Conversations with Eboo: Eric Liu

Image from Citizen University website.

A few years ago, on a balcony at the Aspen Institute in the Rocky Mountains, Eric Liu told me that he thought of his nonprofit, Citizen University, a little bit like a production company. The staff was small and nimble. They excelled at curating episodic events that created space for deep conversation on American civic identity. Eric spent most of his time speaking and writing about the possibilities for American democracy

If we keep to media metaphors, then the best way to describe the way things have changed is that Eric now operates a movie studio. The staff has more than doubled. The programming has increased at least that much, and taken on a much more strategic arc. In nonprofit parlance, Eric has initiatives he’d like to scale, not just ideas he wants to put out there. In layperson’s terms, he is committing himself to do more of the brick-by-brick building of the vision of American democracy that he has written and spoken so eloquently about.        

Eric describes the heart of that vision in his most recent book, Become America: “Democracy in America is an act of faith … faith in the people with whom we hold the fate of this fragile experiment.”

Eric is especially concerned that the muscle of citizenship is getting weaker at the same time as white nationalism, authoritarianism, wealth concentration, and polarization are growing. We need to exercise the citizenship muscle, both by imagining America anew, and also be practicing citizenship in concrete programs.

One of the concrete programs where both imagination and practice occurs is a Civic Saturday. Eric and his wife Jena launched the first one in their home city of Seattle after the 2016 Presidential election. The idea was to apply the format of a religious gathering (singing, sermons, readings, community) to a civic purpose. They expected forty people. Over two hundred showed up. And they kept coming, Saturday after Saturday.

People across the country started hearing about Civic Saturdays and asked Eric and Jena to launch the program in their city. Eric and Jena hit the road and quickly realized, however much fun the process was, it wasn’t scalable.

What did religious communities do when they figured out that there weren’t enough charismatic preachers to meet the need? They built institutions to train more such preachers. That’s how Harvard, and many other institutions of higher education, got started. And that’s exactly what Eric and Jena committed to. They call it Civic Seminary.

Even as the Civic Seminary grows and Civic Saturdays start to take root across the country, Eric is cooking up related projects, like Civic Confirmations.

It’s not hard to see how the quantity, scope and strategic arc of this work requires a fully-outfitted organization. Eric emitted something of a sigh when I asked him how he felt about the responsibility of raising a budget and managing staff and all of the other things that go along with running an institution. And then he pointed out that building things is part of the American creed.

But we can’t pretend that every builder has an inclusive vision in mind. There are people building walls. There are people building division. These are structures that bring to life the shadow side of the American personality.

Eric and Citizen University are committed to making a different American idea a reality. I’ll let him describe it in his own words:

“Our goal at Citizen University is to build power for the widest number of people for the purpose of building the most inclusive democracy imaginable. We are in a race now. Can those of us building bridges repair and reinvent faster than the people tearing them down.”   

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Pope Francis has turned Twitter into a prophetic medium. It is his way of getting the Gospel message out to the world.
The Duniverse, as some fans call it, is heavily influenced by ecology and sociology — as well as imagery from the Islamic world and the Middle East.
The gathering was one stop on a spiritual convoy to San Francisco, where a court will hear an appeal the group has filed to keep land in Arizona from being transferred to a mining company.
University leaders say they will use the gift to fund new faculty positions and build laboratories. Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a small denomination based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Our top 10 religion stories ask: Can college kids get along? Does "Midnight Mass" respect religion? And is there a Torah of Ted Lasso?
The expansion is fueled by concerns over political polarization on college campuses, an infusion of funds from foundations interested in bridge-building, and a merger with IFYC, which has a track record facilitating interfaith engagement.
The home temple, or puja mandir, has been part of Hindu culture for centuries. Even for those who are not very religious, it can be a space for meditation and reflection.
Feeling broken and betrayed by God after her son Beau died, the First Lady said her spirits lifted inside a Baptist church. "I felt for the first time that there was a path for my recovering my faith."
Applications open October 1, and grants are available to educators doing important work that engages religious diversity to combat systemic racism, inside and outside the classroom.
On loan from the Library of Congress, the historic English-language Quran, printed in London in 1764, will be the first object in a display that honors U.S. founding principles.
Ancient rabbis imagined the great chain of tradition, that went from generation to generation, as a ball that is tossed, playfully, from teacher to student. Is there a "Lasso Torah" inside a television show about a fish-out-of-water Midwestern football coach?
Studies show houses of worship have provided solace during the pandemic, but companies across the U.S. are struggling to respond to requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
Catholics leaders have urged vaccination to "protect the most vulnerable," and studies show this outreach is helping improve vaccination rates among Latino Catholics.
Across the country, people from all political divides, faiths and walks of life are coming together to help resettle Afghan refugees arriving at the borders.
The first episode of “Home Sweet Home,” which DuVernay said prioritizes curiosity over conflict, features the Wixx family — a “super queer” Black couple with three children.
Each week, we share our top 10 religion stories from journals, news sites, podcasts and magazines.
Dr. Abel Gomez: "If we’re talking about interfaith work and we want to expand the ability of communities to practice their religious ceremonies, I ask my students: if we think about the experience of Native people under the occupation of the United States, do they actually have religious freedom?"
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871.
The last several months have been catastrophic for Haiti. The Aug. 14 earthquake left more than 2,200 people dead, followed by Tropical Depression Grace two days later. The country’s political sector has been in disarray & over 22,000 people have officially died during the pandemic.
Apache Stronghold will take part in a day of prayer Saturday (Oct. 9) at Oak Flat before meeting with leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who will offer a blessing and prayer for their travels.
It’s not just interactions with friends and families that are getting cut. Routine yet beneficial interactions with people at fitness and child care centers and volunteer organizations are also being eliminated.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.