An Interview with Eric Liu

Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, an organization working to build a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship across the country.

Read more about his work and ideas below in an interview between Eric Liu and PACH Director Crystal Clarke.


Crystal Clarke: I’ll start with just a general question. If you could, tell me about the work that you do in your own words.

Eric Liu: Yeah. So I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen University. Our work is about fostering a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship in the United States. We really emphasize culture because we feel that democracy works only if enough of us believe that democracy works. So this is a matter of values, norms, habits, spirit. And our approach to citizenship is of course not contained by a legal definition of citizenship as documentation status, but focused on the legal, ethical conception of being a member of the body, a contributor to community. We often shorthand this notion of citizenship in an equation: power plus character equals citizenship. To live like a citizen is to be both fluent in power and to understand how to move things in the world and how decisions get made that affect common life. But to couple that literacy in power with a grounding in what we think of as civic character, which is character in the collective: how we live in community, how we hold a community together. And so all of our programs at Citizen University emphasize one or both parts of that equation—either teaching and democratizing power to different constituencies or cultivating civic character through shared experiences. Like probably our best known program, Civic Saturdays, which are civic analogs to faith gatherings that have been spreading around the country. So that’s the spirit of the work. And we really think about it in terms of a bottom up renewal in which the set of cultural shifts can actually make possible different forms of structural change down the road.

C: Beautiful. What I love and appreciate about Citizen University is that your work seems to have really identified the two pillars of power and character that really support the work towards fostering connections and building bridges.

I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about how you believe your work fosters connections and common humanity.

E: Yeah. Central to our conception of a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship is the spirit of responsibility taking. And responsibility taking, when you stop and think about it, is not a matter of mere exhortation, like “Take more responsibility!” and wagging the finger. It is really a matter of being embedded in webs of relationship and obligation. When we are situated in webs of relationship and obligation and see ourselves as such and appreciate the power of those bonds, then we take more responsibility. Just almost automatically. And conversely, when we imagine ourselves to be makers of our own selves, hyper-individualistic, autonomous agents, we give ourselves permission to shirk responsibility and shed a sense of trust and obligation toward others. And so just at the level of theory of action, responsibility taking is by definition relational.


“Our approach to citizenship is of course not contained by a legal definition of citizenship as documentation status, but focused on the legal, ethical conception of being a member of the body, a contributor to community. We often shorthand this notion of citizenship in an equation: power plus character equals citizenship.”


But I think when it comes down to our programs, Civic Saturday, for instance, this program that is about creating a civic analog to a faith gathering, is all about relationship. It is about creating communities, inviting people of very different backgrounds, political ideologies, faith backgrounds, generations, into a common space to together try to make ethical sense in this moment what we are called to do for and in our communities. And wherever Civic Saturdays happen—and they are happening any given weekend across the United States—you get heterogeneous groups of people coming together who were strangers to one another, who might have considered each other enemies politically or at least look at each other warily. And the design and the structure of this ritual, of this civic gathering, is intended to make it possible for the participants to rehumanize each other.

We begin by, you sit down next to someone you don’t know, and you’re asked to take turns answering a common prompt that is cutting right past small talk. A question like, “Who are you responsible for?” or “Who have you failed recently?” or “What are you afraid of right now?” And then we sing together and there are readings of texts that you might think of as civic scripture, texts drawn from throughout American history and tradition, both mainstream and from the margins, that are again meant to make us reflect upon how we see one another. And over the arc of this gathering, you begin to realize the ways in which I might have slotted you in when I saw you or met you as “Oh, this is a ‘fill in the blank’ person.” This is a ‘fill in the blank’ voter, or a ‘fill in the blank’ type of person. And I begin to realize that you actually move with a fuller sense of complexity, and we all do, as we both engage each other in discussion and then hear a civic sermon that’s at the heart of this gathering and are challenged to see each other with more complexity and less certitude. That’s one example.

The program that you and I were just talking about before the recording started is another program of ours called Civic Collaboratory, which is a mutual aid network of civic innovators. And the spirit of that program is all about fostering bonds of trust and affection across different silos of civic work, across ideological lines, and to get people not just to talk to each other and understand each other, but to actually do stuff together and do stuff for each other. We do believe fundamentally that it is the doing of stuff that locks in some of this rehumanization and some of this willingness to reground ourselves in relationship.

C: Absolutely, yes. And you’ve anticipated a bit of my next question, too. What would you say if you had to identify what the specific strategies are, or what the tricks of the trade are here? What would you say is kind of at the root of mending social divides or differences? I heard you say it’s the doing of things. Would you add to that list in any way?

