equality belong together like hand in glove. You can't have freedom for all without actually also having equality, that's a sharing of power and responsibility, a full participation, full inclusion, in the organizations of society.

Emy diGrappa (05:28):

You come from a very scholarly background and you talk about it on very high levels, like you said, abstract thoughts, but how does that trickle down to a common person? Just like in education, how are we teaching freedom, how are we teaching equality to our children, and how are they carrying that forward, and what do they believe in and learn about in our educational system?

Danielle Allen (05:52):

Well, I could tell you a little bit of a story about how these things come together and then maybe we can talk together about what the story means for our educational system. You mentioned the Declaration of Independence when you started, I have written a book about it, and I've been teaching it for more than 20 years, thinking about it intensely for more than 20 years, and the reason for that is pretty simple. I found myself at the University of Chicago as a young professor in the late '90s and loved the university, its active, energetic, intellectual life, but there was, on the South Side of Chicago, African-American community. I'm African American and I felt a huge separation, a split between the two rules, the university and the community. It seemed unhealthy and I was frustrated that the people in the community didn't have access to the same caliber of education as was available on the campus.


I was fortunate to be able to partner with the Illinois Humanities Council and work to build a night program for low-income adults. These were mostly folks who maybe they didn't have a high school degree even or they'd fallen out of the educational track in some fashion, but they were ready to change their lives, they wanted to have a fresh start, and they knew that education was the key to that. We built a year-long program in the humanities and in the course of that program, we were trying to give the students the same caliber of education as the day students at the University of Chicago had, even though the night students were maybe working two jobs and taking buses across town to get to school and the like, so we had a puzzle to solve. The puzzle was how to deliver that quality for a different set of students in different contexts. Our solution was that at the end of the day, we wouldn't compromise at all on the quality of what we were offering or providing or the materials we were working with, but we would make them short.


I started teaching the Declaration of Independence because it was a short text, 1,337 words. I taught it in the history unit, I taught it in the philosophy unit, I taught it in the writing unit, and then an amazing thing happened, it was just this instant response from my students. This is a surprising thing, my students were, again, mostly low income, mostly people of color, and they just resonated with the Declaration immediately and the reason was pretty straightforward there. They were in the middle of trying to change their own lives, they had looked around at their circumstances in the city of Chicago and didn't like where they were or what they saw, they wanted to be on a new path, they thought the city could do better at supporting communities all over the city. That text, the Declaration where they say, "Look, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary," and they look around and say, "The king's not doing right by us and here's how we're going to make a change," they fully recognize that spirit of personal and social transformation.


That, I think, is how freedom and equality come together in our daily lives. We can see the places where we feel unfree, we can see the places where our dignity is infringed. Those are the frictions and challenges that we feel on a daily basis. I think the power of the abstract concepts is to help us see that we can do something about that, we can actually pick up our hand, put up our hand, we can vote, we can run for office, we can find other modes of civic engagement, and shape the world that we live in. Agency is really where freedom and equality come together and when education opens up the possibility for agency, then that's when I think it's bringing those bits of our daily life together with those abstract concepts.

Emy diGrappa (09:11):

I love that you were working with people who were trying to figure out what does that mean to them personally? You can talk about it in the Declaration, but then you want to drill it down to what does it mean to you and me, you're right, in a very real way where people can experience it in their own lives and define it for themselves?

Danielle Allen (09:34):

Yep, you've got it. That's exactly right. That's the beauty of history, actually, is that in the moments where it has its greatest power, it's not actually really history so much as an activation of ourselves, our own thinking in the present, and that is, for me, what is really critical to teaching. Even if you're taking old texts like the Declaration or the Constitution, what you want to do is make sure that you're inviting the students into a sense of self-awareness, a sense of their own agency, their own capacity, their own responsibility, as well, to diagnose their own circumstances, the circumstances of their community, and try to chart a path in a positive direction for all.

Emy diGrappa (10:15):

Talking about that with these students, in particular, and inequality and equality and education and equality, did they see themselves in that picture where they didn't have the same path to opportunity as other people?

Danielle Allen (10:31):

They definitely recognized the inequities and inequalities in our society. One of the great things about being in the class with them and learning with them, really, was watching my students come to have sharper diagnoses of where our failings were as a society or where they also might have made their own choices in a different way and start to put together the picture of what was their personal responsibility, what are matters of collective responsibility that we should all be putting up our hands and working on? They came to have views about what the mayor should be doing, for example, views about what the alderpeople in Chicago should be doing, and in various ways, started to get on a path towards their own civic participation, civic agency.

Emy diGrappa (11:18):

In talking about that, did you ask them questions like do you vote, exercise your right to vote, and why or why not?

