The following is Danielle Allen’s 2022 Class Day Lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, which she delivered on May 25, 2022.
It is such a pleasure and honor to be with all of you today. It’s a miracle day: a miracle to celebrate the accomplishments we’ve just been hearing about, the miracle of the beautiful afternoon you’ve delivered to us, and the miracle of the possibility you all present. You’ve brought so much light and joy as we’ve learned about your work tackling climate change, affordable housing, machine learning. Resilience was a theme we heard again, and again, and again. You are clearly the class of resilience. And, boy, is that something we need right now.
Dean Whiting started out by asking us to remember the moment we’re in. And it is a hard moment. You all know that, and I don’t have to tell you. So, it is a responsibility for all of us to do the work of holding light and dark together, as Ralph Ellison, one of my favorite authors, once wrote. And you, as I said, have brought us so much light. It’s what we need in this world right now. I’m going to spend some time with you this afternoon proposing that above all, we need designers to take on the problems that confront us.
The gifts you have as designers are what the rest of us need to help us navigate the challenges that we face. I’m going to put to you the proposition that many of the problems in this country, specifically, are design problems. And therefore, I have come to the right place this afternoon in seeking out solutions. The problems in this country are not parochial, however. They are questions, ultimately, about human empowerment and what’s possible on our globe. You are a broad class from all over the globe.
I believe that the problems we’re wrestling with here in this country can be informative for the efforts of human beings everywhere to build that path to connection and empowerment. So, I am going to dwell on the US this afternoon. But in that spirit of seeking to open up a horizon of possibility for all of us, I want to say a little bit more about myself. I’m a philosopher and an ethicist, trying to be a politician in a certain kind of way. I’m a kid who grew up in Southern California in the ’70s, part of a huge family. My dad grew up in northern Florida with 11 brothers and sisters. Half of them sought to escape the Jim Crow South by moving to Southern California.
So we were a huge cousinage. And we were all incredibly politically committed. Almost as if with mother’s milk, we took in the lesson from W.E.B. Du Bois about democracy, about the ballot. Du Bois said, “The power of the ballot we need in sheer defense, else what shall save us from a second slavery?” Democracy is that fundamental, that much at the core of what it takes for communities to have a path to empowerment. We all dug in, and fought, and believed, but across the entirety of the political spectrum.
I remember the year that my aunt was on the ballot for Congress in the Bay Area for the far left Peace and Freedom Party. It was the same year my dad was running for Senate from Southern California as a Reagan conservative. So, boy, those were some dinner table conversations. They always agreed on the what. The what was empowerment for communities, so that those communities could build the security they need to thrive.
The disagreement was on the how. My dad—skinny, with smoke from his pipe curling around his head and bald at 20, poor guy—was making the case for market freedoms and libertarian choice as the way to empowerment. And my aunt—Mack truck, big belly laugh—was making the case for investment in productivity across all the sectors of our society and community. They went at it; but never breaking the bonds of love, never breaking the bonds of mutual respect, that commitment to each other as human beings.
That’s the lesson I took from my childhood about what democracy can give. That space for contests, to have those hard fights, and to try to find that path to empowerment for everybody. I grew up having a sense of our country and our world as being a mix of light and dark. I could see the accomplishments of the country. I could see the opportunity it delivered. I could see the potential. I could see our failings and our errors for sure.
Over the course of my lifetime, we have lived through some extraordinary things in this country. A half century of time. In that time, we’ve had what I call “the great pulling apart.” There’s a massive increase in income and wealth inequality. To the point that we’re at the same place that we were in 1929 before the Great Depression. It is the period of time where we have seen the massive rise in incarceration that has trapped communities of color, and some of the worst things imaginable for any young person coming into the world on our planet. It is also a period of time where we have seen polarization and the acceleration of climate crisis. And now, this remarkable thing we’re living through, where we’ve moved from a period of globalization to a period of deglobalization. A period of great pulling apart. My own family has experienced that pulling apart. Some of us got lifted up on elevators of opportunity to positions of the greatest privilege the world has to offer.
There is no greater privilege than being a tenured professor at Harvard University. Jeff Bezos could forget it. Billionaires can forget it. I mean it: there is no greater position of privilege. And those of us who have the chance to be here owe the world so much. But, at the same time, some of my cousins have gotten trapped and pulled into the worst the world has to offer. I’ve lost a younger cousin by the same name, Danielle, to substance use, and opioid substance disorder. I have lost another cousin, not dead, but broken by a police beating in a case of mistaken identity. The person they were looking for shouldn’t have been beaten like that, and my cousin definitely shouldn’t have been beaten like that. But for me, the real turning point moment—the moment where I went from having a mixed light and dark sense of our world to having a pretty dark sense of our world—came in 2009, when I lost my baby cousin, my youngest cousin, Michael.
Michael was probably the first baby I ever held when he was born in 1979. I was a lonely kid being bullied on the school playground that year. And then my aunt delivered a ready-made new best friend. He was a beautiful kid, full of curiosity, with a bright smile and a lively mind. He wanted to grow up, and travel the world, and learn French. Instead of that, in 1995, when I was a couple of years out of college, he was arrested in Southern California on a first arrest for an attempted carjacking.
This is a terrible thing to have done. It was also a time in California where punishment was at its most intense. On that first arrest, at the age of 15, Michael was sentenced to 12 years and 8 months. When he got out after 12 years, I was what I call “cousin on duty.” I tried to put the pieces back together again by helping with housing, and school, and jobs. Michael had two years out, two years of freedom—that treasure—when he was shot and killed by somebody he had met while he was in prison.
