Liz McKenna

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I am a post-doc at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and P3 Lab. I received my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. I use multiple methods (ethnographic, interview, spatial, and network analysis) to study organizing, power, and political change. My current research agenda asks: When do civil society organizations safeguard against authoritarianism, and when do they become the primary carriers of it?

My dissertation, which received the 2021 American Sociological Association Dissertation Award, investigates this question in the context of contemporary Brazil. Titled The Revolution Will Be Organized: Power and Protest in Brazil’s New Republic, 1988-2018, I show that power struggles among meso-level actors—specific capital fractions, political parties, and Pentecostal church networks—best explain how and why the political terrain shifted so dramatically in what was once the largest social democracy in the Americas.

P3 Lab research

In a separate project with Hahrie Han and Michelle Oyakawa, our book Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in 21st Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2021) draws on a multi-year, multi-method, six state study of grassroots organizations that won significant victories. We examine how organizational leaders build constituency bases with the kinds of characteristics that enable the collective and strategic exercise of political power. My first book, Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America (Oxford University Press, co-authored with Hahrie Han) analyzed how the Obama campaign turned a social movement into an electoral machine. Before grad school, I worked as a political and community organizer in Ohio and Rio de Janeiro and obtained a B.A. in social studies from Harvard.