Danielle Allen (11:26):

That's a great question. I'm sure we did talk about that, we certainly did talk about where and how and why people participated. But it's interesting, my personal experience of teaching, especially something like the Declaration of Independence, is a little bit more about asking the students to lead with their learning. You read a text like the Declaration and parts of it will make sense and parts of it won't make sense and parts of it will provoke anger and parts of it will inspire. We always would start with just the question of what were they noticing and wondering, what were the thinking, feeling, doing reactions they had to the text? And then that would define the shape of our conversation, we would start there and figure out what questions they were trying to answer for themselves. I think at the end of the day, I do believe that the most powerful teaching is teaching that helps students find their own questions and find their resources to answer them.

Emy diGrappa (12:22):

Absolutely. I think it's wonderful that you've gone to, not just at a teaching and talking at a scholarly level, but you've really tried to bring it in a real way to people who are working every day and just forget about the wealth disparity, but how are we exercising our rights for freedom. It's something we don't learn in school. When I think about my civic education, I think what did I really learn? So, I wanted you to define your definition of civic education.

Danielle Allen (12:55):

Well, let me tell a story and then I can give you a technical definition, as well. I described the family I grew up in, the tradition of civic engagement. That tradition continued in my parents' generation, I referred to my great-grandparents and my grandparents to start. But I grew up in Southern California, big huge network of aunts and uncles and cousins. My dad, growing up in northern Florida, as I mentioned, had had 11 brothers and sisters, and half of that set of 12 moved to Southern California. They were basically leaving the Jim Crow South and seeking freedom and new opportunities. They were there in California in the '60s and '70s, highly engaged, their engagement spanned the political spectrum. I remember the year in my youth when my dad was running for Senate from Southern California as a Reagan conservative and my aunt was running for Congress on the ballot for the Peace and Freedom Party, which is on the left end of the political spectrum.


We used have amazing holiday dinners, family dinners, the debates between them were incredibly vigorous. They had an agreement on what they were trying to do, they were both seeking empowerment for themselves and their families and their communities, but then they knock-down, drag-out debates over was it about market freedoms and civic virtues or about public sector investment across all segments of society and experiments in living. My dad's a skinny, balding guy, always smoking a pipe, pipe smoke curling around his head, and my aunt, big woman, built like a Mac truck, gay, and amazing belly laugh. I just would watch back and forth, but the thing about their debates was they never broke the bonds of love. It was always very clear that they had each other's back, they were there for each other as human beings. They argued about the arguments, they didn't argue about the people.


That combination of things, I think that was my civic education and defines civic education for me, that is we can orient towards some shared North Stars, that goal of empowerment or freedom and equality, as you want to put it, but then we can have really hard-hitting debates, conversations, engagements around how, how do we actually do this with and for one another in this incredible and huge and diverse and complicated society? But as we do that, we should never, ever break the bonds of mutual respect and personal commitment to each other as human beings. What's all that about then? That's about knowledge. It's some knowledge about philosophical foundations of democracy, it's knowledge about policy and how to think about the relationship between our ideals and our goals and how we might bring them into reality.


It's a set of skills. How do you actually have a debate around hard topics? How do you bridge divides when you do decide to act on something? Can you find ways to compromise and build coalitions to move things forward? It's also about dispositions, again, that sense of mutual commitment to each other, in their case and mine, as well, it was shared commitment to constitutional democracy, and a disposition to put your hand up and take action when there's a need. Those things, that's the technical answers, it's the knowledge, the skills, and the dispositions that support effective civic participation, that's the content of the civic education.

Emy diGrappa (16:07):

Oh my gosh, what you touched on was so amazing, Danielle. I think about it right now and what's going on in our society and in our polarization of people and families, and I was fortunate enough, as you were, to grow up in a family that could sit around a dinner table and debate and still love each other. I hear so many terrible stories that families are divided so much over what's happening in the political atmosphere and it just breaks my heart, because we were the same. My dad was an educator, big Hispanic family, I would say definitely conservative, just held on to religion, religious freedom, personal freedom, the ability to have an education and find a way to do it. Not everybody has that and I always wonder how do we gather that together for... There's so much disparity in our country.

Danielle Allen (17:08):

No, it's true. We have a lot of sources of coming apart. I'd say about us that over the last 50 years, we've lived through the great pulling apart. We've had this incredibly huge rise in income and wealth and equality, this rise in the same period of time, 50 years, of mass incarceration, and then this incredible rise of polarization. It is not a moment for an nostalgia, we have to achieve something for the future that's never been achieved, which is a genuine connection of our society across a whole heck of a different set of lines and difference in cleavage. But you're right, the issues of economic inequality are a real challenge within that. On that front, I do actually think it's time for us, as well, to do some serious work about how do we reintegrate everybody into a productive economy? I think there's a different approach to economic policy that could do a better job of integrating people into that trio of work, wages, and wealth that, at the end of the day, are the foundation for collective and individual wellbeing.