E: Yeah, I mean I think the doing of things is crucial. It’s why I’ve always been a big believer of national service, for instance, where you get people from very diverse backgrounds to come together and do more than simply talk about themselves and their differences. When you’re engaged in a service or volunteerism project, you and I are working on a third thing. We’re not just working on each other or ourselves. It’s working on that third thing that actually enables us to view each other in different layers of complexity and build different layers of relationship.


“When you’re engaged in a service or volunteerism project, you and I are working on a third thing. We’re not just working on each other or ourselves. It’s working on that third thing that actually enables us to view each other in different layers of complexity and build different layers of relationship.”


I think a second thing that is more directly involved in our political culture right now—I run a program at the Aspen Institute on citizenship and American identity, and one of our projects there is called the Better Arguments Project. One of the core lessons of the Better Arguments Project is that you’d be amazed what can happen if you enter into an argument not to win, but to understand. Changing that energy, changing that objective. I’m going to engage with this person not to own him, not to humiliate him, not to crush him in debate, but really sincerely to understand. Why do you see the world this way? What formed your ideological frame? What is it, either successes, failures, triumphs, traumas, what made you reflexively want to respond to issues and politics and people this way? And it has to be sincere. It can’t be oh, I want to understand enough so that I can now find the weakness in your defense and attack you and crush you. And I think that is a second—engaging in argument to understand rather than to win is a second strategy. And I think a third, quite frankly, is just nurturing what the former federal judge Learned Hand once famously said about the true spirit of liberty. He said “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

C: Oh, yes, I love that.

E: And I think that is a matter of internal personal work of releasing our instincts for righteous servitude, which today are fed at every turn by social media, culture, the incentives of politics and business. And just asking yourself, might I be wrong? Might I be missing something? Might I not be seeing, feeling, hearing, understanding, perceiving something? And that’s a habit of heart and a habit of mind that is in disuse in America today.


“You’d be amazed what can happen if you enter into an argument not to win, but to understand.”


C: Absolutely. Right, leaving room for error, for fallibility. As humans, that resonates deeply. Perhaps I can imagine this going a different way and leaving room for that.

There’s something you said, too, that I’m curious what you think about in terms of what’s behind that entering of arguments to win, to conquer? I wonder how you think about why that exists, or why we have that tendency as humans. Is it cultural? Where do you think that comes from?

E: Well… There’s one layer of it that’s certainly universal. And there’s one layer of it that’s certainly very American. The universal human layer, I would refer you to a book by someone who really has shaped my thinking a lot over the years, and you may have encountered him in the realms of social psychology and organizational behavior, a guy named C. Terry Warner, who’s now retired I think, an emeritus professor at BYU. But he wrote a book about 20 years ago called “Bonds That Make Us Free.” It’s a deeply wise book that works at every fractal scale of relationship, whether it’s you and your significant other, or us as neighbors, or as participants of competing political constituencies, or us between nations. In every scale he describes this dynamic, this collusive dynamic, that is short-handed as “I accuse to excuse.” And the dynamic is basically, “I accuse you in order to excuse me.” And one very simple kind of everyday example of this might be, I come home after a long day of work and I see dishes piled up in the sink, and I say, “Hey, why didn’t you do the dishes?” And my spouse might say right back,”Well why didn’t you take out the garbage?” And so accuse to excuse, right? The first person jumps out with an accusation, you know: Why didn’t you? And some part of you knows: Yeah, I probably should have done the dishes. But you retort not by saying, “Yeah, I should have done the dishes.” You retort with responsibility shirking and deflection, pointing out the thing that the other person failed to do.


“‘Accuse to excuse’ is a universal, deep human dynamic. And I think that has something to do with why cultures of argumentation can sometimes spin out of control. Because we don’t really want to hear each other or engage each other, we want to deflect. It’s not even that we just want to destroy the other side; it’s that we want to deflect blame or responsibility because as humans we always want to be the heroes of our own story.”


“Accuse to excuse” is a universal, deep human dynamic. I think that has something to do with why cultures of argumentation can sometimes spin out of control. Because we don’t really want to hear each other or engage each other, we want to deflect. It’s not even that we just want to destroy the other side; it’s that we want to deflect blame or responsibility because as humans we always want to be the heroes of our own story. So I think that’s the universal layer. But I think the very specific American layer is that we have a unique inheritance in the United States—and it’s why I’m very comfortable with argument and civic life. Even as toxically polarized as we are today, I don’t think argument is a bad thing. Because we have to remember that America is an argument. The whole point of this country is to be engaged in perpetual unresolvable contests between competing ideals that form our complex, sometimes contradictory creed. The contradictions between liberty and equality, the tensions between color-blind and color-conscious, between pluribus and unum, between strong central government and local control. All these tensions are baked into American civic life. And God help us if one side or the other, or if any of these tensions, should ever achieve “final victory.”

