While many people primarily think of homelessness as economic injustice, Courtney Cooperman approaches this issue through a new lens. Her Ethics in Society honors thesis unveils the political consequences of being unhoused and how lack of housing undermines citizens’ ability to partake in democracy. Cooperman’s thesis has been awarded the Golden Medal for Excellence by the Vice Provost’s office. This prestigious medal is an annual university-wide award conferred upon the top ten percent of all honors theses writing in the Humanities and Creative Arts. Cooperman is also one of two recipients of the Outstanding Achievement Award presented by the Stanford Alumni Association. Before graduation, we asked Cooperman about her journey in our program.
Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society?
Since I took a philosophy course in high school, I have always been attracted to questions of ethics and political philosophy. I knew that an Ethics in Society thesis would allow me to investigate the tensions between our normative ideals and our real-world social and political systems. Plus, I loved the political theory classes that I took within my first two years at Stanford — Justice with Rob Reich, Democratic Theory with Brian Coyne, and Inventing Government with Josiah Ober — and wanted to pursue the subject further.
In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.
My thesis, “Loss of Place, Loss of Voice: How Homelessness Impedes Political Equality,” explores how lack of housing bars citizens from participating in the democratic process and being treated as full political equals. I argue that the problem of homelessness and political inequality stems from two interrelated dilemmas: first, the relationship between place and political authority, and second, the stigmatization of homelessness. Because unhoused citizens do not have a residential address, they face logistical barriers to proving that they are residents of a particular place — which is a necessary prerequisite to exercising political rights within that place. I also find that the stigmatization and social marginalization of people experiencing homelessness diminish their propensity to participate in the political process, as they may be treated with disrespect when they assert a place in the public sphere and can be cut off from politically mobilized recruitment networks.
What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?
Conducting interviews with currently and formerly unhoused people was the most rewarding part of my research process. It was incredible to speak with individuals who are overcoming immense obstacles, taking on leadership roles, and successfully campaigning for policies that address the needs of the homeless community. Their stories pushed my research in new directions and ensured that my philosophical argument reflected the real-world experiences of people experiencing homelessness. My interviewees inspired me to complete a project that won’t just sit on a shelf, but will have practical policy implications and hopefully inspire meaningful change.
Beyond your thesis, what are some of the most memorable moments of your Stanford undergraduate experience?
Being involved with the Jewish Student Association was one of the highlights of my Stanford experience. Not only did I get to attend and organize incredible events with famous Jewish leaders — including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz — but I also found an incredible community and a place on campus that felt like home. Shabbat dinners became an essential part of my weekly schedule, carving out a space for me to step back from hectic Stanford life and enjoy meaningful rituals. I will miss the sense of belonging and purposeful routine that I found in the Jewish community, and at Stanford overall.
What opportunities would you like to pursue within the next five years?
Within the next five years, I would like to become a political speechwriter, ideally in a legislative office or a Cabinet department. I am also considering applying to law school, although I would like to spend some time working in the nonprofit sector or in government first. I would also like to do some more traveling — potentially back in South America, since I spent my quarter abroad in Santiago, Chile — or perhaps even live abroad for a longer period of time.