Eric Liu is leading a national civic revival at a moment when faith in American democracy and its institutions are at an all-time low.
The New Idea
Eric Liu co-founded Citizen University to build a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship in America. He envisions a country in which Americans are steeped in a sense of civic character, educated in the tools of civic power, and are problem-solving contributors in self-governing communities. Citizen University’s founding insight is that such a culture requires upholding and nurturing on a regular basis, and yet over the last half century the spaces and habits of doing so have largely disappeared.
Citizen University exists to spread the belief that a strong democracy requires strong citizens – that we all have the power to make change happen and the responsibility to try. Actually spreading this belief means creating experiences where people can reckon with the ethical and emotional complexities of practicing power in a mass multiracial democratic republic. For Eric, it means practicing what he calls “civic religion,” or what John Dewey called “democratic faith” – faith in each other and in our ability to govern ourselves justly.
Over the last five years, Eric, his co-founder (and wife) Jená Cane, and their team have designed such opportunities – beginning in Seattle – and have begun activating hundreds of others to bring a variety of programs to their own towns, across lines of ideology and identity. The flagship program is Civic Saturdays, modeled on religious services (including weekly, in person, face-to-face time) but dedicated instead to celebrating and fueling collective responsibility and local civic action. Civic Saturdays are now active in 30 U.S. cities and a suite of complementary initiatives now exist to grow a self-perpetuating movement from the ground up – what Eric calls a strategy of “networked localism.” Meanwhile his Civic Collaboratory is a nationwide mutual-aid club of civic innovators from across functional siloes of civic work and across the ideological spectrum – who together create, nurture, and learn with each other to spread this work and the beliefs underlying it.
Democracy is in peril around the world. In the United States, there has been a generations-long decay of faith in democratic institutions and norms. Too many in the US today are illiterate in power and infected by a cynicism that reinforces their sense of powerlessness. They assume that the game is rigged and that there’s no point in participating – thus helping to make it so. The polarization of our times further freezes people into suspicious passivity and social isolation. And once again they retreat into their private lives, only furthering what is broken.
Many organizations address this problem by focusing on law, policy, and the machinery of state, and by activating citizens (meaning contributors to community in the broadest sense, whatever their documentation) to engage with the machine. On one level, this approach makes sense. Rules – of participation, representation, allocation, grievance, remedy – are of course central when it comes to the function of our democracy. Making those rules more inclusive and fair is important. Electing good leaders and un-electing bad ones can make a crucial difference in the fate of a community or nation. But the shortcoming of this approach is that in emphasizing structure it undervalues culture; in focusing on law and rules it overlooks norms and relationships.
We need only to consider the Arab world after the Arab Spring or former Soviet republics after the “color revolutions” to remember that while mass protest can topple dictators, it is insufficient to secure democracy. What’s needed, in addition to the removal of tyrants, is the elevation of citizens – the embedding of norms, values, and what Tocqueville called democratic “habits of the heart,” expressed in bottom-up collective practices and rituals that make those values come to life. What’s needed, more than simply better rulers, is a widespread culture of civic responsibility. Such a culture in the United States is frayed at best, and is in desperate need of revival.
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.
Eric came to this work first as a child of immigrants. For much of his life he absorbed an unspoken sense that he had an obligation to be useful to his country. As a second-generation American he feels acutely a responsibility to sustain the experiment that brought his parents here from China and Taiwan. That’s why for most of his career – as a civic entrepreneur, as an author, as a citizen activist, as a political advisor and policymaker – he has worked on issues and causes of public, common concern.
But what crystallized this general sense of responsibility and patriotism into the specific structure of his work via Citizen University was an epiphany about a decade ago in his early forties. After years of working and learning – including in the white House and on Capitol Hill, in print media and TV, as an author, at Yale College and Harvard Law and beyond – he had amassed a great stock of non-financial capital: social, intellectual, experiential, relational, reputational. And he recognized that he faced a simple binary choice: Shall I hoard or shall I circulate? And he realized that it was time to circulate with the explicit purpose of reviving American democracy. This meant not only continuing to share potent ideas that challenged traditional notions of patriotism, for example, and that highlighted the burdens of citizenship, but to actually build the infrastructure that would enable the country to make progress on perhaps its most fundamental challenge in the 21st century.
There was no single transformative moment in Eric’s trajectory as an entrepreneur. In his 20s he founded a magazine called The Next Progressive that highlighted young changemakers with creative solutions to public problems. Later, while working in Clinton Administration, Eric was a catalyst in the development of the groundbreaking AmeriCorps program. Still later, in 2013 after the Sandy Hook massacre, he co-founded with Nick Hanauer the Alliance for Gun Responsibility which successfully enacted universal background checks and other reforms in Washington State. A core dimension of the Alliance’s influence is indicated in the name: it has enabled a new debate to unfold in which the object is not gun control but gun responsibility. The idea is simply that every right comes with a duty – that “rights without responsibility” is the cry of toddlers, not of grown-up citizens. Which brings things back to Eric’s overarching worldview as a civic entrepreneur and as an American: we all have the power to make change happen, and the responsibility to try. This spirit suffuses his work at Citizen University and beyond.