Democracy Means People Power, Literally (With Eric Liu)

Show Description

Baratunde shares the four pillars of How To Citizen. Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, schools us on power - what it is, who has it, and how the practice of citizenship is empty without this literacy. They also discuss how this power needs to be coupled with civic character to prevent us from becoming finely-skilled sociopaths. Eric answers questions from the live audience and Baratunde gives you some ways to practice understanding and using power.

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Baratunde Thurston  0:03  

Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a show where we reimagine the word citizen as a verb, reclaim it from those who weaponized it and remind ourselves how to wield our collective power. 

Democracy means people power. Literally. 

I just want to talk with you for a minute, just me. And you. I owe you a definition before we head too far on this journey together. And yeah, I know you thought this was like a podcast or a show. But it's the journey. And we're gonna go places that journey is called How to Citizen with Baratunde. I'm the Baratunde, there's a definition there. But on the citizen front, I need you to understand what we are not. We are not interested in your legal status. And we have a concept of what it means to citizen that goes far. Beyond voting as important as that is, we think there are four parts to what it means to citizen. First, to citizen is to participate. It's a verb, not a noun, not an adjective, it's to show up. All right? Number two, to citizen is to value the collective, and to work towards outcomes that benefit the many. And not just the few. Number three to citizen is to understand power, and the various ways we have at our disposal to use it. And number four, to citizen is to invest in relationships with others, and recognize our interconnectedness. This definition of what it means to citizen is going to serve us throughout the series, participate, value, the collective understand power, and invest in relationships in this app, episode we are going to talk about power. A quick word on how we make this show. We've recorded most of this episode in front of a live studio audience. Okay, it was Zoom, it was a live Zoom audience. But that doesn't take nothing away from nothing because Zoom is everything. Now when it counts. In the taping, you'll hear me tell a short story, hold a conversation with our featured guest, then open the floor to questions from the audience. I would love for you to join a future live taping. And you can do that by visiting Join my email list where those invites live. And also some pretty dope content I send out on a weekly basis. If I might brag a little bit, I send the best emails. And while I love the live audience, don't worry. It's just me and you right now remember, and I'm going to catch up with just you on the other side. And I'm going to give you some very specific ways to citizens Just principles actions.

I want to start with a story from high school, specifically a classroom. In my high school where I have some distinct memories. This room was on the first floor had giant floor to ceiling glass windows, really well lit. And the first memory I have is actually a video games because my friends and I would We'll end this AV cart with a giant TV on top to play video games during off periods. It was a really unused room and afternoons we played a lot of Madden. 

My second memory from this room is a breaking in to the school through this room. I spent a lot of time on campus I was part of the high school newspaper had a lot of excuses to be there after hours, and one time I locked myself out of the building had to get something back inside. I knew that these little hinged windows at the base of the wall in this room. would let into the building. So I'm scrambling through this window and I hear this voice. "Mr. Baratunde, is that you? Mr. Baratunde is that you? And that was the voice of the head of security for the school, Mr. Ford. Fortunately, I had a great relationship with him because I had been advised early on. The first thing you do when an institution like this, you make friends with the cleaning staff, you make friends with the security staff, they might help you get out of a jam later on. And that's what happened because he didn't see some random Black kid breaking into a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white and wealthy neighborhood in Washington DC. He saw an idiot, he saw the idiot that he knew Baratunde and he gave me the benefit of the doubt. Let me inside through proper entry and exit points, and I was able to move on. 

The other memory I have of this room though, is actually a classroom setting a learning environment. In Western Civ. A class we called Western Civ, Western civilization. The teacher wheeled out that AV cart With a giant, at the time, television on top and we were forced to watch this VHS of some old school like Socrates, Plato, Aristotelian looking dude, leaning back in his white robe with his white beard and his bald white head like a lot of white, saying something profound and grave. He said, "how should men live?" And we were just supposed to react to that question like, yo, that's the question. That's the once and future question to end all questions like how do we organize our society? How do we share power, have a voice govern ourselves? And it was Aristotle, who gave us a simple framework for this you got ruled by the one tyranny who ruled by the few oligarchy still boo, rule by the mini democracy. Yay. And we're supposed to celebrate that idea. 

And that word which literally breaks down in the Greek origin to people power, being a citizen is exercising power. But when I've been hearing these conversations about the crisis of our democracy, about civic engagement, about citizenship, I rarely hear the word power being used. Instead, I hear a limited version of what we have as our power in the society, the power to vote, and the power to act as individuals. And both of those are far too narrow. Voting is mad important. Don't get me wrong. It's very important, but it's not the whole game. And when you really think about it, voting is delegating power. We have a lot of energy devoted to giving our power over to professional politicians. That's like being asked to sign up as a superhero. You'll Welcome to the Avengers. Baratunde, you're in the squad.. I'm like, what's my superpower? Oh, your superpower. You get to give your power away. If you're lucky every two years. He's excited about that. Like I'm not that I feel like you're missing some of the point of the superpower. Even Hawkeye had better powers than that. He got to run around looking like a badass, had bow and arrows, ran real fast. I might prefer that to just delegation of power. 