C: Right, whatever that means.

E: We want to have healthy, continuous contest over these things and I think that part of American life means—so we’re a nation that’s based on a creed, we’re a nation who has translated a lot of that creed through language of the law and so we’re also very litigious nation, and so we just have a litigious, argumentative culture to begin with. And that’s always been true. And so you triple charge that with social media and incentives of anonymous flamings of people and you get what we’ve got.

C: Absolutely. That resonates so deeply. And what you mentioned about our wanting to be heroes of our own story, it really resonates. What could it be if we could imagine, at least moreso, collective stories? Where we’re not key players, and perhaps even are supporting characters, to other stories?

I want to shift to talk a little bit about—and you can tell me whether or not it speaks to the power pillar of the work that you do. But I’m curious how you think about your work as it relates to addressing the injustices in society that often get in the way of building connections across social divides.

E: Yes. So I think that this is very centrally about the work that we do around power. I think the good news of this time of upheaval in our politics—and the good news about the very painful public expressions of anguish, about racial injustice in the United States—is that it is the expression of power and the voicing of possibility. I would much rather have angry protests and vocal disappointment and disillusionment than simple silent retreated, withdrawal and resignation. And I think given this moment, we’re in a time where people of every background are awakening to the ways in which all forms of structural injustice baked in white supremacy, in institutions from housing to education to policing and criminal justice, baked in male supremacy in institutions from the corporate world to the military. We’re beaming these things in a new way. And we’re feeling that.


“The good news of this time of upheaval in our politics—and the good news about the very painful public expressions of anguish, about racial injustice in the United States—is that it is the expression of power and the voicing of possibility. I would much rather have angry protests and vocal disappointment and disillusionment than simple silent retreated, withdrawal and resignation.”


What we at Citizen University feel a sense of urgency about right now is that we’ve got to be able to build upon that moment of naming. Going from protest to power. Going from naming the ills to being able to understand how to remedy the ill. That requires a foundational literacy in power. We define power in civic life as simply a capacity to ensure that others do as you would like them to do. And though that sounds rather menacing and manipulative to some ears, I think if you look at it simply objectively, that is just a simple truth of human nature. We are always trying to get others to do what we would like them to do. But when you apply that to questions of civic life and of common concern, the instincts that any human they have about how to get your boss or your neighbor or your partner to do x or y or z, what you want them to do, those instincts somehow evaporate when it comes to questions of how do we change the criminal justice system? How do we change schooling in this country? And that’s because there is this kind of blind spot that too many Americans have about the central question of civic life, which is this: Who decides?

The central question of all civic power is “Who decides?” And for too many Americans, the answer to that question is a generic “they.” I can’t believe they decided to cut bus service. I can’t believe they decided that this admissions policy would be instituted at this college. I can’t believe they decided that group X should get the vaccine first and not group Y. But when you just attribute these decisions to a generic, vague, they, you betray the fact that you don’t actually know who decides. Part of what it means to be literate in power now is to be able to read that map of power with a more fine-grained sense of granularity. And to understand that when it comes to moving people, ideas, money, people, state action, that there are different conduits and there are different sources of power and there are different sources of people who currently in the structure of power have a certain clout, and there are certain ways you can challenge that and insert yourself into that.

And so we’re trying at Citizen University to democratize the understanding of power. To spread, whether with young people, people of color, in different communities, to demystify power. To say that this is not something you need a PhD for, this is not something you have to be a professional activist for. This is something that simply if you and others—and again preferably you and others, because like everything else, this is best done in a collective, in fellowship—can make a commitment to pick one thing. If the one thing you’re concerned about is policing in your community, then ask yourself, who decides on this? Is this a matter of the city council hiring a police chief? Is this a matter of well, the police chief is fine, but the county prosecutor is corrupt? Who is deciding here and how can you influence that? And we feel like that is urgent work right now, to help people bridge from the expression of anguish, which I think is net hopeful actually, but to bridge from that to the practice of power which will then redeem the hope.


“Going from protest to power. Going from naming the ills to being able to understand how to remedy the ill. That requires a foundational literacy in power.”


