On Thursday, April 27, Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program sat down in conversation with Maria Hinojosa, president and CEO of Futuro Media Group and anchor and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA.
The two came to Chicago for a day of events hosted by The Chicago Community Trust in collaboration with CHANGE Illinois and New America Chicago. In front of an audience of more than 200 people at the Chicago Cultural Center, they discussed Liu’s new book You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.
In a provocative appeal for our collective awakening, Liu inspired activists, students, civic-minded citizens and concerned parties to become civic agents for societal change.
Liu encouraged folks to meet face-to-face and take the conversation off of social media. “You can lull yourself into thinking you’re participating in something. Social media is polarizing—meant to reinforce prior beliefs.” Instead, Liu recommends using social media to find people with opposing views and then take the conversation offline: “a digital means to achieve analog ends.” And in one fell swoop, he rendered all my status debates and “unfriending” sprees meaningless.
Another plea is that we rehumanize politics. It’s important to know your motive when entering into conversation. Liu challenges us to enter these without the desire to win. Too often we want to be the innocent party in a debate; if righteousness is on our side, then isn’t all that matters getting the other person to see the truth? Liu apparently does not agree and posits that this deafens us to understanding their background and point of view. His hope is that, “if we can practice understanding, we’ll have fewer stupid arguments”—a crucial step in “rehumanizing politics.”
Taking this concept one step further, if the outcome is not to win, then how does a debate resolve? Liu’s short answer: “You have to surrender to advance.”
In Liu’s recent conversation with Glenn Beck—with whom he disagrees fundamentally on a host of issues—the two were able to come to an understanding, find points of commonality and move forward by agreeing “to work on something else together.” This in and of itself is an assuredly more effective method of unifying two opposite parties than by, say, bringing two strangers with opposing views into a room without context and forcing them to share a beer, maybe? See Heineken’s recent controversial ad.
Liu’s book is meant to arm readers with tools for reclaiming their power in the face of authoritative entities that assume you will follow the status quo. He wants everyone to own their power by making the invisible visible. “It is necessary for every one of us to generate new power out of thin air. This is organizing: power that did not exist, now exists.” We should be aware of what’s going on around us, know our collective rights.
As anyone engaged in activism of any kind knows, we are often encouraged to speak up when we see questionable acts of transgression, violence, aggression or racism, and we must use our voice and our power to speak up, defend and fact check.
Maria Hinojosa gave an example of being stopped by officials with dogs at a Chicago train stop. Instead of defaulting to an unquestioning respect for authority or submitting in fear of causing more trouble for herself (as a minority), she demanded to see a form of identification and to know the reason for their presence. Exercising civic power includes the skills of speaking and using our voices. Certainly not an easy feat for many minorities who have suffered terrible and frequently fatal consequences of any words, actions or reactions used to defend themselves, their lives or their dignity.
Liu doesn’t touch on this point directly but does encourage those with privilege to use it on behalf of those without. In addition, he urges us to be public about our beliefs and to be unafraid to name ourselves.
On behalf of all listeners, Hinojosa asked, “How do you put this book to use?” Liu’s answer: Start a movement.
Feelings of civic value refreshed, a spark of excitement over reclaiming neglected individual power spread throughout the room. The exodus of galvanized citizens clutching Liu’s book to their collective heart sent an unmistakable ripple of hope for the future of civic leadership and action in Chicago—and not for the first time since the recent election. As audience members exchanged information with seat-mates and pledged internally to step into conversations from which they were once deterred, a message of solidarity and restoration of power emerged from the conversation: “Our voices matter.”
As we go about our daily lives, and the shroud of hope begins to fade into the former and familiar feelings of duty and pressure to activate and engage with our civic power, I will leave you with the words of Angelica Heaney, a high school junior and representative from the Mikva Challenge who performed a spoken word piece to open the conversation.
“It’s time for us to raise our voices and uplift those who are stigmatized due to the color of their skin or any other characteristic that might make them different from everyone else. I ask that we become more knowledgeable on the subject and begin to speak about it, in order to have the power to encourage achievements within all communities, build confidence and open mindedness within our peers, and grasp on to all the potential we might fail to see within ourselves on a daily basis.”
Engage with other civic-minded individuals, and let your voice be heard. Host an On the Table conversation on May 16th—learn more and sign up today.