The other oversimplification I think we have with our power in the system is it's focused on the individual, especially in the Western world, one person, one vote, your voice matters. But we don't exist alone. We live among other people, we only know ourselves as a reflection of the people around us. And when we work with others, we multiply that power. So what is this whole power thing? It's who gets what, when and how. It's who decides that? Now to jump into this conversation with me, we have quite a human person. I'm going to call him a human person. I first met Eric Liu, virtually we had been introduced by many different people over the years but we met face to face in a non socially distant space at the TED conference in Vancouver, Washington. And he was giving a talk about the power of citizenship. I was preparing to do my talk, but somewhat secretly plotting this show. And Eric said, when you're ready to do this, reach out, let's talk. So he's one of the first people I wanted to talk to about this. 

Eric is the co founder and CEO of Citizen University, literally schooling people on what it means to be a citizen. He directs the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity program. He's written several books, I feel proud of my one book, home, he's got at least three books, "The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker", "The Gardens of Democracy", "You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen" And actually, a fourth one more recently "Become America: Civic Sermons On Love, Responsibility, and Democracy". Eric has been in the game for a while. He wrote speeches for Bill Clinton. He was a White House policy advisor. He's been on the boards of the Washington State Board of Education, and near and dear to my heart, the Seattle Public Library, because libraries rock, Eric Liu, welcome to How to Citizen. Thank you for being here with us today. It's so great to be with you. I just I just love your whole framing this whole thing and looking forward to this conversation. Where are you joining us from Eric? And how are you right

Eric Liu  9:22  

now? I am joining you from Seattle, Washington, which is where I live. I'm joining you more specifically from my mom's condo because to be real, I'm spending a lot of energy helping take care of her through some health challenges. So that's where I'm at.

Baratunde Thurston  9:39  

Yeah, well, my best to you and your mom, I'm glad you're able to be close to her and help take care of her. That's kind of what this is all about it. I looked through and our team looked through a lot of your work. It was more prolific and profound that even I understood when I met you at TED. So thank you for your contributions to this whole question of what it means to be a citizen. I want to talk with you more about this idea of power. Because you have spoken and written and I think behaved in a way that elevates the idea of literacy, about power. And so much of the literacy that I think we're encouraged to pursue is literal, right? learning how to read, consuming information, be informed, know the news, but you talk about power literacy. What is power to you? And what do you think we need to understand about it? In the context of being a citizen in something that's at least like a democracy?

Eric Liu  10:33  

You know, it's such a great set of connected questions. And, you know, I start with just in the first place, unpacking what we mean that in my organization, citizen University when we even talk about citizen or citizenship, right, so how to citizen name of this show. We think of citizenship not in terms of documentation, status and passport holding. We mean it in the broader ethical sense of being a member of the body a contributor to community, right? In a word, a non sociopath, right, which, which seems like a low bar, but actually we all around us as evidence that there are a lot of people can't get over that bar right now. Right? So Wow. But in that broader ethical sense. And when we think about it in those terms, we often use this very simple mock equation, which is that power plus character, equal citizenship. That to live like a citizen in this deepest way, is both to be fluent in power. And I'll unpack that in a moment. But also to couple that fluency in power, with a grounding in what you might think of as civic character, which I don't mean, like personal individual virtue, like work hard and, you know, persevere. Yeah. I mean, the social virtues of how do you live in public? How do you behave in community? How do you hold together a community, right? So those two halves of the equation are super important. 

And one of the things that really struck us in our work is that considering our New Democracy, considering that theoretically, as you say, we have the power, we the people, most people are profoundly illiterate in power. Most people do not think about it, do not want to talk about it do not want to name it to the extent that it comes up, it seems like it's a kind of a dirty word, a dirty topic, right? It's all conniving. And it's Game of Thrones and House of Cards kind of stuff, right? power brokers, power trip, you know, power, you know, power, mad power hungry, all the connotations are negative, right? And our most basic thing that we try to teach in our work, is that power simply, I mean, it just is it's like fire, right? It's neither inherently good nor evil. And just because fire can be put to bad use doesn't mean that you should just turn away and put your head in the sand and not think about ways that could be put to good use, right? And so it is with power and civic life we define power really simply which is a capacity to ensure that others do as you would like them to do.

Baratunde Thurston  12:49  

Yo, that sounds I mean, that sounds like power like to make other people do it. That's like my wish

Eric Liu  12:54  

sure that others do. That sounds super Yeah, sing and write and people like whoa, like it But let's be real in every scale of our lives. But I'm not talking about voting and protesting. I mean, like you and the people you love you and your workmates, you and your neighbors. We as humans are always trying to get other people to do as we would like them to do. Right. And that is just what we're wired to want to be able to do in the world. In that capacity when applied to questions of common interest and common consequence. public concern is civic power. I think the central question of all civic power is this. Who decides, right? And so when we talk about literacy or illiteracy in power, what that boils down to is that most people have no freakin idea who decides on anything? Yeah, right. So they are most people answered the question with a default today. I can't believe they decided to start school in person or start school online. I can't believe they cancelled bus service. I can't believe they haven't yet built a grocery store in this food desert. I can't They whatever, right? And

