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Infinite Power

Photo by Nate Gowdy

Eric Liu has traveled a long political road to deliver a message of grassroots engagement. 

It’s a rainy morning in February and I’m standing in a U District playhouse singing “This Land Is Your Land” with 200 strangers. So much about this scene is unusual and awkward—even with printed lyrics in hand, the crowd mumbles through the obscure fourth and fifth verses—but as shocked as I am to find myself swept up in a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rally of civic engagement, I’m also elated.

For many reasons, some obvious, others personal, the masses have recently been driven to public displays of solicitude, out in the streets and here, inside this theatre. Right now involvement not only feels good, it feels necessary. As activated citizens, we’re being seen, being heard, being counted. We’re engaging, many for the first time in our lives. We’re changing the conversation in real time. We’re singing our own songs, in harmony.

Next up: “This Little Light of Mine.”

This is the fifth Civic Saturday; the first one was the Saturday after Donald Trump’s election last November. Part vaudevillian entertainment, part cross-partisan political assembly and always culminating with a rousing “secular sermon,” each Civic Saturday is organized by Citizen University, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on mentor development, community building and leadership training. Civic Saturday has a single goal, simple in practice and profound in effect: to bring people together, in the flesh, for 90 minutes of self-empowering, politically minded discourse.

One by one, a diverse cast of Citizen U volunteers takes the podium to deliver readings that span U.S. history and delve into race and inclusion and the impact of immigration on democracy. One is by Frederick Douglass, another by Claudia Castro Luna, Seattle’s official Civic Poet. The room glows with intellectual and emotional energy. Suddenly I’m nurturing a pang of disappointment: How did I only now find out about this? 

The session’s prevailing summer camp/drama club enthusiasm, cuddly but purposeful, derives primarily from Jená Cane, the host and MC whose candy-blue-streaked hair and unimpeachable smile hint at her past work with the Seattle International Children’s Festival and her background in theatre. She’s enlisted other theatre folks to lead the sing-alongs and deliver readings. She cracks jokes, corny and self-conscious. And then, about an hour in, Cane introduces Civic Saturday’s regular headliner, her cofounder in Citizen University (and her husband), Eric Liu.

Liu’s reputation precedes him to the podium: graduate of Yale and Harvard; two years as White House speechwriter—the Clinton administration’s youngest—and an adviser on domestic policy; author of seven books, including a memoir about growing up the son of Chinese immigrants in America, a book about economics coauthored with progressive Seattle billionaire Nick Hanauer and, coming out this month, an instruction manual for seizing the levers of democracy called You’re More Powerful Than You Think. At 48 years old, Liu is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, his TED Talks have racked up millions of views, he writes for CNN.com and The Atlantic, and he hosts and produces Citizen University TV on the Seattle Channel.

Liu’s appearance—military-grade flattop, metal-frame glasses, vest—suggests a high school science teacher volunteering as track coach. In direct contrast with the morning’s razzmatazz, he speaks with precise, patient elocution, only occasionally using his hands for emphasis. But from behind his glasses his eyes radiate impassioned warmth, and though his bearing is unwavering, he half-conceals a benign smile through the duration of his address. Here, before willing and ready individuals—citizens—many attending their first Civic Saturday, he’s in his element.

A parade of politicians and pundits have addressed the American people over the last 18 months, but none I’ve seen has communicated the generous humanism and rigorous but easygoing intellect that Liu does this morning. With a gentle yet assertive voice, conveying complete mastery of his subject matter, Liu answers the question posed in the sermon’s title: “Where Is America?”

America, he says, is found in its laws—the rule of law and the creativity it unleashes when we trust in it. It’s in the acts, the everyday choices we make to be good, attentive neighbors to one another. And it’s in the heart, the sense of everyday decency and justice that directs the entire American experiment.

Over the 40-minute course of his sermon, he quotes Tony Soprano, Republican senator Ben Sasse and New York magazine reporter Michael Idov. He references friends and colleagues like Melvin Mar, an executive producer of ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat; Pulitzer-winning Filipino-American journalist Jose Antonio Vargas; Holocaust survivor and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Gerda Weissmann Klein; and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who the night before had won a nationwide stay against Trump’s Muslim ban. By naming these people, who hail from across America’s social and cultural spectrum, he spans the continent and implicates the entire nation, from LA to D.C. to Seattle, in his call for civic responsibility.

Liu eventually arrives at his grand finale. It’s the most compelling part of his speech, and it’s about joy. To defuse Trump and Steve Bannon and their strategy of division and hatred, he says, “We must out-joy them.” We witnessed joy in full flower during the Womxn’s March, during oppositional dance parties in front of Trump Tower in New York, in this morning’s earnest, goofy sing-alongs.