Emy diGrappa (18:08):

Well, absolutely. I want your to-do list, because I want to do that in my life, is bring people along. We have the whole movement of diversity, equality, and inclusion right now and it means different things to different people, I think that's interesting, as well.

Danielle Allen (18:30):

We face a big challenge, we have lofty ideals, but in the very beginning, the lofty ideals were connected to a view that power should be reserved for some, not shared by all, and so we built organizations and acquired habits of action where there's a split between the lofty ideals and those practices. It's been our constant perpetual challenge to overcome that and achieve that change. I always take inspiration from some words from Martin Luther King, Jr. in one of his final written texts, The Last Testament of Hope, where he says, "Lots of people think that it's all about legislative changes, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. Those are great achievements, they're important, but at the end of the day, what we really have to achieve is a real reworking of our society, that we can achieve a full sharing of power and responsibility across the whole of our society."


I think that's what, fundamentally, our job is. We are trying to figure out how to share power, how to share responsibility broadly across all the different segments of our society, so that we have that connection, that ability to work together, that support for the flourishing of all. But it's a big job to learn how to do things in new ways, to reorganize ourselves in this fashion, so it's not surprising to me that there's all kinds of tensions and challenges that come along with the effort.

Emy diGrappa (19:49):

I read that you ran for the governor of Massachusetts. Good for you, congratulations that you did that, that's a hard thing to do is run for office. What did you learn about your state, your, your community, and yourself, mostly?

Danielle Allen (20:05):

Well, let me just share one little story, because I know our time is tight here. The experience of running for office was really terrific, actually. I know it can look like a bear, but I really encourage everybody. The rewards of just being in the world, talking with people from so many different contexts are immense, the personal rewards from that, but it was also very inspiring and reassuring in lots of ways. When I started the run, I was, in all honesty, somebody with essentially zero name recognition, from the point of view of the ordinary Massachusetts voter. That meant as I was visiting with people, living rooms or backyards or sitting down in a coffee shop, I was basically Jane Doe come to sit down to talk. Here was Jane Doe saying, "I want to be your next governor," and that in that was enough, just my saying that was enough for people to be willing to share, in incredibly frank and raw ways, about challenges in their life, and to share ideas they had about how our state government could do a better job at addressing those challenges.


I just took this as the most remarkable expression of faith in our institutions. It couldn't have been faith in me, they didn't know me. I just walked in from the street, I had zero name recognition and that was it. But here I was saying, "This is work I want to do," and that was enough to elicit from people, these incredible acts of sharing, personal generosity in the stories that they shared and great ideas for work we could do together. We spend so much time talking about our cynicism, our alienation from our institutions, but I'll tell you, my experience was the opposite. We actually have deep faith in our institutions and deep faith in each other, and so for me, the question is how can we get back to having that be the headline, be the top level understanding and inform how we interact with each other, so that we can bring charity into our interactions and a readiness to work together?

Emy diGrappa (21:59):

Yes. Just that experience of sitting down with everyday people and hearing their stories and hearing how you can respond to them, that must have been quite the challenge, that must have been like, "Wow, how do I answer these questions about Medicare or Medicaid?" Or, "How do I answer questions about immigration, for example?" There's just so much out there and I'm sure you were just really having to study and learn and come to grips with where people are right in that moment.

Danielle Allen (22:33):

Well, the truth of the matter is it was less about answering questions and more about hearing people, more about listening to them and learning from them. That's the true work to be done when you're out there talking with folks, is to listen and learn from them. That's a powerful experience, for sure, so I'm very grateful for it.

Emy diGrappa (22:51):

Well, my last question to you, because I know we are on a short timeline, your book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, when you started writing that book, what were you hoping would be the takeaway for people and why they would want to read it? What was the strongest message that you felt you put into that book besides your heart?

Danielle Allen (23:16):

Well, it's not really my message, so maybe I'll just close by sharing the message that I hope everybody will put in their heart and take some time to reflect on, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men driving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness. That's the most important message in the book.

Emy diGrappa (24:12):

Amen. That's true. I've been reading excerpts out of it and it's truly that statement you just made that we have to focus in on and work through in our democracy.

Danielle Allen (24:24):

Exactly. Thank you so much, Emy. It's been a real pleasure talking with you.

Speaker 3 (24:43):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.