Baratunde Thurston  14:02  

yeah, they don't want you to

Eric Liu  14:04  

x. And yeah, the fundamental lesson that we teach as soon as University, but I think the fundamental teaching of democracy itself is there is no thing there is weak. Right. And we have an obligation to actually get particular about in each case. Well, who does the deciding? And how can I actually insert myself into that map of who does the deciding, right? That is a literacy just like reading and writing, who decided that these kinds of protests happening in cities around the United States right now would be met by unmarked federal agents? Right. They decided maybe Trump decided, you know, maybe some people pay attention in the news. Maybe Attorney General Barr decided, Okay, yeah, but really like when you boil it down, who decided who can stop that? How do you mobilize people ideas, money force to resist that? Right? 

And I think questions like that, that are not just theoretical. They are live in every community in the country right now. All right. Turn on this question of who decides, and that is the heart of civic power. But why do you think power? The term and the literacy of it has been absent from so much conversation about civic engagement and our role? I think there's two reasons. One is democracy and civics gets taught if it gets taught anymore at all, but to the extent it still does get taught, teachers in our more polarized controversy filled age, do not want to get in trouble. They do not want to go there. Right. So there's often a an instinct to go to the lowest common denominator, talk about the process stuff, how bill becomes a law, but not talk about the structure stuff that precedes process, right. Who gets to decide how a bill becomes a law? Well, people in the senate well, and people in the house well, why because the constitution will why because a group of people made a deep set of compromises with slaveholders about who was going to have power and say, Okay, so that's how a bill becomes a law right? They don't want to go there. Right. And and

Baratunde Thurston  16:03  

yeah, it's not a little animated, cute thing from there. Yeah,

Eric Liu  16:05  

exactly right. And I think the deeper question apart from just the, you know, allergy to controversy that exists in a lot of places, is frankly, our culture. Right? So everything in our small d democratic culture says, you know, you are, you have the power to remake your life, the brand of you, you can do this all the time, right? It's the, it's the Civic equivalent of the economic message we get all the time, which is you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. And if your situation isn't great, that's because you suck. That's your problem, right? That's on you. And I think in our culture, there's this allergy also to talking about collective action, collective responsibility and collective power, and how things got rigged the way they got rigged, and why maybe it's not because you're lazy or not effective or not smart enough that you keep getting smooshed down. Maybe it's because the game has been stacked against rigged against you and people like you. For generations. I often think about the conversation that you and I are having and the whole point of your show as part of the greater cause right now, which is we got to make civics sexy again. Right? civic engagement. Yeah, just, it just forces you to not

Baratunde Thurston  17:16  

lose. It makes news buzz

Eric Liu  17:18  

makes it sexy game by being honest about what it is and what it is. It's about power. It's about people claiming power, about people contesting power. Right? And, and for the same reasons, we are drawn to Game of Thrones, or House of Cards. We ought to be drawn to participation except we're not just spectators. Now we are participants and we can actually exercise this stuff. And that's, that's worth learning.

Baratunde Thurston  17:41  

There's, there's an irony in here that I'm trying to tease out. Democracy means people power. And we use the verb version of that word to democratize, to indicate the distribution of some good we've democratized access to information meaning more people have access to it. Everything we need and can claim is in that word, people power. And yet, we haven't democratized the meaning of the word itself. We've kind of kept the deep meaning the power part of it, and the people, the multiple people, not just the person, not the army of one inside of you not brand new. We've buried that. And we've muted the power and trimmed it down. And so we've got to democratize democracy itself, at least, our interpretation of that is

Eric Liu  18:33  

so absolutely right. And I think part of that is about narrative and culture and projects like this show, and some of the things that we try to do at citizen University. You know, we have programs that are about not just teaching in a workshop way, but creating communal rituals, where people can come and gather and practice this stuff. But I think the other thing that you're really pointing to, again, back to what we were talking about literacy and power, you know, I often talked about how there's three Laws of Power That are really worth understanding. Whoo, I love loss. There we go. So law number one, power compounds, right? That's as obvious as the world we live in right now. Right? The world is 1% or the point 1%. And everybody else