“Joy,” he explains, “is not frivolity. Joy is the generative spirit that emerges when there is underlying trust, respect, imagination, openness. Joy is a symptom that we haven’t given in.”

Aha! The secret behind that half-hidden smile.

His sermon complete, Liu sheepishly accepts the crowd’s standing ovation.

Eric Liu is a big fan of baseball. Born and raised outside Poughkeepsie, New York, he’s forever loved the Yankees and loathed the Red Sox. But, he writes in You’re More Powerful Than You Think,

"I share with Red Sox fans an abiding interest in the underlying health of the game. The more people who know how to play, the more resources there are for people to learn how to play, and the less corrupt and rigged the game is, and the less rigid a wall there is between amateurs and professionals, the better it is for everyone."

The game of politics, he writes, is sick. Citizen University, Civic Saturdays, this month’s 12th-annual Citizen University National Conference—these are all tools for fixing the problem. Following Liu’s baseball analogy: Think of it all as civic conditioning, shaking off apathy, strengthening the muscles of analysis and discourse, practicing the act of participation. You’re More Powerful Than You Think details not only the step-by-step process by which citizens recognize and exercise power—but also the philosophy, the metaphysics, that underlies Liu’s understanding of grassroots politics.

Chief among them is Liu’s claim that power is infinite. “Citizens in fact can create power out of thin air—without taking it from anyplace else—and often do,” he writes. “There is no limit on the amount of power in a polity.” Recognizing this law is an entirely different way of understanding the concept of power. Granting new rights to a group of individuals—via marriage equality, say, or an increased minimum wage—doesn’t deplete power from anyone or anyplace else. There’s always more to go around.

“You don’t have to tell an artist twice that power is infinite!” Liu tells me a week after Civic Saturday, as we talk in the conference room of Citizen University’s downtown high-rise office. “Anybody who deals with the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank wall, and then creates something out of it, knows how power is infinite. When you’re an artist, you’re making something out of seemingly nothing, and a big part of our work is trying to bring that spirit into civic life. To be a citizen, organizing with others, is also to make something out of nothing—to show voice, to show might, to show legitimacy and clout where it didn’t seem to exist before.”

Right now, that showing is extraordinarily visible in Seattle—which, Liu says, is no coincidence. His first visit here was in 1993, with Clinton’s appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. After dwelling amid the ivory towers of East Coast academia and entrenched D.C. politics, he felt an immediate sense of possibility in Seattle.

“I was drawn to this culture of creative entrepreneurialism, and not just in business but in civic life, too. This felt to me then, and it still is, a community where you can show up from anywhere and just start participating and getting involved.”

After graduating from Harvard Law, he made the move in 2000. He met Cane shortly after and their lives began to intertwine. The two put together a mentorship fair at Seattle Center called Guiding Lights Weekend, a precursor to Citizen University’s annual conference.

Seattle longtimers love to kvetch about the city’s protracted efforts to build consensus and make overly informed decisions. But Liu points out another side of the city’s civic persona.

“Bob Ferguson comes out of a line of Seattle’s DNA which is, this is a city of people who get shit done right. UPS, REI, Nordstrom, Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing are cultures and institutions of people who get it done right.” This trait has put Seattle at the forefront of resistance to Trump’s regime.

“It’s not just that Seattle is showing the rest of the country the way to do resistance,” Liu corrects. “We’re showing the country that resistance alone is not enough. Seattle is about affirmatively articulating what it is you want to be for. And we are for inclusion. We are for compassion. We are for making the business case for diversity.”

Seattle’s unique civic spirit is the reason why Liu holds Citizen University’s conference here every year. This month, 500 participants from across the U.S. will convene at Seattle Center to discuss the theme of “Reckoning and Repair.” This year’s event, Liu says, sold out earlier than ever before.

“We’ve never had this many people with this diversity of backgrounds deciding that it’s time to get off the sidelines and participate.” Liu heats up, his words coming faster, with greater urgency. Naturally I wonder, When will this guy run for office?

“The more powerful social media gets and the more it sucks up our attention, the more on some deep, instinctual level we’re hungering for connection, purpose and community,” he says. “The Women’s Marches that proliferated all around this country—people didn’t just tune in on CNN or go on Facebook Live and watch. We all wanted to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Donald Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, has awakened in tens of millions of Americans that spirit of delightful participation and a desire to reclaim the public square.

“I’m so optimistic,” Liu laughs. “I know it’s a crazy thing to say right now because these are times that could feel incredibly disempowering. But I feel like these are times where tons of people are getting awakened to the fact that they, too, can make something out of nothing.”

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