An Interview with Danielle Allen, Director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics and James Bryant Conant University Professor


By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado 

September 8, 2022  

This conversation occurred on September 8, 2022. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.   

Danielle Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics. She is a professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy. She is also a seasoned nonprofit leader, democracy advocate, national voice on pandemic response, distinguished author, and mom. 

Danielle’s work to make the world better for young people has taken her from teaching college and leading a $60 million university division to driving change at the helm of a $6 billion foundation, writing as a national opinion columnist, advocating for cannabis legalization, democracy reform, and civic education, and most recently, to running for governor of Massachusetts. During the height of COVID in 2020, Danielle’s leadership in rallying coalitions and building solutions resulted in the country’s first-ever Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience; her policies were adopted in federal legislation and a presidential executive order. Danielle made history as the first Black woman ever to run for statewide office in Massachusetts. 

A past chair of the Mellon Foundation and Pulitzer Prize Board, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society. As a scholar, she currently concentrates on the Democratic Knowledge Project and Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative, housed at the Safra Center, on the Democracy Renovation Project, housed at Harvard’s Ash Center, and on the Our Common Purpose Commission at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Her many books include the widely acclaimed Our Declaration: a reading of the Declaration of Independence in defense of equality; Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.; Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus; and the forthcoming Justice by Means of Democracy. She writes a column on constitutional democracy for the Washington Post. 

Outside the University, in her role as board chair for Partners In Democracy, she continues to advocate for democracy reform to create greater voice and access in our democracy, and drive progress towards a new social contract that serves and includes us all. She also serves on the board of the Cambridge Health Alliance. 


Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You’ve been the director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics since 2015. Can you talk about how you came to be in that role and what drew you towards the Center? 

Danielle Allen: Oh, my gosh! That’s a big question. But I guess this does look like an unusual job. It makes sense that people want to know how a person gets into it. 

The seeds were planted long ago when I was an undergraduate [at Princeton]. In the spring of my sophomore year, I took a class on ancient Athenian democracy with one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. We were reading tons of legal documents—prosecutions and defenses. And something was really bugging me about the material, but I couldn’t figure out what. It wasn’t until the New Jersey winter was receding, classroom windows were open, and spring breezes warming the classroom that I finally put my finger on it. I put up my hand. My professor called on me. I said, “Professor, did the Athenians not have prisons? We are reading all these speeches of prosecution and defense, and no one mentions prisons. Did they just not have them?” My brilliant teacher in a superb stroke of mentoring responded, “That would be a great dissertation question!” Then and there my academic career was born. I’d grown up in Southern California in the 70s and 80s. Prisons were mushrooming all around me. As a young person, I had registered what was perhaps the most important change in my environment. I brought an intuitive awareness of it to college, and then when history showed me the world could be otherwise, I began to understand the stakes of learning, of policy, and of pressing hard on the question of how to live, individually and as a society. My whole career has been about the intersection of those three things. This could also be said about the Ethics Center. It has always also been about the intersection of these three things. So when the opportunity emerged to lead the Center, it was a perfect fit. 

AJM: Can you talk about your work and research within the center over the years and how that work has evolved? 

DA: It’s been so great to be at the Center, and to be a part of this big universe of people who are focused on how the academy impacts our broader world. This has been an extraordinary conversational and experimentation space. And people have been open to the conversations I wanted to start. 

I came to the Ethics Center in 2015 and in that same year the National Academies of Sciences had issued a report on the The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S.: exploring causes and consequences. My dissertation and first book were on the history of punishment and democracy. The issue had become increasingly personal. My younger cousin Michael was incarcerated in 1995 at the age of 15 on a first arrest, and then killed in 2009 by someone he had first met while in prison. The National Academies report was a metanalysis of all the research on mass incarceration over years, seeking to asking why the system of incarceration had ballooned to such a remarkable extent in the U.S. The report scrubbed economic, demographic, and educational data. It looked at the impact of incarceration on communities and the devastation wrought on families. And then there was this remarkable chapter 12. In chapter 12, the authors named an additional reason incarceration had ballooned: the absence of thinking about values and ethics over decades in the domain of criminal justice. Policymakers and politicians had simply been rinsing and repeating on a commitment to a combination of deterrence and retribution, and a related set of legal and juridical practices. What was needed, the report argued, was to reboot ethical reasoning about the purposes of punishment and the ethical guardrails for getting it right. I thought, “Aha! That’s the job of an ethics center. We need to make sure that ethical reasoning is at the table in every challenging policy domain.” And so that’s the work we’ve done. We’ve built on our Fellows program, tapping into the expertise and wisdom of our community of faculty members and visiting researchers, to launch the Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative and the Design Studio for Ethics and Civics Pedagogy. Between the Design Studio and JHD, we are able to bring ethical reasoning front and center across contexts and across the life-cycle. We support ethics and civics education in K-12, strengthen that education in college and graduate school, and then activate practitioners’ capacity for ethical reasoning. The goal of these efforts is to make sure that across the professions and practical domains from technology to policing to pandemic response, ethics is at the table and shaping decision-making and policy choices. Our work has been ambitious and so, ultimately, the most important thing I have to say is that this has been the work of a huge and still growing team—a mission-driven team committed to advancing human flourishing. 