Baratunde Thurston  19:13  

power was like interest power

Eric Liu  19:15  

compounds, those who have will have more, right? Those who have not will have even less over time, right? Well, number two, power justifies itself. At every turn, those who hold power will spin elaborate narratives about why this allocation of things is the God given way of the world, right? This is just the natural order of things. And in different times that's taken on different castes, but that is the backstory of white supremacy. That is the backstory of male supremacy. Right? And you might think, Oh, well, that's history. That's old stuff. You spent time in Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley is a bastion of both white and male supremacy. Right? And there were storylines about why the people who are not white or male aren't cut out for this world. The narrative of trickle down economics is all about Round us the idea that a few super rich people are capital J capital, see job creators, and we shouldn't tax them too much. We shouldn't regulate them too much because we want their prosperity to leak its way down to the rest of us. Right? That's a wonderful fable. But it's economics is complete Bs, right? The true source of prosperity is not a few rich guys at the top, it's the rest of us. And when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, right? That's how you create prosperity. That's a counter narrative to that right. And so if these first two Laws of Power that power is always compounding into fewer and fewer hands, and it's always justifying itself, and those few are telling you why you should be happy with the crumbs you got, you'd be in a pretty grim Doom loop right? What breaks us out of that Doom loop though, is law number three power is infinite powers infinite what what I mean by this I'm not you know, you might think oh, here's the dude from Seattle coming to sell me a new way to kind of manifest your power. You know, I'm not doing New Age stuff. I am saying this is an even the most rigged situation and even those unequal stap situation, it is entirely possible to generate brand new power out of thin air, through the magic act of organizing and generating power out of out of thin air is the only thing that saves us in a democracy that you can actually change that equation. Right? Now, of course, incumbent power holders also can generate power thinner, and they will counter organized to block you. And this you have this perpetual game of organizing, counter organizing, mobilization, counter mobilization, you know what, there's a word for that. Politics, politics and democracy. That's what we got to do. That's our responsibility for showing up. Right? And there's no it's not one and done. It's not Oh, I organized, we fixed it. Right. It's a perpetual, never ending thing. And if you start relaxing, then you will in fact see power over time.

Baratunde Thurston  21:48  

I think it's it's humbling and hopeful at the same time, because we've all felt acted upon by power. And this thought that there is a cabal somewhere and sometimes there really is a cabal like it's not a conspiracy. There's like a pretty small room with a bunch of dudes in it making decisions about, say, the borders that will comprise the continent of Africa, for example, or tax policies in the United States as another example. But I there is hope and to me and the idea that we can generate it ourselves and that we can kind of spin up or accelerate a perpetual motion machine at some velocity and some mass to it to get more momentum behind our desired application of that power.

Eric Liu  22:28  

We're living through it right now. I mean, absolutely. The waves and waves of awakening and activism that followed the murder of George Floyd. And even prior to that the creativity brought to bear in new forms of organizing since the pandemic hit both of these, there are some tectonic things going on in our country right now. Something is shifting. Right. And that shift depends on us not again, not acting like Americans often act which is a short attention span squirrel, like what's the next distraction right now? But actually like no persist in practicing power. And the other piece of it that you were talking about earlier, I gotta come back to because remember I said at the beginning we have this equation, citizen University power plus character equal citizenship. Right? Yeah, I gotta say a note about the character side of this, right? Because if all you do is get really practice it power and learn and figure out ways to move money, move ideas, move people, you know, mobilize, you know, those who have means of force and violence, and it's untethered, actually, to any ethical or moral purpose, then, in fact, you are just becoming a finely skilled sociopath. Right? And that is not what we're that's not what we're trying to cultivate in our work. And I know that's not what you're, you know, that's not how to citizen, right? How to citizen is both coupling that literacy and power with Who am I doing it for? How am I bringing more people into the fold? How do I actually take a knee literally and metaphorically, for somebody who's not here? How do I circulate whatever power privilege I might have in a way that To actually to the benefit of the whole, and how do I change the narrative so that doing that isn't the act of a sucker or an altruist doing that is understood as self interest properly understood, because we're all in it together.

Baratunde Thurston  24:17  

I want to step back to the power thing because you took us through these laws. Is there like a menu of power that we get to choose from, or to get it out of the vagueness of power? Yeah.

Eric Liu  24:30  

I love that. To get it out of the vagueness is the key, right? in just the same way that there's no way there's a particular week or a particular group of people who we can insert ourselves into powers and just some mystical blob. It takes you know, in my book and you're more powerful than you think I talk about six different sources of power. Okay, I love

Baratunde Thurston  24:51  

the numbers. You got three laws, you got six sources of power. This is you're gonna

Eric Liu  24:54  

love it. Next I got nine strategies, the power to

Baratunde Thurston  24:57  

know 369 Okay.

Eric Liu  24:59  

baseball cards.

Baratunde Thurston  25:00  

exponential base.

Eric Liu  25:02  

But you know, sources of power. So the obvious ones money, people power, like numbers, right? What we've seen all around the country, the power of ideas, right? The idea, not as not even as something as abstract as liberty. But the idea for instance of blacklivesmatter. That's an idea that a few years ago was much more on the margins. And now you got practically You know, every fortune 500 company rushing out there to say they agree Black Lives Matter, right.

Baratunde Thurston  25:32  

There's, there's another one that comes to mind kind of on a different end of the spectrum. But the idea of an inheritance tax being rebranded as a death tax, absolutely. Right. The way you frame things, that's a form of power, right? Yeah.

