Building a civic life in the time of Trump

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Eric Liu Headshot
Liu is the featured speaker at Leadership Howard County Big Event

We know our politics are broken.

We yell at each other on Twitter and trade dark secrets culled from shadowy corners of the web. We live in different realities from each other. The world some of us see on the screen of Fox News is nothing like the world others of us live in daily on MSNBC.

The problems of our polarization and fear have been well-diagnosed. So where are the solutions? Eric Liu has a few.

Liu, 52, is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, and is director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program. He is a leading voice for growing civic life in the United States and throughout the world. Next month, Liu will bring his vision to Maryland as the keynote speaker for an annual event hosted by Leadership Howard County, an organization that develops community leaders.

He has a challenge for us: If we want to improve how we live together and interact, we need to roll up our sleeves and do some work.

“Citizenship is like gardening,” he said in an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl. “It’s not like ‘something is off, something is squeaking and I am going to fix that piece of the machine.’ Democracy is not a machine…Gardens require gardeners. Gardeners don’t just weed. They feed; they seed.”

Civic Saturdays

Liu’s innovation is to train gardeners – civic seminarians — to feed and seed democracy on a regular basis, including through gatherings with songs, sermons and fellowship called Civic Saturday. They could be coming soon to the Baltimore region, where Liu is making connections.

Civic Saturdays began in Seattle, where Liu lives, and have spread to dozens of cities across the nation. According to the Citizen University website, Civic Saturday “is a civic analog to a faith gathering. It gathers friends and strangers together to nurture a spirit of shared purpose…We connect around the values and practices of being an active citizen, reckon with and reflect on our nation’s creed, and build relationships that create new civic traditions that are joyful and communal.”

The parallels he draws to religion, Liu acknowledges, can raise questions, with some asking if it will make our politics even more dogmatic and self-righteous.

His response: “This view assumes that all religion is fanatical fundamentalism. It is not. Religion is also moral discernment, an embrace of doubt, a commitment to detach from self and serve others, a challenge to repair the world.

“In this sense, politics could stand to be a little more like religion, not less.”

“Challenging and Stimulating”

Stacie Hunt, president and CEO of Leadership Howard County, chose Liu as a keynote speaker this year after watching a television interview and recognizing that his message resonates during these times – and would be well-received by the group of community leaders that her organization nurtures.

“He is challenging and stimulating, and forces us to look at regular life differently,” Hunt said.

In recent months, Civic Saturdays have moved virtual because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, as have the gatherings organized by the fellows trained by Citizen University.

“And while we of course lose that sense of presence and the sound of 150 voices singing or speaking at once, we have also gained something else: focus, intimacy, depth, and participation not bounded by geography,” Liu told Baltimore Fishbowl. “What’s true of Civic Saturday seems to be true for civic participation in general. During the pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many Americans are connecting more deeply with neighbors and strangers than they had before, and with a greater sense of urgency and purpose and mutual aid.”

Some have already given thought to Civic Saturdays in Howard County. “Howard County’s record as a place that champions voices of diverse backgrounds and broad spectrum of opinions makes ours an ideal community to expand the reach of the principles of Civic Saturdays,” said Ilana Bittner, who has begun tapping into Liu’s network as the executive producer of HoCoMoJo.com, an online journalism outlet. “As we reboot HoCoMoJo as a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom for Howard County, we’ll be partnering with organizations like Citizen University to bring programs like Civic Saturdays to our community.”

Baltimore Connections

Liu has reached to Baltimore for the governance of Citizen University. His nine-member board of directors includes Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage theater; and Hahrie Han, director of SNF Angora Institute and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“Civic Saturdays are an innovative opportunity for residents to come together to renew our commitments to each other,” said Han in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl. “They create a vital, and all-too-rare opportunity for people to recommit to the rituals that make civic life and democracy work. Eric is an inspiring speaker who will leave the room energized and excited to carry the work forward.”

Liu honed his vision through real-life experience, moving to the West Coast after a career in Washington D.C. As a member of his local library board, his school levy district and the Washington state board of education, he said he developed a sense of “what it means to be responsible for democracy.”

This came after earlier stints as a speechwriter and then deputy domestic policy advisor for President Bill Clinton.

“In real life,” he said, “you can’t get away with just throwing talking points at people you will continue to interact with.”

IF YOU GO

What: Leadership Howard County The Big (Virtual) Event 2020

When: Friday, Sept. 11, 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Location: Online event; tickets purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-big-virtual-event-2020-leadership-howard-county-registration-113822570372

Ticket purchasers will receive a copy of Liu’s most recent book, “Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility and Democracy.” Proceeds from ticket sales benefit Leadership Howard County programs and scholarships.

Baltimore Fishbowl Studio


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