To foster inclusive campus culture, universities need diversity at the student level, the faculty level, and in their administration. The most enriching environment possible is when students of all backgrounds feel represented by their role models. Nonetheless, Penn’s political science department—yes, the political science department—has a stark lack of diversity: only one Black professor.
During the first week of the semester, I introduced myself to the faculty members handing out free swag in the Rodin lobby. When I told Daniel Gillion that I’m majoring in political science, he immediately welcomed me in and informed me that he’s a professor in the department. “You can look me up. I’m the only Black professor on the website,” he said. Dr. Gillion became dead set on where his education was taking him, but he also understood the barriers that would stand in the way—not just to getting there, but once he arrived.
From a young age, Gillion frequently discussed social injustices with his minority friends, many of whom resonated with his concerns. “And [then] I found out that you could literally get a whole Ph.D. in this? I mean, before going to graduate school, [I felt] I was halfway there, because I had these conversations” about racial and ethnic inequality, he says. Little did he know that working toward social justice would become his beacon in life.
During his initial foray into research at the graduate level, Gillion eagerly presented his interests about the efficacy of protests to his advisor, only to be told that the subject lacked value and “didn’t matter” because it didn’t connect to broader American political influence. His grandmother, who taught alongside Coretta Scott King—civil rights leader, author, and wife of American hero Martin Luther King Jr.—reassured him in his pursuit to study protest activism. Thus, he delved into the under–researched topic, publishing books displaying the direct correlation between protests as a form of “democratic responsiveness” and governmental behavior.
Since then, Gillion has broadened his studies to racial and ethnic politics, political institutions and behaviors, policy, and American elections. He published his first book in 2013, entitled The Political Power of Protest: Minority Activism and Shifts in Public Policy, followed by another during 2020's turbulent social landscape: The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy. As people took to the streets to shake the world during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Gillion’s work highlighted the consequential act of protesting as a vehicle for change through political pressure. “Why is this the case? Why has this existed in America for so long?” he wonders on the question of racial tension and oppression. “I’m curious about the question, but finding the answer motivates me to pursue that question.”
Growing up as a Black man in America, Gillion doesn’t study this contentious work “behind a desk;” he experienced the theories he studied playing out firsthand. “I’ve experienced racial inequality throughout my life. That drive to find answers isn’t superficial, it’s real. Exploring solutions will help not only me, but help generations that come after me … my kids and their kids and so on,” he says.
Research and writing are both mentally challenging and taxing. When he first embarked on his political writing journey, Gillion couldn't shake away his fear of receiving negative feedback. But, as Gillion’s pieces have attracted more attention, he’s learned how to adjust his tone and style for his audience. A New York Times podcast recently discussed his latest book, and news outlets often seek his opinions on pertinent social issues. However, over time, he’s grown a thicker skin, taking in both positive and negative criticism to rework his research into methods that are “sexy” and digestible to the American public. “I came out of graduate school with such a formal academic way of talking about research, as opposed to a layman, colloquial tone. And that matters when you're trying to present work that will resonate with the overall nation,” he says.
His latest book, The Loud Minority, is frequently mentioned during election cycles because it investigates how protest ideologies impact elections. “People often don't connect how protests affect elections. So, my ability to draw those connections is pretty interesting to individuals nowadays,” he says. “I can show you the probability of a protest affecting elections based upon various characteristics [in both story and data patterns],” he says. In an effort to cater directly to his audience, Gillion speaks to those outside of the realm of academia, gathering their opinions to frame his style.
A family man at heart, Gillion shares his studies with his young children, noting that if they don’t fall asleep, he knows he’s doing okay. “My oldest son has actually come across one of my papers and one of my books as a source of debate in school. He's even said, ‘Who’s this Daniel Gillion guy? It's just you, Dad?’ Like, yes, I'm the only Daniel Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania. That's when it becomes cool—not only to him, but to his friends,” Gillion says.
Gillion’s research is multifaceted and undeniably difficult. Working to push equality forward is challenging, and as racism in America becomes increasingly implicit, acts of discrimination are becoming progressively more difficult to tease out. Thus, it’s an arduous task to “engage in research that tries to inform individuals that there's a problem in America along racial lines when they don't see it,” he says. Race–neutral governmental rhetoric poses additional challenges to exploring social disparities. At the surface, these policies do not explicitly reference racial or ethnic minority issues in society, but in actuality, still indirectly contribute to systemic racism. Omitting racial language does not signify that a policy isn’t racially or ethnically motivated, as seen in cases like the war on drugs and social welfare. Though lacking racial language when implemented, both are are discriminatory in their origins and practice.
On the other hand, Gillion finds these uncomfortable conversations with students to be the most energizing part of his job. Students are young minds with “blank slates,” he says. “Individuals come in wanting to learn without being tainted by ideology and a long history of racism in America. They just want to be informed.” These students are more receptive to engaging with a multitude of perspectives and concepts. By presenting his students with ideas, he hopes that they will “then pick up the mantle to further investigate it on their own.” Rather than performing an act of persuasion, he stimulates students to think critically about American inequality in varied contexts.
“I love the back and forth with my students. Sometimes the students push back, sometimes they’re cheering me on, almost like a cheer squad or choir,” Gillion says. At this particular point in his research efforts, he frequently turns to students to spur fresh ideas with a new sense of energy as young students see the world anew in ways that he may have missed. One way that Gillion deepens his research is by surveying students about whether or not they find protest efforts valuable. Depending on the students’ responses, he may shift the focus of his next paper. Sometimes students question if protests truly do lead to policy changes and individual impacts, prompting Gillion to initiate new investigations in these areas, beyond electoral influence. “There’s a real joy in sitting down and talking to students about my research,” he says, because it enables him to approach racial and ethnic inequality ideology through different avenues.
In his work, Gillion maintains his golden rule of “continuance as opposed to a goal of finality.” Confronting marginalization and social disproportionality is a ceaseless process—a never–ending story. “It's almost like whack–a–mole, where you talk about one particular topic in one particular problem area and another one pops up,” he says. “My work is never done.” He adds, “We can move from the colloquial discussions at the water cooler and engage in very technical discussions of how [injustices] take place,” an objective that Gillion exhibits in his daily efforts.
Although Gillion is the only Black professor in the political science department at Penn, his innovative work is crucial in narrowing pervasive social inequities in America. As an institution that is on a “quest for eminence” through diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, Penn should prioritize DEI in terms of its faculty as well and across multiple disciplines at that. Gillion’s exceptional work within and outside of the classroom exemplifies that necessity for representation.
To students looking to explore political research, Gillion urges, “Go big or go home. Take a deep dive.” The world needs more risk–takers.