Eric Liu  25:45  

Right. So you got, you know, money, people ideas, social norms, is another super important source of power, how we together to find what's okay and what's normal, right. So, again, Look at the unfolding debates about trans identity. Right and about pronouns like we are in the midst of a collective reckoning and rearrangement of what social norms are. Right? We've already now had the Supreme Court literally sanctify and blessed what had been an agreement amongst so many of us as a matter of social norms that love is love. Whether the couple has same sex or not, love is love. Right? That didn't happen because politician a said so it didn't happen because Corporation a did an ad campaign to be happened because in a distributed way, millions upon millions of people had conversations with each other and started changing their sense of you know, what I have, I used to have this belief but this person in my life, this person I'm connected to is changing my heart and my mind and my sense of norms. Right. So social norms is a fourth important source of power. The fifth one, of course, which we are seeing, unfortunately and powerfully in evidence right now is force. Violence. Yeah, right. Yeah. Whether that is organized under the ages of the state. In bill bars, you know, Master Gestapo, or whether it is, you know, the self organizing militias of ak 47, caring protesters in Michigan at the state capitol who didn't want to have the tyranny of wearing a mask imposed upon them, right? Or going without a haircut,

Baratunde Thurston  27:18  

which I can understand

Eric Liu  27:21  

why he's worried that we're doing video because this is not my best look. But But force is one, right, ultimately. And the final one is the state the power of the state to actually set rules and norms whether it's about something as tangible as, hey, how much should you get for an hour of flipping burgers? 750? How about 15? How about $15? An hour? Right? And why? Well, because enough of us convinced our government, the state to say that $15 is the minimum wage $15 is the minimum basis for dignity and security for an hourly wage earner, right? So you take all these different sources of power, and they're all on display right now in good, bad and ugly forms all around us. Right. And again, you gave my bio at the beginning, my worldview is left of center. But our work at citizen university we work with and learn from people across the ideological spectrum, right? We gather folks ranging from Black Lives Matter and fight for 15 activists and dreamers, to Tea Party co founders, right? Because what animated them on one level, as much as they may disagree fiercely on policy, what animates them on one level is some interest in activating bottom up citizen power, right bottom up people power. And my view is, to your point, we got to democratize democracy, we got to make sure everybody, whatever their politics wherever they're from a small rural town or a big city, get some baseline literacy, and then let us fight it out. Let us argue it out. Let us debate it out. Let us do that thing called politics, right. But the politics will be more meaningful, but to the extent that we've actually gained that initial literacy in both The laws and the sources of power.

Baratunde Thurston  29:03  

Thank you for that deeper explanation, three laws, six sources. And I think that for me, it gives me a sense of power. Now I feel like I'm overusing the word, just to have options. You know, I don't want to feel like there's only one thing I can do. And so if I'm starting to think about money as a source of power, that gives me a certain lens and a certain approach, versus mass mobilization, or even small mobilization of someone other than myself, versus ideas, which is a place I naturally live in and less so in the world of money. So I think you allow an entry point for everyone. When you do that, I want to take this time. We've got some questions starting to come in, during this recording from our community around us. And so Robert beats has a question how can you define a citizen without Ultimately excluding people that live in a country. Is that okay? talk more about that the idea that you can be a citizen without having the right paperwork filed.

Eric Liu  30:10  

I mean, of course, there is a legal definition of US citizenship. And that matters, right? I get that. I mean, the vote is tied to that, for instance, right. But in the work that we're doing, and I think the work that you're doing here, we are trying to open up a much broader capacious idea of what it means to live like a citizen, right. And, again, whether you have the papers or not how you live, like a citizen has to do with whether you join, whether you serve, whether you listen, whether you argue well, whether you participate, whether you vote whether you protest, if you can't vote, whether you encourage others to write, and basically, it all boils down to whether you show up for others. Right. And I think that, you know, to the second part of that question, you know, who do we show up for? I mean, sometimes I get the version of the question of why talk only about the United States, right? I mean, there's global status. doesn't shift and we're all, you know, we're all humans. And yes, that's true. And again, nothing like a pandemic to teach us that many problems, including a novel coronaviruses don't care about our borders, or about our national institutions. But at the same time, the pandemic is also teaching us painfully in the United States right now, compared to people, you know, right up the way from me and Canada, and in other parts of the world, that nations still matter. Because nations still are the unit of moral agency. They are the unit at which we can actually ask somebody for redress of our grievances. Right? You got a problem. You don't have health insurance, you cannot go petition, the World Health Organization, right. They're busy right now doing other stuff. But, you know, even if they weren't busy, you couldn't go petition them for health insurance, right? You would petition your national government flautas it may be rigged it maybe that's where you'd go to right. And so nations still matter and this nation in particular matters. I think because you know, Frankly, there might be conversations going on about citizenship and democracy and other places right now, but not a lot that look like you and me talking, and the other people in this community participating and listening, right. In the United States, in particular, we realized right now that democracy works, only if enough of us believe democracy works. And it's kind of a faith based thing. We in the United States have this special burden to try to live up to that, because we can't just default to what we're all part of the same Volk, you know, with all the same kind of bloodlines and legends and all that stuff. No, we're not we're just a bunch of people are bound together by a set of ideas about how we're going to try to do this thing together,