AJM: You ran for Governor of Massachusetts this past year, making history as the first African American woman to run for state office in the history of the Commonwealth. What inspired you to take that on? 

DA: It does seem crazy, right? A professor. A kid from Southern California who last ran for office in high school. You can tell from my remarks above that I have thought for a long while that we could do much better as a society to ensure that all members of our society have a foundation for flourishing. I’ve been working in that direction for my whole career. The pandemic really intensified that. We watched as the bottom just fell out from under for so many. In contrast, the well-to-do sailed along relatively unscathed, retreating to Zoom rooms and country houses. I am so proud of how all my colleagues at the E.L. Safra Center jumped into COVID response and worked to activate public resources to make sure smart, wise responses were developed on behalf of everyone in our society. We did an extraordinary amount of work on pandemic response—driving national conversations on the build-out of testing infrastructure; leading convenings that achieved convergence in the use of metrics for measuring risk levels; putting out the first county-by-county COVID risk level maps; delivering the first roadmaps for safe and healthy in-person teaching and learning. It’s hard for me to express how proud I am of our community. We were ready for the moment. We had the experience at working in a multi-disciplinary way and the commitment to making sure that questions of ethics were front and center in every decision-making context. And we jumped in. As we did our work, we hit any number of roadblocks and obstacles. Some of those were right here in Massachusetts. My frustration with state government just built and built and built, until I found myself ready to drive change. I jumped in to run for office. It seemed to me so clear that the pandemic called on all of us to reimagine what was possible, and to give what we could to achieving a fundamental moral reorientation toward a social contract that truly includes all of us. 

AJM: You were on public service leave from the Center during your campaign. What did that time look like for you? What was the most impactful part of your political run? 

DA: Well, you have to be exceptionally disciplined about time to run for office. Time is the most precious asset you have. So every day is scheduled down to the minute—time for calling donors; time for calling office holders; time for calling potential supporters; time for in-person visits around the Commonwealth; time for engaging with the Democratic party town and ward committees. The truth is, it’s an honor and privilege to be let into people’s lives and into their days and evenings while you are running for office. The incredible work and effort that is poured into the life of our Commonwealth by volunteers, organizational leaders, and elected officials often goes unseen by so many. Their commitment is very inspiring. The many ways people were working so hard on behalf of their communities restored my hope. I know this feels like a dark political moment to many. Not to me. I can see the resources of our resilience and the solutions to our problems emerging all over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the ordinary work and efforts of so many good people.  

AJM: Will you find ways to continue your work of democracy advocacy now that your campaign is behind you? 

DA: A lot of folks are asking me that question. And it’s a fair question. The campaign did have an impact on my sense of priorities. When I launched, I was, basically, a person with a job, mainly as a professor, and on my job, I did things which were roughly supportive of democracy. I definitely left the campaign as a person with a sense of purpose. My purpose is simply to do my part to secure the inclusive, effective, healthy constitutional democracy we all deserve in the 21st century. Massachusetts has a lot of room for improvement. More so than people often realize. We are 28th in the country for the percentage of eligible voters who are registered to vote. We are 37th in the country for the gap between BIPOC population and BIPOC legislative representation. We are 48th in the country for the gap between white and BIPOC turnout. We are 50th in the country for the competitiveness of our elections. So, yes, I am looking for ways to do my part to flip the switch and get us from this negative equilibrium to a positive one where we have a vibrant, inclusive, effective democracy. 

AJM: You are back as Director of the Center for one final year. What are you most excited about in the coming academic year at the Center? 

DA: I am so proud of the sense of community we have built at the Center—among our staff team, our students, and our affiliated faculty. As you know, our foundation is in community. And it is because of that foundation that we can deliver such powerful, impactful work.  

Once again, we have all the ingredients for a vibrant community, connecting to do powerful work. Our fellows this year join us from around the world. They bring projects on subjects ranging from the philosophy of race and reproductive law to cryptocurrency, web3, and ethical dilemmas in the classroom. Our exciting slate of public programs will bring distinguished scholars like Melvin Rogers and Agnes Callard and tackle hard issues like abortion. Our initiatives are focused on big challenges in areas from civic learning to alternative emergency response programs in municipalities to tech ethics.  

