Eric Liu: A Call to Action

The Hall Family Speaker Series launched last Thursday, Oct. 3, with a visit from Eric Liu, an author, activist, and speaker who addressed a packed house of nearly 300 on the topic of civic engagement, power, and the meaning of citizenship.
The new series is an initiative of Rivers’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement, under the direction of Amy Enright. Rivers partnered with the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts for the event.

When Enright started to consider who might best serve as the inaugural speaker, she says, “Liu struck me as the most accessible, inspiring voice working in civics right now.” Liu, says Enright, was her “dream speaker,” and she was delighted when he agreed to visit campus.

Liu, the author of several books and a popular TED talk speaker, challenged the crowd to ponder power and privilege—their own and that of others. Citizenship, he said, is power plus character, noting that there are three “core laws” of power: That it compounds and concentrates into fewer and fewer hands; that it justifies itself; and that it is infinite. While the first two laws may seem discouraging to the powerless, the third ought to bring hope. “Even in the most rigged system,” said Liu, “you can create power out of thin air, through the magic of organizing, through bringing people together from the roots up.”

The “character” part of his formulation is understood to be broad and societal. “Usually, character is about individual virtues, about ‘grit’ and ‘rugged individualism.’ However, I’m not talking about personal virtues, but rather social virtues,” Liu said. Nevertheless, the personal—when practiced on a sufficiently large scale—engenders the cultural: “Society becomes how you behave. Your choices are the start of a contagion, a tidal wave of compassion and courtesy. Rugged individualism never got a barn raised or a school built.” In short, he said, “We’re all better off when we’re all better off.”

Liu spoke about his Civic Saturdays initiative (part of the Citizen University organization he co-founded), a nationwide movement to bring together friends, neighbors, and strangers to create weekly shared rituals—singing, reading text, conversing—around the idea of active citizenship. During the Q&A session that followed his presentation, audience members asked about finding local Civic Saturday groups to join. As the talk ended and the crowd streamed out of the Campus Center, attendees discussed Liu’s points among themselves and seemed eager to find ways to engage in the work he described.

The next day, Liu addressed the Upper School, again speaking on the subject of power. But he shaped the message to urge students to heed their own generation’s particular call to action. Active shooter drills, for instance, have become an accepted part of the school landscape, he noted. “But that’s not normal,” he said. “Do not let that become normal. More than that, ask yourself who decides on the policies and laws and what changes we could make to make that not normal.”

Again, he emphasized, it comes down to power: who wields it and how to accrue it. “Your generation has the opportunity, and therefore the obligation, to get more comfortable with reading and writing power, getting literate in power,” Liu told the students. “Whatever discomfort you have with that, get over it. This is a time when your country and your planet are calling you to understand power and to start practicing it.”