Theo Dassin: Racing to Save Democracy

Universally regarded as an infectious optimist, Theo Dassin has never seen a challenge too big for him to face.

Theo Dassin: Racing to Save Democracy
As co-founder of “Amherst Students for Democracy,” Dassin attempts to address global democracy deterioration. Photo courtesy of Theo Dassin ’24.

When I interviewed Theo Dassin ’24 for this article, we had to get it done quickly. In fact, given the plethora of plans Dassin had made for the evening, he’d only budgeted 30 minutes for our interview — despite my firm insistence that it was supposed to take around an hour.

The fact that Dassin had essentially double-booked our interview did not surprise me in the slightest. Among the things I have learned about him in our two years together as cross-country teammates is that he possesses the ability to successfully commit himself to an almost unfathomable amount of daily tasks. Or, in the words of his cross-country team co-captain Oliver Spiva ’24, “Theo has an optimistic delusion about what he can get done.”

Yet, Spiva is quick to add that this overpowering optimism also allows Dassin to make some delusional things happen.

Over his four years at Amherst, Dassin has qualified for three national championships as a cross-country and track-and-field team member. He co-founded Amherst Students for Democracy, an initiative aimed at getting Amherst students to commit to working for a pro-democracy organization during their time in college, and, in addition to his studies in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought (LJST), he co-authored an article about the connection between secrecy and the death penalty that was published in the British Journal of American Legal Studies. Impossibly, he still somehow finds time to perform with Mr. Gad’s House of Improv every Monday night.

In the process, Dassin has infected countless members of the Amherst community with what one student described as “this kind of energy and excitement that lights up a room.” When Dassin talks about running, comedy, the perils facing American democracy, or the New York Knicks, he does so with a sort of intense rapture bound to inspire anyone he is in a room with.

Indeed, it would not be hyperbole to say that “when Theo puts his mind to something, it’s like a force of nature,” as does William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin Sarat, who has taught Dassin in several classes and served as co-author on the published article.

The optimism that serves as Dassin’s engine is evident to anyone he meets. However, it is also interesting to examine where exactly his optimism, this ability to believe he can truly accomplish whatever he pursues, comes from. The more I’ve gotten to know Dassin, the more I can surmise that it traces back to his genuine love for whatever he is pursuing. In fact, in my conversations with his friends, professors, and peers, the second most common word that came up to describe Dassin, besides “optimism,” was “joy.”

What drives Dassin, it seems, is never the accomplishment waiting on the other end of his busy workload, whether it is a long run or a research paper, but instead the profound sense of happiness he finds in his life at Amherst itself.

Growing Up

Dassin grew up with his twin sister and parents on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from his entire extended family. “I was very close to my family, my cousins, my grandparents, and everybody was either in New York City or in the surrounding area,” he said.

In New York, Dassin treasured the “tight-knit” sense of community he found in various areas. Besides his family, he also used the “tight-knit” moniker to describe the Jewish community he was a part of growing up, including his temple, as well as the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which he attended from the time he was four all the way through his senior year of high school.

Growing up in the fast-paced environment of New York City also left a deep impression on him. “Just because of the hustle and bustle of the city, I was surrounded by such impressive, high-achieving people who were always doing impressive things,” he said. “Being surrounded by people like that really gave me ambition and a belief in myself.”

Still, this ambition lay primarily dormant for Dassin growing up, who, in his own words, “didn’t do anything spectacular” in high school. “I’d say I’m mostly at Amherst because of running.” He laughed.

While most of his attention in high school was focused on “hanging out with friends,” it was around this time that Dassin also began to show his immense talent for distance running, a sport that he had started in second grade, which led to a fateful recruiting visit to Amherst.

It was on that visit that he came to fall in love with the school. He says that he could tell immediately that Amherst combined what he had loved most about his childhood: a plenitude of “high achieving” yet “down to earth” people grouping together to form a tight-knit community.

Dassin began at Amherst during a pandemic: surely no freshman’s ideal introduction to college. Yet, true to form, he entered the year with the spirit of an optimist and still maintains that the bubble was “bizarrely fun.”

“We really did make the most of it, and actually, in some ways, we turned the Covid rules into fun,” he said. To expand, he remembered fondly packing dorm rooms with “thirty people,” at a time when a maximum of four were allowed, as his freshman year version of a social life. “Someone would knock on a door, and all thirty people would hide under the beds or in the closets,” he recalled.

Besides flouting Covid precautions, Dassin also began to make an intellectual breakthrough his freshman year. It was in his first-year seminar, “Secrets and Lies” with Sarat, that Dassin says he first began to take himself seriously as a student.

“The subject was really interesting, but it was really just the setup of the classroom. The fact that he would cold call you with these crazy hypotheticals, it felt like a sport, and I loved that,” he said. In every class meeting, “I had to test my skills, like how do I critically think? How do I break down this problem? How do I answer it in a coherent and logical way?” Dassin recalled.

“I had never had a teacher in my life who really shaped my critical thinking like that through a semester.” He decided at the end of the course that he wanted to be an LJST major.

For his part, Sarat remembers that from the beginning, Dassin exuded “a kind of joy.”

“There are some students from whom one gets a sense that studying is a job. They are sometimes more dutiful than joyful. Theo is more joyful than dutiful,” said Sarat, who proudly claimed that he was able to recruit Dassin into his “death penalty tribe.” This was solidified by an invitation for Dassin to work as a Schupf Fellow the summer after his freshman year alongside Sarat and Aidan Orr ’24, trying to find a purely original research question relating to capital punishment. They ultimately decided to investigate the historical relationship between secrecy and lethal injection capital punishment.