Above all, I am simply looking forward to sharing broadly the good work underway, and the remarkable accomplishments of our affiliated students, staff, and faculty.   

AJM: Can you share a bit about your experience being an educator and how your teaching role aligns within the multiple hats you wear at the university?  

DA: Well, the most powerful teaching experience I’ve ever had was teaching low-income adults in a night class more than twenty years ago in Chicago, in a course co-sponsored by the University of Chicago and the Illinois Humanities Council. That’s not to knock Harvard students, who are brilliant! But it’s those formative experiences as a young instructor that become life defining. For purely instrumental reasons, I started teaching the Declaration of Independence in this night course. We wanted to give our adult learners—who often hadn’t finished high school—high quality but short texts. And the Declaration is short! Just 1,337 words. That’s the only reason I started teaching it. But it made an electric connection to my students. They were all people who were in the class because they wanted to change their lives. They saw right into the heart of the Declaration. It is the story of the powerful human urge to change our lives, to make tomorrow better than yesterday. Our equality lies in that urge, and in our capacity to chart a course for ourselves. My night students gave me that text, and I have lived with it ever since. It has profoundly shaped my thinking about democracy and justice. And those night students set my standard for teaching. They made teaching real for me. We are in the classroom to help students change their lives—to see what they haven’t seen; to clarify their purposes and find their pathways to the future.  

As a University Professor, I am fortunate to be able to teach across the University and I do teach courses across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Law School. I focus on ethics and public policy; constitutionalism and democracy reform; democratic theory; digital media and citizenship; American political thought; and ancient and medieval political thought. But basically, it all boils down to democracy. About democracy. For democracy. Past, present, and future thereof. This means my teaching purpose is the empowerment of my students.  

AJM: In addition to your role as the Center director, you are founding director and PI for both the Design Studio for Ethics and Civic Pedagogy and the Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative. Can you talk a bit about both of these key initiatives at the Center and your hopes for their growth? 

DA: Again, I’m so proud of the work our amazing teams our doing. Our team on race and genetic science has recently published in Science and is on the cusp of being able to deliver important normative frameworks for researchers as well as develop professional development trainings for them. Our teams working on educational ethics are helping K-12 educators navigate the challenging cross-winds they face as they try to engage students in the study of history and in civic learning. Our impact fellows are working with mayors, city health officials, and other municipal leaders on issues from alternative emergency response to municipal data governance. Learning lessons from the natural sciences about building labs and conducting translational work, we have been able to build a high-impact operation. We are looking forward to documenting our work, onboarding an ever-growing community of humanities and social science researchers for new projects, and delivering innovation in the public interest. It is especially rewarding to watch new generations of researchers rise to the challenge, chew on and adopt an approach to ethics-centering research through close collaboration with practitioners, and begin to tell the story of the impact they are having. 

AJM: In the past year, you have published the edited book A Political Economy of Justice, which grew out of the Center’s Political Economy and Justice three-stage workshop, and Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus. You have a third book, Justice by Means of Democracy, slated for publication next year. Can you please talk about the importance of justice and democracy in your work?  

DA: For too long, political philosophers and policy-makers have thought that justice is first and foremost a matter of material distribution. I don’t think that’s right. I think human flourishing derives from human autonomy—our ability to chart our own course in life and to contribute to charting the course of our community. Yes, you need a certain degree of material stability to be able to exercise that autonomy, as Amartya Sen has long argued. But the whole point of getting things right with regard to material underpinnings is to establish a firm foundation for autonomy, in my view. And the only political form that supports full realization of autonomy is constitutional democracy. So I see healthy democracy as necessary for human flourishing.  

AJM: What projects are on the horizon for you? 

DA: Democracy, democracy, democracy. Renovating our democracy. I’m a One-note Nelly, as my grandmother used to say. 

AJM: How do you unwind when you’re not working, do you have any hobbies? 

DA: Well, my kids aren’t hobbies, but they are where the rest of my time goes and a great source of joy. Sometimes there is also an electric guitar involved, or Nintendo, or heated discussions about Minecraft. I had so much fun supervising my daughter at her first concert (Cavetown) that I’ve volunteered to chaperone any time. She hasn’t taken me up on that yet, though. Also, our family time involves two dogs. There’s a lot of dog-walking in our lives.  

AJM: Do you have a podcast or show that you are currently listening to/watching? 

DA: I’m not about podcasts or shows. I am about bodies of water. Show me a body of water and I will want to be in it. My current favorite is Nantucket Sound—the non-sharky part of the Cape. I also enjoy our little public swimming pool in East Cambridge. I grew up going to Newport Beach in Southern California. Apparently, it’s the 6th best surfing beach in the country. So I am always hankering after a chance to body surf.