Baratunde Thurston  32:39  

right? Know that and the togetherness and the relationships and the with others and the four others. That empathy is I think it just again, it unlocks an entry point for people, and especially, you know, one of the consequences of limiting our power to the interpretation of you get to vote. You could have your atomic unit of self interest is that you leave a lot of people off to the side, you leave people who don't have documentation off because you can't vote without that. Or if you're formerly incarcerated in certain states, or by age, you know, and we have seen so much mobilization, one of those sources of power that you talked about earlier, with people under voting age, in this country and around the world, the climate crisis, and the response to it is being led powerfully by groups of young people who are prohibited from exercising one form of power would have infinite amounts. Again, I'm trying to reflect back what I've heard from him, am I doing it right professor, to hold on to exercise that power in different way. And that relationship, you know, even the way you've talked about the openness of your university, not just to left of center people, that we need a space to kind of build that relationship, if all are interested in at least that basic premise. Like if there's someone who just down for two I'm not sure if they have a place. But if you believe in power to the people in this, you say that we're going to try to test that with each other, then that's a relationship. We spoke with Valerie power for this show as well. her new book is called see no stranger. And it's built on a similar premise that your opponent, one is not necessarily your enemy. But that a stranger is just a part of you, who you have yet to know. And so how do you integrate others, even as you disagree with them in a process of humanity, which is to see them as part of you. And I think there's a connective tissue here with the idea of valuing relationships, about working with others, about humanizing even opponents in the project of democratizing democracy through citizen

Eric Liu  34:49  

gain. That is absolutely right. You know, and I think that, you know, we often talk about in our work, when we're training people to lead these civic Saturday gatherings, right. That is about cultivating bonds of trust and perfection, right? So trust requires in the first place that like, I know if I walk in here, you're not gonna ambush me. You're not here to flame me. Like we're This is not a one and done. You know the point is is not scorched earth This is where the game of infinite repeat play right together and we're going to earn each other's trust by continuing to come back here but the affection part of that doesn't mean that I actually have to like you. But I have to I love how you put it that that to see the stranger as a part of me that I haven't yet discovered. Right? And that humanization is so much a part of you know, you've you've emphasized a couple times now in things that you've said today about kind of the access to this stuff, right? This is concepts, Laws of Power. I know that can sound kind of high minded and stuff, but this is stuff for everybody. Right? And he's talking about young people. So where I live in Seattle, in King County, which is the county that surrounds Seattle, over the last number of years when the Black Lives Matter movement started to pick up steam several years ago, a group of unheralded unknown young people of color, mainly African Americans started over Organizing to block the creation of a new youth detention center. Right. And they went under the slogan no new youth jail. And they organized, they activated, they showed up at council meetings. And you know what happened over and over again, they lost, they kept losing votes. That thing kept on go on the project kept on getting approved. And they start, they lay the ground, they started building this thing, right. But these young people kept on organizing, they kept on building allies, they kept on sharpening their skills, and their literacy and power. And then what happened 2020 happen, and the combination of the pandemic and the post George Floyd uprisings led to this incredible shift in the frame of the possible and they were ready for it. And they've been organizing, they had those bonds of trust and affection, not just with each other, but was allies in power all over the place in this community. And all of a sudden, they were able to take that moment and apply pressure on the elected officials and the decision makers. So who decides of this and say, Now, I think it's time for you to reconsider this. And guess what? Just last week, the King County executives You know what, we're going to depopulate this youth detention center, we're going to take down this huge jail. So what looked like a repeated, repeated, repeated defeat and setback turns out right now to have been a victory, right? These are young people who just showed up and started teaching each other by showing up and practicing this stuff. ideas, like the stuff we're talking about, hopefully, helped inform them. And, you know, some of them were involved in stuff that we've done at citizen University, but I take no credit at all, because these are just, this is a rising generation, as you said, of people who are figuring it out by doing it. And that is super exciting. What you and I can do is help shine a light, help them make sense of what they're doing and give it some frameworks and then again, democratize this stuff about democracy. Right. So, my friend and I believe your friend to Britain, Patna Cunningham is one of the co founders of something called campaign zero, right. campaign zero is this policy platform and framework for people who initially joined the activism after a whole host of police killings of unarmed black men and boys and wanting to figure out well, how do we pivot? How do we pivot from showing up in the streets to changing the system? And they made? They answered that question with this incredible menu of things that break it down for you. Right? It's again, it's not just the system. There's the piece of the system that's about police training. There's a piece of the system, it's about prosecutors who can be unelected if they don't serve the people. Right? There's a piece of that puzzle that is about the media and how you educate the media, in following these stories before the fact before something goes down rather than after it goes down. Right. And there's this incredible menu of tools there. And I think that what they do with campaigns zero can and should be done across every possible issue. Your issue might be climate issue might be guns issue might be gender equality, whatever the issue is, there's a way to go from that initial burst of protests which is often pushing against something to a concerted, systematic way to build for something Right. And again, just to repeat your refrain, you can't do that alone. You got to join others, you can join a club, you can join a group of people hanging out at the corner, you can join a, you know, a party, it doesn't matter. Just join. The act of joining is the beginning of creating that infinite civic power.

Baratunde Thurston  39:27  

All right, we're gonna bring in and speaking of joining Nat thousand I believe Nat is coming to us from New York City, New York.