C: Beautiful, yes absolutely. When I was listening to you to give the presentation, something that I admired particularly about Citizen University, is the sense that oftentimes a lot of the work that we do as Builders or as folks who are interested in fostering connection and mending social divides and building bridges, a lot of times those narratives leave out the role of power and the role of structures and institutional authorities that get in the way of building those bridges. And so the fact that at Citizen University it stands central to the work is powerful.

E: I’m really glad you point that out, because I do think that in various conversations that you and I have been part of in different communities doing bridging work, it is often the case that power is left out of the discussion, and candid acknowledgements of differentials in power are often left out of the picture. And a recent book of mine is called “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen,” and what’s been gratifying about that is that over the last three years since the book came out, different kinds of groups are finding both the book and other content that we’ve created out of it and figuring out ways to apply it to their own domains.

And this is the other lesson that I think our times hold right now, which is that we at Citizen University don’t think of ourselves as keepers of a bunch of great knowledge that we’ll let a few people in on. We think that there are some ways of thinking about and ways of practicing power and cultivating character that we’ve come up with that we then want to share and disseminate. But then it’s up to catalysts in every community to take them, own them, adapt them, and apply them in ways that make sense for their own circumstance. And how that plays out in the west side and south side of Chicago is going to look different from how it plays out in Memphis and that’s going to look different from how it plays out in rural Minnesota or San Fernando Valley. And we have some overarching views about both power and character, but we ultimately believe that again, getting back to human scale and relationship, this is about how it plays out within the context of where you are relationally situated.

C: Absolutely. Totally, totally. I kind of want to widen the lens when you talk about how we’re situated in this work and in the world.

I’m curious to learn more about what’s brought you to the work. Is there a time or a moment or experience that’s really shaped the work that you do now? How do you see your past leading to what you do now?

E: On the most foundational level, like you I’m a child of immigrants. Actually, let me amend that—you said your parents were immigrants, but I’m not sure if you were actually born in the United States.

C: Yes, I’m a child of immigrants, I was born here.

E: You were. Great. I think many second-generation Americans grow up in households where there’s just this unspoken sense that our parents did the heavy lifting. That they were the ones that made the hard choice and the great leap of faith and the big sacrifice. And what we did was have the dumb luck to be born here. And so now, what are we going to do to earn it, right?

C: Right.

E: And I think that was an unspoken sense that just formed me: the desire to be useful, and the desire to be part of having made this sacrifice meaningful and the story purposeful.

C: Right, yeah.

E: But I think also I spent a pretty formative chunk of my career working in Washington DC in national politics, both in Capital Hill and the Clinton White House, and that was formative in two ways. Number one, it was a real education in power. To be involved in that work at a pretty young age gave me exposure to a lot of things. But the second way in which that was formative, and the reason why I have lived in Seattle for the last twenty years, is that it reminded me, too, that there is a deep unreality to what goes on in DC. That so much of national politics—and this was true then, but it’s even more true today—is a kabuki theater of postulating and positioning. That it’s not actually about trying to solve things and not actually about people as real people. People are props, people are pawns. Constituencies are just that—constituencies to move and to mobilize. You know, let’s get the Latino vote, let’s get the nurses out, let’s get the firefighters, but not actually like, let’s ask Crystal, let’s ask Bob, let’s ask Ben, what does it mean to do x or y? And so when I came out to Seattle in 2000, I was determined to figure out ways to return to a more human, grounded, relational way of doing work that benefited the public.


“We feel like that is urgent work right now, to help people bridge from the expression of anguish, which I think is net hopeful actually. To bridge from that to the practice of power which will then redeem the hope.”


Citizen University emerged organically, not out of a single big bang, but rather out of a series of evolutionary changes. I wrote a book in the early 2000’s called “Guiding Lights.” It’s about life-changing mentors from all different walks of life. And that book yielded an annual conference that we started to convene here, drawing together marine drill instructors, Hollywood acting coaches, gangland priests, major league pitching coach, corporate executives—people who were, within their fields and domains, understood to be really powerful mentors and transmitters of values and knowledge and skill. And that conference over time formed a community, and as it evolved, we realized that what we were doing was not just the dyads of mentor-mentee. What we were focusing on really was the wider arc of community-building—the wider arc of passing on in a context that’s bigger than you, what you know, what you believe, what your values are, what your skills are. What we came to realize several years into these convenings was what we were really doing was the art of citizenship. There was one year when we actually gave the conference the theme Citizen University. And people were so electrified by that because it was the kind of fusion of yes, on a heart and spirit level we care about this weave of obligation and the teaching and learning that goes on here, but to actually focus that general spirit onto our civic life, onto what even then, 2013, was feeling like an increasingly frayed social fabric and a fragile set of institutions in our democracy. People were fired up by that. And they responded to that. And the next year we actually outright named the organization Citizen University and have been off to the races ever since.

