Q & A with Eric Liu, Founder of Citizen University and Civic Collaboratory
Interview with Eric Liu, Founder of Citizen University and the Civic Collaboratory
Eric Liu is a former speechwriter for President Clinton and the Founder of Citizen University and the Civic Collaboratory. Lynn Barendsen had the opportunity to talk with the civic entrepreneur recently, who shared some of his thoughts about collaboration. What follows is a brief excerpt from this interview. For the full interview click here.
What was the inspiration behind the Civic Collaboratory? Did you have models or mentors in its formation?
The inspiration was really organic. I had for years been organizing an annual national conference – now Citizen University – and the larger the community became, the more appetite there was to sustain the engagement beyond once a year. I had a desire to build a structure for that sustained engagement.
It was Bill Gates, Sr. who initially suggested we conduct more frequent and focused gatherings the rest of the year, so that the leaders and innovators who came to the conference could stay connected.
Around the same time, in Seattle, my friend and colleague Nick Hanauer and I had created something that ended up being a bit of a prototype for the Collaboratory. It was called the Civic Innovators Club (CIC). Our goal was to get leaders and innovators from the Seattle/Puget Sound area (in and around western Washington state) together for dinners and discussions once every few months. We were trying to build a community that would be a constituency for more civic ambition in our city and state. This was in some ways a nice dry run for what would become the Civic Collaboratory.
So I took the prompt by Bill Sr. and the model of the CIC and that led me and my team to design what would become the Civic Collaboratory, a leadership network dedicated to building a movement of strong citizenship in America. Bill Sr. and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor actually helped kick off the first meeting of the Collaboratory, at the Gates Foundation offices in July 2011.
What are your specific goals for this work in the short term (6 mo – 1 year)? In the long term (5 – 10 years)?
In the short term: create a strong and durable leadership network that can help foster a culture of strong engaged citizenship in the US. People have invested in the Collaboratory – not just time or expense, but they’ve taken ownership, wanting to participate and wanting to host. I feel like the flywheel is starting to turn, but not yet turning at peak speed, and want to get it humming so that the culture is humming. So that it has energy on its own.
In the long term: Our goal ultimately is a culture, from popular culture to a culture of schooling and learning or of business or of political life, where there’s a higher emphasis and premium on the ethics and acts of great citizenship.
I see us as the germ of a movement about citizenship – in religious terms, a movement of spirit as well as of project. Movements like this have to be authentic but also require catalytic leadership, across sectors, across lines of division.
We’re going deeper, too. One aim in the coming year: every time we get together as a group, we’ll be meeting with other leaders from the host city. The idea is to both deepen, for national leaders to connect with people in that particular city; but also for people of the city to be able to engage on a national scale. But also in a Johnny Appleseed way, seed the same kind of intentional movement and leadership that we can do on a local level.
What are the beliefs and values that guide you in this work?
Responsibility. Reciprocity. Participation. Inclusion. Practice. Unpacking each of them – whether it’s how I was raised, or how I’m wired, but responsibility is crucial to me. Americans spend far too much time thinking about rights, not enough about responsibilities. And I think Americans are far too prone to believe that we’re isolated individuals rather than part of a web of relationships. I really believe that every aspect of citizenship and self-government begins with a choice to take responsibility. That may sound conservative, but that’s fine. I’m a progressive by almost every political policy measure, but any healthy society begins with shared responsibility.
Reciprocity is connected to that. We have to understand and appreciate the ways in which in a diverse large democracy, trust is everything and doesn’t’ come automatically, has to be earned, built and increased. It is built by reciprocity – understanding that our fates our bound together.
Participation: I always quote Bill Gates Sr., about showing up for life. I am the son of immigrants: I’m conscious of every opportunity involving obligation to participate, to get involved, not to take for granted anything that I had the dumb luck to inherit. I had the luck to be born here, have the advantages of safety, advantages of support – that means I’m obligated to participate in the substance of that ecosystem.
Inclusion means not just to respect diverse view points but also in the sense that our diversity is only as good as what we make of it. It’s paper diversity if you don’t actively seek to bring people together and make something out of their difference. Active inclusion.
Practice is a very American thing. A “more perfect union” means we are never perfect, practice will be our charge forever as a country. Every generation seems to live up more to our ideals, but there are still great gaps between actual ideas and inclusion.
The meta value is true patriotism. I believe America is exceptional, but because it is we have an exceptional responsibility to keep it up, to earn it. That’s the overarching value that we hold. It’s not complacent – it’s a consideration of all of the above, earning it.
Eric Liu is the founder and CEO of Citizen University, which promotes and teaches the art of great citizenship (www.citizenuniversity.us). His books include national bestsellers The Gardens of Democracy and The True Patriot, both co-authored with Nick Hanauer; The Accidental Asian, a New York Times Notable Book; and Guiding Lights, the Official Book of National Mentoring Month. Liu served as a White House speechwriter and deputy domestic policy adviser to President Clinton. He now lives in Seattle, where he teaches civic leadership at the University of Washington. A regular columnist for CNN.com and correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, Liu can be found on Twitter @ericpliu.