On its surface, American politics has devolved into shouting matches on social media, or at best something we exercise on occasion at the polls…which can be disheartening to those looking to become more politically active. Luckily, former White House policy adviser Eric Liu has a very different view of what civic engagement can (and should) look like. Liu co-founded the Seattle-based nonprofit Citizen University, with initiatives geared toward “cultivating a culture of citizenship,” as he puts it. One such program, Civic Saturday, is modeled after a faith-based service, but the focus is on connecting and empowering people who might be disillusioned with the political status quo. NationSwell spoke with Liu about how to get young people excited about their civic duty, to help ensure America remains a robust democracy.
NationSwell: What exactly is Civic Saturday, and how does it fit within the larger nonprofit you co-founded, Citizen University?
Eric Liu: Citizen University’s mission is to spread the belief that democracy’s on us, that it’s possible to make change in civic life and that we’ve got the responsibility to try. It’s about cultivating the character and kind of civic ethics that can start changing the culture. We’ve got a portfolio of different programs that get at those goals in different ways.
One of those programs is Civic Saturday, which is basically a civic analog to a faith gathering. It’s not about religion in a traditional sense, but about what you might call American civic religion — a creed of ideas and ideals, and what it takes to actually live up to and to fulfill the promise of our democracy. [We] sing, there are readings of texts that you might consider civic scripture, whether they are famous like the preamble to the Constitution or lesser-known things like a Langston Hughes poem. There’s a civic sermon at the heart of [these gatherings] to help make sense of whatever may be going on in the moment morally, ethically and politically.
NationSwell: The goal of Citizen University is to empower individuals to become responsible, engaged citizens. So why use a religious framework for Civic Saturday, which features what you call sermons and scripture, but has nothing to do with actual houses of worship?
Liu: Whichever faith or tradition you’re from, organized religion has figured out a few things over the millennia about how to bring people together, about how to create a language of common purpose and about how to use text to spark people’s reckoning with their own shortcomings, weaknesses and aspirations. So when we started Civic Saturday, we looked around at different examples of people who have been successful at engaging folks this way.
NationSwell: Does that ever turn people off? Like they want to become more civically engaged, but the churchiness of it all gives them pause?
Liu: Right now, we are facing a crisis of spirit and purpose [in this country]. There are people in organized religion who address that through that channel, and more power to them. For someone who is a-religious and unchurched, once they walk in the door [at Civic Saturday], they realize that even though they are not religious, they’ve been hungering for a sense of purposeful shared community that elevates questions of moral challenge right now. Common ritual [can give] people shared purpose.
NationSwell: It does seem that with the advent of the internet and the erosion of the public sphere, community has become fractured and people are really craving personal connection. I’m assuming just getting people in the same room to talk and share ideas is a major goal of yours.
Liu: Exactly. Among the crises of our politics is this profound isolation, atomization and loneliness, and what Civic Saturday animates in people is this desire to be in the company of others where it’s OK to ask for help, and not be alone. Giving people permission to [do that] in a way that is constructive and not tapping into our worst demons is a good thing.
At every Civic Saturday, community partners come to register folks to vote, to get signatures for ballot measures. And at the end of every Civic Saturday, we have community announcements: People will talk about a film screening they’re doing, or a talking circle they’re organizing on local issues of homelessness or whatever it might be.
But the key here is we’re not organizing that. We’re creating the space and inviting people to exercise their own agency and power to do the sparking, the inviting, the organizing and so forth. It’s not our agenda to register voters, but it is our agenda to spread the belief that it’s possible to make change happen and then create the space for people to start doing that.
NationSwell: What are some other Citizen University programs that tie into your broader mission of sparking people into action?
Liu: We run something called the Civic Collaboratory, which is a network of civic innovators from all around the country that fosters new partnerships and collaborations among these very disparate kinds of civic innovators. We also have a youth program that activates young people in exercising their own power in political and civic life.
We’ve also launched a program called the Joy of Voting, which proceeds from the premise that there used to be an American civic life, this culture of raucous, joyful, participatory engagement around voting and elections during the 1800s [and] up to the early 20th century: Street theater, open-air debates, parades, dueling bands, concerts, toasting and bonfires. Television kind of killed that, but there’s no good reason why we can’t revive that culture, especially at the local level. Because after decades of living mediated political lives through our screens, our intuition was that people are hungry for an invitation to come out and treat voting not as “eat your vegetables, do your duty,” but “join the party,” right? The Knight Foundation agreed with that premise and [gave us funding]. So over the last few years, we’ve traveled to seven cities around the country, organizing musicians, artists, activists and neighbors to generate locally-rooted creative ideas. And then we give them modest grants to execute them.
NationSwell: I saw that Civic Saturday was just in Los Angeles. Have you franchised the model?
Liu: When we launched Civic Saturday four days after the  presidential election, we realized we’d struck a nerve. We started doing them regularly in Seattle, and they started getting a little bit of attention. People throughout the country started asking, “Hey, can you bring Civic Saturday to our community?” So we’ve taken Civic Saturday to L.A., New York, Nashville, Des Moines, Atlanta, Portland, Maine, and other places. But of course that is not super-scalable. So we launched Civic Seminary, a program to train [people] how to run their own Civic Saturday. Not just [training on] how you run events, but more deeply, how do you talk about, think about and reckon with these ideas, while thinking about the gaps between our ideals, our actual institutions and our practices. We’ve now got a couple dozen people around the U.S. who are running their own Civic Saturday in different kinds of settings.
NationSwell: There are people who are, as you put it, hungry for this kind of connection and civic engagement, but there are many others who have been historically marginalized and who feel like they don’t have any civic power, they don’t have a voice. How do you reach people like that?
Liu: I think you put your finger on the core question of all civic engagement: How do you do this work in a way that’s not just cycling through the usual suspects? We’re trying to reach partners or colleagues who in turn can reach circles and communities where we don’t have direct ties. One of our other programs is called Citizens Fest, which we did in New Orleans, Dallas and Memphis. In each of those cities, we had a core anchor partner on the ground who had deep relationships in precisely where you’re talking about — in communities that aren’t always invited to participate, show up and be part of civic power gatherings. In all of those communities, the folks who showed up [represented] such a diverse group on both class and race dimensions.
As we’ve been getting applications for the 2019 cohorts [for Civic Seminary], it is kind of heartening to see the breadth of people from [different] socioeconomic backgrounds, rural versus urban. They run the gamut from a 23-year-old ex-gang member from the southside of Chicago, to a young mother in small-town Tennessee, to people who are educators and poets and artists in places like Indianapolis and Tucson. We brought them together and we have designed an arc of experience for them that is about understanding themselves, understanding our times and being able to speak a language of tapping into the emotional undercurrents that drive so much of politics right now.
You can think about politics as voting midterms and issues, but undergirding all of that are currents of fear, anxiety, hope, impatience. And so a big part of our time together is about equipping each other to break through cynicism that people have about American ideals, and to talk about how ideas of equal justice under law might play out in communities where there is unequal justice.