It’s a hard story to hear—I know that. Especially on a miracle day like today. And it’s a hard story to tell. But I tell that story because that was the point for me, that turning point moment, where I started to dig into the question of how in this country, we could steer our institutions to achieve the kinds of reforms that would open up opportunity for communities of all kinds, put a foundation for flourishing back underneath everybody. And the truth is, I got more and more frustrated as our politics also got more and more complicated, and more and more polarized, and more and more difficult.
So now I come to that design problem that I promised I was going to share with you. It’s the reason we need you and your great gifts at this hard moment in time. Why is it exactly that things are so crazy, so complicated, so messy in this country right now? The short answer is that Facebook broke democracy. They didn’t mean to. It was definitely an accident. But they definitely did.
Now, I want to explain that. What do I mean exactly? The fact of the matter is that when this country was founded, it was an experiment in design. The problem that the country faced in the 1780s was that they could not get a functioning banking system. They could not pass a budget in Congress. They did not have a quorum in Congress. They could not make decisions. It was a broken thing, a set of machinery that didn’t work.
Out of that moment and problem came the Constitutional Convention. It was a design solution to the problem of a community of people who could not actually get anything done together. And in that moment when they designed that Constitution, they had all kinds of problems of tribalism, and factionalism, and division—just as we do now. This was, in fact, one of their greatest concerns. So, the Constitution was literally a design solution to the problem of faction, and division, and polarization.
Let’s dig into the nature of that design and how it was supposed to solve that problem. The answer, the solution, the design is described in detail by James Madison, one of the authors of the Constitution, in an essay called “Federalist Paper Number 10.” The Federalist Papers were a series of essays published in the newspaper to defend the new Constitution. And in that 10th essay, Madison takes the time to explain how this design is supposed to address the problem of faction.
We teach this essay to undergrads in a variety of courses. And we typically teach the design solution as one where a broad republic was supposed to solve the problem. But when we teach this paper, we usually just focus on the word republic. The basic argument made is that a republic is a structure of government with representatives. People get elected to serve. And it’s the job of the representatives to synthesize, and moderate, and deliberate, and bring together to find a solution for hard political problems.
We forget to teach the part of the design solution that is captured by the word broad. And that word was actually a proxy word for geographic dispersal. Madison was very clear that one of the things he expected to see in a country that was spread out across a continent separated by rivers and mountains was that people with extreme views would not be able to find each other. This was a premise.
The idea was that because of geographic dispersal, in order to get your views into the public sphere, you would have to go through a representative. Geography was a forcing factor to make a system of representative government work. But that part just doesn’t exist anymore. An actual premise undergirding the design of the Constitution was knocked out by social media. That’s what I mean when I say that Facebook broke democracy.
What that means is that we have a very significant design problem facing us right now in any country that wants to organize a structure of self-government. We have a crisis of representation. And I want to just drive home how impactful that crisis is by calling your attention to a funny feature of our political landscape in this country. If you look at our national politics, we look exceptionally divided. We look like we are at each other’s throats all the time.
But if you change your attention, if you look elsewhere, if you look at state politics and ballot propositions, you see a different America. In Florida, a supermajority of people voted to re-enfranchise, to return the right to vote, to people who had completed their felony conviction. By supermajority, I mean more than two-thirds of the electorate, so Republicans as well as Democrats. In Mississippi, in 2020, more than 70 percent of the people voted in a new state flag, getting rid of the old emblems of the Confederacy, and adding forward-facing symbols.
Here in Massachusetts, 75 percent of us voted for the Right to Repair ballot proposition, which gives small auto dealers and auto shops access to the data in cars, giving them the chance to compete against big auto manufacturers. Three different states, three very different contexts, and American people standing up for inclusion and fairness, sticking up for the person getting the short end of the stick. You wouldn’t know that from our national politics.
That’s where the crisis of representation comes in. There’s a disconnection between our representatives and what’s actually happening in terms of what people are willing to do in our states at a more local level. That’s the design problem that we have to address. There are solutions out there in the political landscape. For example, ranked-choice voting is a good one. It requires candidates to try to build actual majority coalitions, instead of just carving off minority portions of the vote that lets people with more extreme views get through. That’s a political solution.
And we need those. But I believe we also need a whole host of other solutions. I was hearing you talk about some of them, listening to those prizes listed. We need public spaces where people can see themselves together and with one another again. The work on affordable housing is critical, because at the moment, we are letting our society just segment into class-separated ways of living and being. And we will not find our way back to solutions with those divisions.
Some of you have been working on Big Tech and machine learning. And we have to figure out how to design these tools—which are now the infrastructure of our information ecosystem—in ways that are actually good for us. But above all, my experience of working with designers is that you believe in the power of communities to articulate their needs and to participate in the design process.
I think that is a skill you’ve been taught throughout your classes during your time here. It’s not taught everywhere. Lots of times, people and institutions will try to deliver solutions in a top-down way. And if we are going to design our way out of the problems that we have right now, we really need your skills. We need you to lead us in engaging big, cross-cutting communities in participatory processes to get us to a goal that supports a healthy society. So, it is a hard time.
I just told you the story in my own life of the point at which for me dark started to outstrip light. But I have to admit, I’m a commencement junkie. I love commencements because this is where hope is. And again, I heard it with such power, and force, and clarity in the descriptions of your work. So it is an honor to be with you and with your work. We will be both resilient and OK. So thank you.
Danielle Allen is a professor of public policy, politics, and ethics at Harvard University, and James Bryant Conant University Professor, one of Harvard’s highest honors. 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 for the Washington Post, 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 Biden executive order. Danielle made history as the first Black woman ever to run for statewide office in Massachusetts. 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.