Legendary MSU President’s Great Granddaughter Following in His Footsteps

Hannah Zimmerman is a Stanford undergraduate who balances time between serving as New York's youngest elected official and the founder and director of TICO, The Institute for Civic Organizing. She loves to teach, organize, and research community resilience, domestically and abroad.

And if that first name sounds familiar, Hannah Zimmerman is the great granddaughter of renowned MSU president John Hannah. She's on campus exploring her great grandfather's archives in the MSU library to learn more about his legacy and how it inspires her.

“John Hannah was my great grandfather, and I grew up in his legacy,” Zimmerman says. “I knew growing up about him through the sense that we lived on Hannah land, but I didn't know much about who he was or what he did in his incredible career until later.

“I started a nonprofit, which has now transitioned into a hybrid organization based around ideas of civic engagement and organizing. Part of the work I'm doing here is learning about similar work he did and seeing how I can build on that legacy.

“I took a course on election law at Stanford, and John Hannah's name when he was the commissioner of civil rights was in the cases we were reading. And it was just weird to me to see that this part of my life that I hadn't thought all that much about was really impactful in an arena I would want to go into. As I continue to grow into who I want to be and the issues I'm passionate about, I'm learning how to find inspiration from my great grandfather and the work he did.”

As Zimmerman explores her great grandfather's memoir and archives, she's learning about his dedication to all people and to making room in an organization for everyone.

“One of the things I'm really coming to appreciate is when he had dedication to one issue. Something my mom said to me last summer is ‘The thing about your great grandfather and what made him such a good leader is he understood to be a good leader you have to find a place for everyone in the organization. And that is my piece of advice for you.’ When I started reading his memoir, which is part of why I wanted to come here, he talks about that principle of leadership and communicating. If you have a vision for something, you have to make sure that other people can see it, too.

“He has that famous quote, ‘Only people matter, especially poor people.’ That's something I am trying to live by. And as I read through the folders and see all the people he impacted, you can really see that for him, people are what mattered. And he was someone who really cared about feeding the world. And while my passion for organizing is different than his passion for agriculture, I can still see that he had one passion and followed it through several years in several different capacities. And that's just inspiring.”

Zimmerman is the founder and director of TICO, The Institute for Civic Organizing, and she'll bring the TICO mission to East Lansing next year. She elaborates on the evolution and threefold mission of TICO. She’s optimistic that more of us will become more civically organized in the months and years ahead.

“The metaphor I always like to use with political participation is that it's like the ocean. Scientists say we've only explored about five percent of the ocean and there's 94 percent we haven't seen. And I feel like it's kind of that way with public participation as well. So many people are just not engaging as much with public institutions as I'd like to see. Taking the public and private and combining them, which is what we do at TICO, is my way of forcing the public sector to catch up through private sector activities and learning from what other countries are doing with their civic engagement processes and hopefully seeing what we can bring back and develop here.”

Zimmerman details how she became New York's youngest elected official.

“I really love the opportunities to connect with my neighbors and talk to them about who they're voting for and how to vote. And that work is very important and rewarding and you can see why people stay in public service. And again, I love building things like we do at TICO. I see my role there as building connections that help people vote and vote in an educated way. I'm glad that I can look at things that he did and find inspiration in them. And I'm also proud that that's what came from my family and I'm proud that I'm able to carry on with the work I'm doing. And hopefully in some small way, that'll add to what's going on in the world.”

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and streams at WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.