The Art of Powerful Citizenship

Eric Liu, the 2017 John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecturer, teaches young people how to be a force for good in their communities.

When Eric Liu was an undergraduate at Yale and first saw Harkness Tower on campus, he got goosebumps that had nothing to do with the impressive, 54-bell carillon it housed. A quote carved onto the base of the structure—the second most famous saying attributed to Yale alumnus and Revolutionary War soldier and spy Nathan Hale—resonated so deeply that he stills tells the story of discovering it.

The simple inscription? “I wish to be useful.”

Growing up as the American-born son of Taiwanese immigrants who came here fleeing civil war, Eric feared nothing more than his parents calling him the most shameful word in his culture—meiyouyong. Useless.

“Being of service is a deeply Chinese ethic,” he said. He was frequently reminded that his good life and treasured American citizenship were merely the result of his “dumb luck” at having been born here. Anyone who wanted to enjoy all the opportunities that come with being an American, he was told, had better earn them.

Now a successful author and educator, with Harvard Law School and stints as both a speechwriter and domestic policy advisor for President Bill Clinton under his belt, Eric knows that his purpose is to be “civically useful” as an engaged, prosocial contributor to society. Through his aptly named Citizen University, he promotes the teaching of what he calls the “art of powerful citizenship,” especially to young people, so that they will be equipped to steward “this [American] dream that fell into our laps.”

For Sidwell Friends, Eric was a fitting choice to serve as the 2017 John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecturer. He spoke to Upper School students during Collection on February 22 and addressed the broader SFS community that night.

The Zeidman Lecture brings to the School experts on various aspects of historical and modern Chinese society. Now in its 35th year, it lies at the heart of Sidwell Friends’ endowed Chinese Studies Program. Both the lecture and program were established by Philip and Nancy Zeidman in memory of their son, John, who loved Chinese language, culture, and history. (It took “moxie” for John to study China in the 1970s, said Head of School Bryan Garman when introducing Eric.)

Eric’s professional experience and cultural vantage point spurred the kind of unique insights that Zeidman Lecture attendees have come to expect. In addition to being founder and CEO of Citizen University, Eric is executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program and an instructor of civic leadership at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several books, including A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream; The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government; and The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker. His newest book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, will be published later this month.

Civic literacy

What exactly is “powerful citizenship”? It means becoming literate in power and grounded in character, Eric told students at Collection. For anyone conjuring “power trips” and other negative associations with the word, he described power as simply a “capacity to ensure that others do as you would like them to do.” Civic power is how this concept plays out in the public arena.

Growing up as the American-born son of Taiwanese immigrants who came here fleeing civil war, Eric feared nothing more than his parents calling him the most shameful word in his culture—meiyouyong. Useless.

Eric cited as an example the SFS students who went to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue last weekend to show their support for people of various faiths. The students, he said, were demonstrating how to build bridges—a key element in changing people’s attitudes and a great example of powerful citizenship.

For those who might choose not to be literate in civic power, he cautioned, “It’s not like you are exempt from it. It means you will be the unwitting pawn of someone else’s moves.” A perfect example: People who don’t understand that not voting in an election is voting.

Being able to influence different groups of people takes practice and intention, a commitment to becoming fluent in this language of power. “But it’s utterly insufficient to only be literate without being tethered to any moral sense,” Eric said. The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address are just words, he said, until we animate them with our deeds. “This is where character comes in.” He stresses that he is not referring to individual virtue but, rather, “character in the collective”: How do you behave in public? How do you tune yourself in to others, demonstrate reciprocity, mutuality, service before self? These values are also just words until we animate them with acts. Sometimes, those deeds make national headlines; often they involve making what Eric calls “micro choices” that are encountered every day, such as deciding whether to stand up for someone who is being bullied.

The reason for practicing powerful citizenship can be summed up with a tagline from the Citizen University website: Society becomes how you behave.

The hyphen and the hybrid

During the evening portion of his appearance, Eric talked about the difference between being a Chinese-American citizen and a Chinese American citizen. The hyphen diminishes who and what he is.

Hyphenating two cultures emphasizes a “personal and national identity that depends on a pretense of purity and separation,” he said. It is better suited to describing a relationship between two separate and distinct national entities, such as “Chinese-American cooperation” or “Chinese-American conflict.”

“But I am a unified person,” Eric said. The lesson of the Chinese American life is that “hybridity is life—the mixing and remixing of unlike elements into something new. Scrambling lines of descent. That is evolution,” he said.

Regardless of how wealthy China becomes, America will always have a significant advantage, Eric explained, because while America makes Chinese Americans, China does not make American Chinese. China does not welcome, integrate, or empower newcomers to redefine the meaning of “Chineseness.” But America traditionally has done so with its own immigrants. “That’s our edge—if we don’t blow it,” he said.

Eric also addressed the ways in which America has fallen short of its ideals. He told of early anti-Chinese sentiment that resulted in exclusion, isolation, and even an 1882 ban on Chinese immigrants. Such extreme racism, he said, was the product of the “nation’s severely stunted moral imagination” and a desire to protect “the pure whiteness of America” from the “impure alienness” of the Chinese. This narrative is all around us today, he noted, and can be seen in “identity fundamentalists” such as ISIS followers who fear modernity, Asian leaders who fear talk of human rights, and American politicians who fear “bad hombres.” All desire a return to a “pure culture,” he said.

“But I am here to tell you there is no such thing as purity. And I am here to say, ‘Thank God.’”

For more about Eric and his efforts to promote civic engagement, visit Watch a short video of the lecture here

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