“Everyone had talked about the importance and implications of secrecy to the death penalty, but no one had actually ever tracked that history of how, over time, transparency and secrecy have been related to the death penalty,” Dassin said. “We figured out, oh, we could be the first to do this, and then we spent the next year working on it.”

After a summer and full school year of research, Dassin, Sarat, and Orr published their paper, “A Dark Shadow: The Intensification and Expansion of Lethal Injection Drug Secrecy,” in the spring of 2022. Dassin reflects that, on a “superficial level,” publishing the article is what he is most proud of coming out of Amherst. On a deeper level, though, he says the relationships he developed with members of the community are what have mattered most to him during his time at Amherst. These relationships start with Sarat, who Dassin describes as his “mentor.”

“Whatever I wanted to do, I could tell he really believed that I could do it and was willing to help in any way,” he said. Dassin reflects that Sarat is responsible for helping him “take myself seriously.”

“I feel like I showed up to Amherst without ever having treated myself and my time that seriously. I think he showed me that you have to be serious about what you do with your time, and he showed me how to do that,” Dassin said.

For Sarat, the relationship was perhaps equally meaningful. “I love Theo. I admire him, and I respect him, and I love him,” Sarat declared to me. It’s worth noting that Sarat’s admiration stems only partly from Theo’s talents and, instead, mostly from his character. “As good as he is as a student, as good as he is as a student leader, as good as he is at running, he’s an even better human being,” he said. He went on to describe Dassin as a “mensch” who was as “bright, considerate, and kind of student as I’ve ever taught.”

Finding Community

When I asked Dassin to describe what his running career at Amherst meant to him, his thoughts immediately turned not to his own individual success but to the sense of community he discovered in the team itself.

“One of the best parts of Amherst for me was having older guys on the team show me the ropes of college,” he said. He added that having the opportunity to serve as a captain during his senior year on the cross country team was especially an honor due to the chance he had to “return the favor” for a younger iteration of the team.

The allegiance he felt he owed to the program led to both personal lows and highs. In his sophomore cross country season, he remembers dropping out of the NESCAC championship meet and the devastation it caused him to feel like he had “let the team down.” Yet, almost two years later to the day, Dassin toed the line once again at the NESCAC meet as a senior captain. The program hadn’t finished in the top six in team scoring since before the pandemic, yet Dassin managed to lead the team to a second-place team finish with an eighth-place individual placing. He fondly recalls the aftermath of the race as one of his favorite memories of college because of the way he was able to “share the success with the full team.”

Dassin was captain of the cross country team, and led the team to a second-place team finish at the NESCAC championships. Photo courtesy of Theo Dassin ’24.

This memory perhaps most distinctly encapsulates Dassin and his impact on Amherst. The dedication he felt to his community, what Sarat describes as his “determined and resilient” nature, and the blind optimism that enables him to see a seemingly impossible challenge and, as Spiva says, “put himself through the fire” in order to make its conjuring a reality.

Running an eight-kilometer cross-country race in under 25 minutes, however, is not the only terrifying task that Dassin’s optimistic nature merely translates into an exciting opportunity. Since his junior year, he has performed as a member of Gad’s, Amherst’s improv comedy group. His impetus for joining was a lifelong passion he has held for comedy, which he describes as “the idea of being able to boil down human experiences to words that resonate with people to the point that they start hysterically laughing.”

Being Dassin, he claims that he had “no excuse not to audition” for Gad’s. “It kind of felt like the real test of whether I was actually willing to put myself out there and try something that’s scary and different,” he said. Once again, Dassin says what he took away most from his time on Gad’s was the joy of sharing a moment, good or bad, with his teammates. “It’s a really scary thing, going on a stage in front of 100 people and having no idea what you’re going to do. But knowing that someone else is going through that exact same thing with you at the same time is such a cool thing.”

Defending Democracy

At the start of his junior year, Dassin found himself in Sarat’s office with his former research partner Aidan Orr ’24, learning about the extreme apathy of this generation of college students toward the worldwide deterioration of democracy. Sarat, however, had invited Dassin and Orr to explain to them his idea: a pledge campaign for Amherst students to commit to working or volunteering for a pro-democracy organization at least once during their time in college.

For Dassin, the threat and solution that Sarat revealed “seemed like an actual pressing issue, and also just a really logical, viable solution.” It was exactly the sort of challenge he had been looking for “to have a real impact” while he was still in college.

He and Orr thus began to build what came to be known as “Amherst Students for Democracy” and have worked over the last two years to complete their goal of having every Amherst student, at some point during their time in college, work for a pro-democracy organization.

Sarat explained that he approached Dassin with the idea first for a reason: “When I thought about who on campus that I know could take this idea and actually make it happen, I thought of Theo,” he said.

As he looks ahead to his life beyond Amherst, Dassin’s eyesight has not drifted off the pro-democracy fight. He and Orr have begun to build a nationwide network, Students Defending American Democracy, that they plan to work on full-time after graduation in order to roll out a similar pledge campaign across college campuses nationwide.

Characteristically upbeat and undaunted, Dassin strikes a chipper tone when describing their plan to “show students that democracy is really the only viable way of government and that there are people working every single day to improve it.”

When Dassin talks about his plans to revive the pro-democracy movement on campuses nationwide, he speaks with the same utter conviction, with the same untarnished optimism, that he uses to explain how he’s going to condense what should be an hour-long interview into thirty minutes. Yet, I only had to check my watch in awe after asking my last question to see that when Theo Dassin says he’s going to do something, the force of his will is powerful enough to turn any delusion into reality.

I can’t wait to see what he does next.