Nat Towsen  39:35  

Yeah. So I'm coming to you from Brooklyn, New York, in my kitchen, because it's close to the Wi Fi router. And so my question is, how do we convince people who have no demonstrable empathy, that they should care about other people? And if you want to look at that in a political system, how do we convince Americans who bought into the myth of American individualism, that individualism has failed us and that collectivism is the way that society should function for the betterment of everyone in that society?

Eric Liu  40:06  

It's a great question, because it's not easily answered. You know, I mean, I think you're asking, you're asking a tactical question about how you deal with individuals in interactions. And you're asking a much bigger strategic question about how do we deal with our culture? Right? So let me say a word about each of those levels. Because, you know, on the tactical level when you're, you know, whether it's online, invite people into conversation where, again, where it's possible to build trust, where you actually know who you're talking to. Right. But, you know, I think on that human level, I still think that even the person who for a variety of reasons, and many of them just have to do with their kind of tribal polarized political identity, dig into a set of talking points in a point of view that well, you should have been more careful. You shouldn't have done this. You take it away from that and you begin with a series of questions, right? And so one layer of questions is basically like, how do you feel like you are most misunderstood? Okay, that's disarming question, how are you most misunderstood? Right? Now you're kind of getting them to let down their guard a little bit and open up a bit more of their three dimensional humanity. But then the second question is, what are you most afraid of? If your side loses, right? If your worldview does not prevail, like, what are you not? What are you afraid of in the abstract and fear? Like, what are you afraid of for you, and those around you and those you care about? Right. And again, it gets to some of the, the fear, the fear, the shame, the hurt, that often animates some of these most anti social, civic and political attitudes, right. And if you can, somewhat detoxify them at the outset, you might have a shot in this one on one conversation where if you've earned some trust, and you know, you're not just kind of a one and done, I'm going to flame you and be off this platform. You have a shot there. Now, we get to the very interesting question, which, you know, is the question of culture and media, right. How do you scale from one to one Like epiphany to culture change, right? How do you scale that? And I think part of it is we do it by doing what we're doing here. But not just me and bar today having a conversation, but you joined this conversation, you decided to show up and participate in the middle of the day, and then shape it. And we over time in ways that are much harder, have to, again, make it more possible for more people to enter into conversations where they can question that mythology of rugged individualism. And you can do it in a way that's not gotcha. But you asked you like, again, I have a different pair of questions that I often use with people in work that I used to do around mentorship, which is who's influenced you? And how do you pass it on? Right? You asked that question. If I asked her to do that question. We did an hour on that. He would unschool this list of mentors, tour mentors, people who've shaped it and people who've, you know, managed and people have coached him. And you can't start answering that first question without realizing, no man is an island. No one is self made. There is no such thing as a self Made Man or woman, right? We're all made by each other, we all make each other, right? And then you immediately go to that second question of, well, how am I passing that on? How am I passing on the good, the bad and the ugly of how I was born? Right. And again, it's an invitation for people to get out of their political combat avatar identity, and into their actual humanity. Right. And, and if we do that, in setting after settings, why we do civic Saturdays, that's why we created the Civic civic seminary program to train people like you, actually to lead civic Saturdays in Brooklyn, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in Dallas, in San Diego, wherever it may be, to, you know, to lead these conversations and to create that kind of space. Right? That's how we change the culture is we create that we commit to creating that space over and over and over again, it's gonna take some time because it took us some time to get to the level of sickness in our culture that we're dealing with, but

Baratunde Thurston  43:54  

I'm net hopeful, man, I mean, just conversations like this. Give me Give me a surplus of hope. Thank you, Matt, for the thoughtful question. But Eric, great answer and to encourage people to engage with questions is such a shortcut to changing how we relate to each other, as opposed to statement versus statement questions or invitations, statements are often closed doors. So I really resonates with me so much, personally, I'm gonna give you one more kind of parting opportunity. And truly, if you don't have an answer, right now, we can follow up. We like to give people an opportunity to actually take a step to give them something tactical, tangible to do could be a writing exercise, could be sign up for a thing, could be a set of questions to ask the person in their lives. But as we've been talking so much about citizenship and civic power, and the forms of it, and the sources of it, and the ways we can wield it, do you have one or very short list of things you would encourage someone listening to this, to experiment with themselves, to feel that power. Yeah,