So I think for us as an organization and for me personally, I would say it was this base layer of values and formative experience as a child of immigrants, plus experience being exposed to power, but wanting to find ways to democratize that knowledge of power and root it anew in place and community. That really formed our philosophy at Citizen University. The other big, important part is that I’m the cofounder of the organization, and the other cofounder is my wife Jena Cane. Jena and I came together initially working at those early Guiding Lights conferences, and she came with a theater background in producing events and had run a theater company of her own. So I have this kind of deep civic DNA of, ‘be useful to community and country,’ ‘share what you know and circulate what you know about power,’ and she comes to it with this deep artistic theatrical DNA of create rituals and experiences that activate people’s heart and emotion and mind at the same time. And I think those two strands of DNA are in everything that Citizen University does.

C: Yeah, that’s beautiful. I have to ask, because it sparked my curiosity, what’s it like working with your spouse on work like this?

E: It’s been great. And we formed this together so much. Over the years now our team has grown, and it’s actually grown to the point where Jena stepped out of the day-to-day and is on the board. And so that’s great, she still is able to bring her imaginative convention-challenging creative mind to the bigger picture of what we’re doing. And that way we don’t always have to 24/7 be talking about work.

[laughter]

C: Right, right. I love that. It’s just a testament to how deeply steeped your family is in the work that you all do. That’s awesome.

E: Yeah. The other quick thing I’ll say about place is that when I came out to Seattle, I was drawn for many reasons by this place. But I wanted immediately, and I did immediately, get involved in local civic life. And I would say it’s my experience as a citizen of Seattle. Even though my bio focuses on things like the White House and titles that I’ve had in Washington, etcetera, by far the greater portion of my education in democracy has come from being a citizen of Seattle. Being a member of a library board. Being a captain of the school committee. Being the cofounder of a gun responsibility, gun reform organization here. Just being a neighbor. And that has been so satisfying and that really scratched the itch that I was feeling in DC in those distorted halls of power, just to be rooted in place and to feel like you can contribute to the place, that’s also shaped my perspective on what it means to combine power and character.

C: Gotcha. Yeah, just being a citizen in your own ways. The very last question is: What change in the world do you hope your work leaves behind?

E: I hope that we will create a critical mass in this country. A critical mass of people who, just as a matter of norms, values, and habit, take responsibility. I think that our theory of change does not require that 330 million Americans come to see civic life the way that we do. We recognize that we live in a culture that is hyper-individualistic and hyper-materialistic, and all about the here and now of consumer culture, has no memory and has a very short horizon for the future. And so in every respect, the work of Citizen University is profoundly counter-cultural. Right, we recognize that. But we don’t feel that we need to get 330 million people. We just feel that we need to get a critical mass. And I think that what is exciting about these times and groups that you and I are involved with like the Builders and the Einhorn Collaborative are a testament to this evidence of this—we are in the midst of a great civic revival right now. I believe that all across the United States.


“I want to be able to look back and say we turned the tide not by resisting Trump—because it’s not about Trump. We turned the tide by creating a bottom up, nationwide new culture of responsibility taking that radiates from the local outward. And that by doing so could bring together people from the right as well as the left for their own reasons to rejuvenate and reinvent our democracy.”


And you wouldn’t see this is all you do is pay attention to national headlines about national politics and the person who is soon to be exiting the presidency—if all you did was focus on that, you would be blind to the fact that everything on the ground in our towns, in communities around the United States, there is a revival of spirit, there is a revival of responsibility, there is a revival of desire to rehumanize and to focus on solutions and we mean to accelerate that and to be part of that. And I think that success for us will be if in a generation’s time we look back and we say that there was a really fragile moment where it looked like not only the federal institutions of our republic were broken and under assault, but where the culture of the country sagged into quiet acquiescence of authoritarianism and quiet acquiescence of a takeover of our democracy, and we turned the tide. And I want to be able to look back and say we turned the tide not by resisting Trump—because it’s not about Trump. We turned the tide by creating a bottom up, nationwide new culture of responsibility taking that radiates from the local outward. And that by doing so could bring together people from the right as well as the left for their own reasons to rejuvenate and reinvent our democracy.

C: Beautiful, beautiful, well said. I can’t thank you enough for chatting with us and allowing us to hear about the work that you do.

To learn more about Eric Liu’s work and organizations, visit Citizen University or follow him on Twitter @ericpliu.

If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed or otherwise involved with PACH, please email nyu.pach@gmail.com.