Eric’s strategy is twofold: First, he and his team design creative offerings that teach civic power and that cultivate civic character. And second, they activate citizen leaders to bring such offerings to their own towns and communities all across the country. Woven throughout is a central guiding formula: power plus character equals citizenship. In other words, to be an effective contributor to civic life, one needs both literacy in power and grounding in character – one must know how to move people, ideas, money, media. And one must want to do so not for self but for others.
Before describing the entrepreneurial programs at the center of Citizen University, it’s important to emphasize the design principles at their core because those principles are in fact a central part of the strategy itself – and certainly part of what makes this work different. His “programs” are much less about transferring facts and knowledge (like you might find in most civics education, for example) and more about fostering a culture and essentially re-establishing how to live in a community together. Eric speaks often about how values, norms and culture are all upstream of policy and lawmaking. As such, he argues, we must all collectively pay more attention to the absence of cultural rituals and place-based in-person opportunities to rehumanize politics in way that is grounded in relationships and mutuality. And perhaps most important: such work is rooted in love and joy and playfulness. Only a minority of people will do things because they are chided; what we really want is people taking on the identity of a citizen changemaker with a deep sense of purpose and belonging.
As Eric and his colleagues piloted such opportunities over the last three years, he began looking closely at the template of faith gatherings and drawing from them. Indeed, faiths of all kinds have figured out over millennia how to cultivate purpose and belonging that is rooted more in the heart than in the head. So, as Eric and Jená considered ways to activate civic imagination and community, they came up with the idea of Civic Saturdays which is now the centerpiece of Citizen University. Civic Saturdays are a civic analogue to church, mosque, or synagogue. They are regular in-person gatherings on Saturdays where participants reflect and rededicate themselves to the values and practices of being a contributing member to civic life within the United States. As in most faith gatherings, strangers and friends come together in a physical space, they sing together, they turn to those near them, they read selected texts and poetry, and they listen to “sermons” that connect them to pressing issues of the time. Importantly, people are then organized in circles for a wide range of civic activism, learning, and service to community. These actions are all about mutual aid – members of the broader community present a common problem or challenge, and others make hard commitments to help.
With Civic Saturdays Eric seeks to achieve three goals. The first is to rekindle what Eric calls the American civic “religion” or “creed” that naturalized citizens ceremonially swear to uphold and many native-born Americans have few intentional occasions to reflect upon. That creed, as Eric reminds us, boils down to an experiment – a set of promises, like equal justice under the law – that only succeeds if we nurture the “basket of ethics and moral principles” in the same way that religions nurture belief and faith on a weekly basis. Indeed, he claims, democracy works only if enough people believe it works. That belief requires sustaining via rituals of various kinds. His second goal is to channel this renewed spirit into very real public problems – whether at the level of the neighborhood block or the country as a whole – so that people can take action together. Finally, in a time of disconnectedness and deep polarization, Eric sees both these first two goals supporting a third: bridging divide in America by helping Americans see, name, and uphold together what they share in common.
The intention with Civic Saturdays is to establish a model that can be easily and rapidly adopted anywhere in the country – and it has already taken root in over 30 cities. Eric understood full well that he and his team could lead only so many of these gatherings themselves, and so they established the Civic Seminary in 2018 to train 12-15 civic leaders at a time to master and spread the practice. Now on any given Saturday in America today there might be 5-6 Civic Saturdays happening in places as far from each other as the beaches of Honolulu and the borderlands of McAllen, Texas – from small-town Athens, Tennessee or Brownsville, Minnesota to the South Side of Chicago or Midtown Detroit. The alums of the Civic Seminary regularly communicate with each other to share ideas and innovative ways to practice this ritual and develop their civic congregations.
What’s more, at a time when there are many diagnoses of the slow erosion of community in America and yet few remedies, Eric strives to play a field-building role so that the civic movement becomes more than its disparate parts. To this end he launched the national Civic Collaboratory – a support network for hundreds of civic innovators and catalysts doing leading civic engagement work. Once again, the emphasis is on mutual aid. The group meets three times per year, rotating around the country, and the time is structured around members presenting various projects and needs while the rest of the group offers commitments of ideas, money, relationship capital and more – all in support of strengthening the ecosystem of those rebuilding civic life in the U.S.
There is a Youth Collaboratory program, in which high school sophomores and juniors learn to cultivate their own civic power and character while learning from members of the national Civic Collaboratory. To further ensure that the next generation plays a central role in this movement, Citizen University’s most recent innovation is the Civic Confirmation program, in which high school students who, guided by community elders, go through an arc of civic formation and learning, culminating a rite of passage of sorts in which they will lead their own Civic Saturdays.
Not surprisingly, Eric thinks about impact in terms of culture change. Success does not require that every American is deeply engaged in civic life, but rather that there exists a critical mass in each community. When you break it down, his work is about precipitating a shift in beliefs and practice. And so his team measures those shifts and is working to be more rigorous in doing so. They distribute pre-and-post surveys for participation in programs and gatherings alike, tracking metrics like isolation and agency, belonging, as well as indictors like people’s voting patterns, the regularity with which they read the news, how well the know their neighbors, and more. In 2019 they began working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on tracking ways that civic religion can boost community and civic health – and even public health.
Citizen University has a team of eight full-time employees with an operating budget of $1.6M in 2019 coming primarily via foundation grants though also supplemented with fees for workshops.