Eric Liu  44:59  

you know, The shortest answer I can give is join or make a club. I honestly don't even care what it's about. I mean, ideally, that's something civic or political or social cultural issue. But it can be a gardening club. It can be a rotisserie baseball club, it can be, you know, a DS, early 90s, you know, hip hop rap club, whatever floats your boat, right? But join or start a club in which you can actually rebuild that incredibly atrophied muscle we have in the United States, our citizen muscle, right? My friend Annie Leonard, who runs Greenpeace USA talks about how we as Americans, we have this hugely over developed consumer muscle, right? We know how to buy 50 different kinds of toothpaste we know different kinds of, you know, platforms for our music, streaming choices and all this stuff, but our civic muscles are pitiful and weak. Right? How do you build that? Sure, you can go protest. Sure you can vote but the simplest thing to do is actually to join or start a club to gather up a few people with a recommitment to repeat your gathering. Create a sense of unity and identity, create a sense of ritual about how you gather and then keep adding over time, you will figure out that well having to come together to create a common agenda to find common goals. To do common activities requires negotiation. It requires reckoning with the fact that you got money and I don't have money, you've got time and I don't have time that requires us to deal with our inequalities or inequities. It requires us to deal with our difference in the way that you, you speak with an accent. I don't speak with an accent, whatever, right? But for the next three to six months, dive deep on that issue, learn about it, read about it, talk to people about it, knock on virtual doors about like, Hey, I heard that you know something about this. Can I pick your brain about this? Join or start a club on that issue? Right, great. Okay, after three to six months, maybe you'll decide that issue is your life's passion. Maybe you'll be like okay, I got it like I'm done with that issue. But now what guess what you will have you will have siddik muscle, you will have practiced on something concrete and specific over and over again. Instead of just generally, I'm thinking about power, I'm thinking about power, no, no lift stuff. So if you just go to our website, citizen There's ways for you to join that club, participate in the Civic Saturday, start your own kind of find ways to get them connected with others who care about this stuff. And I think, you know, of course, a lot is lost during zoom times. But I would say a lot of game. There's a focus thing that happens in the kind of conversations that you and I are having here today and the ways that people realize, okay, like, they're listening to this, they're seeing ideas in the chat like today, they can start learning how to lift stuff. And that to me is kind of beautiful and pretty exciting.

Baratunde Thurston  47:39  

Eric Liu, CEO, co founder of Citizen University, thank you for the explanations and the breakdowns. Thank you for the examples on the ground. Thank you for the tangible calls to action. Thank you for your energy and and building a relationship with us for this time that we've had together. So I appreciate you and good luck to you to your family to your mother in particular. And we'll be in touch. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Hey, you, it's me again, it's just us, just me and you. And I got to tell you that I am fired up after that we're really connected with me was the idea that power justifies itself. And we create very convincing stories to explain the very unequal distribution of that power. But the good news is, we can create new stories of power and actually shifted and generate it. That's what we're doing with this show. That's what we're doing with you. We are just here to think about and talk about power. We're here to lift stuff. In each episode, we're going to share things you can do internally and externally, to strengthen your citizen practice. Don't worry about the details. We've posted them to how to citizen dot com for this episode is two things you can do. The first is inspired by Eric and the work of Citizen University. You already heard him say it, start or join a club. Ideally, it's something useful to your community, but you can have a broad interpretation of useful. Maybe it's about supporting kids in your neighborhood. Maybe it's a film club. The point is to help you practice power in relationship with others, ideally, some strangers. This is big citizen stuff right here. You'll practice how groups of people make decisions self govern are accountable to each other, negotiate different needs and perspectives, collaborate, and importantly, resolve conflict. After you do this, let us know send an email to action at, include episode one somewhere in the subject line, and tell us about your club or go one step bigger and shout it out publicly on social media. Use the hashtag how to citizen and say something like, I don't know, I started a text message group for local business owners in my neighborhood. What what? And then the what what would be completely optional? Like if that's not your voice like definitely don't, don't do it just because I did it like you, you do you this next action is something less public. We want you to practice seeing and understanding power what Eric calls reading and writing power, it will literally become your superpower as a citizen and we are going to put this episode to use. So this is something that you're going to need to take some time with. write things down, type it up. I'll say it to you. But again, the details are at how to citizen calm. It's four steps to this here process number one, pick an issue that you care about, that impacts a specific community or the general public, whatever works for you. For example, could be police budgets and how large they are. I have some interest in that topic. Number two, I want you to write down who benefits from the current state of things. And who doesn't make a list. Three, answer the question, How are the decisions about this issue made? And then that process is there accountability, transparency, and participation by those most affected by that decision? And the last step number four, write down who influences the decision making process, and what types of power do they use. Now, you don't have to write it down. You can rewind, pause, think out loud to yourself, give us a little aqui, doesn't matter too much how you do it, only that you do it. And we welcome you sharing it with us. typing it or with an audio memo if you want. send that email again to action at how to citizen calm include episode one in the subject line. We are so grateful to Eric Liu for helping us democratize democracy. Check out for so much more about their activities, their trainings their virtual events, and find one of Eric's mini books. Wherever you like finding books and supporting those booksellers. You can also follow Eric online. He is on Twitter, Eric P. Liu. That's Eric with a C the letter P. Liu. We're going to post this whole episode, a transcript, show notes, and more resources at Do check it out. And if you like what you experienced here, please share the show. leave us a review. Five stars is my humble suggestion. and sign up for my newsletter at where I will announce the upcoming live tapings and more audience members Bruce, like you. You can even send me a text to 2028948844 let me know you found me. I just put in the word citizen. I know where you came from, and I'll send you updates that way as well.

How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of IHeartRadio Podcast. Executive produced by Nick Stump, Myles Gray, Elizabeth Stewart, and Baratunde Thurston, produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith. Powered by you.


Go Deeper

Share Some Feedback

Let us know your thoughts about the episode. What did you learn or what surprised you or challenged you?

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Spread The Word

Share what you’ve learned. Knowledge is power! Tag #howtocitizen so we can reshare!