Citizen artist: Eric Liu on artists’ role in civic life

Artists embody what it means to be a citizen, says Eric Liu.

But the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University is quick to explain that “citizenship” doesn’t refer to a person’s documentation status under immigration law. It’s about membership in a community, about contribution to the whole. It’s about participating in civic life and in public spaces and institutions.

Civic participation is something we can all do, and it’s a start to building and wielding power we may not even know we have. That’s the focus of Liu’s book You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, published this year. The book is a manifesto on the strength of the collective, and a strategic primer on effecting change through grassroots campaigns. It’s a call to action prompted not only by the 2016 election, but also by all of the movements and waves of change that have emerged in the past decade, from the Tea Party to the fight for a $15 minimum wage to the water protectors seeking to block the Dakota Access Pipeline.

And it’s a book that celebrates art. Performance, narrative, ritual, and imagination are impossible to separate from the success of the movements Liu describes.

“My whole approach to civic work is shaped by an awareness of how creativity and culture are big drivers of social change,” Liu says. He credits his wife and Citizen University co-founder, theater artist and teaching artist Jená Cane, with helping to weave art and creativity into the organization.

The intersection of art and civic engagement includes grassroots organizers using creative strategies, as well as artists considering the social impact of their work. Artists, he says, offer skills and perspectives that are fundamental to healthy citizenship and civic power.

“Artists embody the ability to frame and reframe what’s possible in community life. Artists push the boundaries of what’s permissible and what people think is okay in social norms,” Liu says. “Artists activate, at their core, a capacity for empathy and identification with someone quite different from you, which is at the heart of civic life and democracy when it’s healthy.”

Liu’s book describes dozens of examples of artists, organizers, and concerned community members creatively working to achieve their civic goals. Here are just a few examples he shared with Creative Exchange of the power of artists as citizens.

Artists’ stories can reach people in ways that speeches and policy papers can’t.

In 2013, Liu created a one-man show called “Citizen Who?” that combined storytelling, music, and theater into a performance piece exploring the idea of citizenship in America.

“I felt like it’s really important to give people lots of entryways into this broad topic of participation in citizenship,” he says. “You can do it in very linear, heavy political and legal ways,” but an artistic approach can reach people more effectively.

But the power of art and performance goes deeper than grabbing attention, Liu says, explaining that democracy and theater emerged around the same time in ancient Greece.

“Both of these are human endeavors that require the individual to pull herself out of pure self-centeredness and selfishness and to situate herself in a larger context,” he says. “Both require a sense that creating collective ritual matters, in a way that just simply reading facts or stating concepts can’t quite achieve, in terms of activating the imagination and opening hearts.”

Story, music, images, and voice have great power in civic issues and grassroots movements — such as Black Lives Matter, which has been expressed through the work of musicians, street artists, and photographers. Liu points to the work of filmmaker Ava DuVernay, whose documentary 13TH distills the issue of mass incarceration and its roots in slavery into indelibly compelling words and images.

And he cites the photo of protester Ieshia Evans facing a line of riot police in Baton Rouge, capturing the movement with vivid meaning.

“That image is worth a thousand words a thousand times over, in terms of what’s gone askew and awry in our criminal justice system and our approach to policing,” Liu says.

Artists can invite people into shared experiences and rituals.

During the 2016 election, Citizen University launched a project called The Joy of Voting, inspired by the simple idea that voting used to be fun. Parades, bonfires, open-air debates, and street theater were all once a part of the electoral process, Liu says — until television coverage took over.

To try to revive the participatory celebrations, Citizen University worked with the Knight Foundation to seed projects in Wichita, Akron, Philadelphia, and Miami. They invited artists and community members to decide how they would express the joy of voting locally. The 20 projects that were funded included outdoor festivals, artist-designed “I Voted” stickers, and a “Patriotic Punk Rock Satirical Spectacular.”

“The projects were about the sense that participation and involvement in voting shouldn’t be ‘eat your vegetables,’ it should be ‘join the party,’” Liu says.

Shortly after the election, Citizen University launched an event series they had been planning called Civic Saturday: a secular but church-inspired gathering with music, a sermon, readings from historical leaders and writers like Langston Hughes, and an affirmation of the shared American values of liberty, equality, and self-government.

Though the mood had changed from those Joy of Voting celebrations, the ritual — and the role of art and artists, in poetry and in song — was still valuable, allowing people to come together in person and share an experience.

For Liu and Citizen University, Civic Saturday has reinforced the value of clubs and gatherings as part of citizenship. “Join the club. Join the ritual,” Liu says. “Join the community that’s bigger than yourself, and be part of this sense of purpose and spirit of joyful belonging that is the only thing that’s going to sustain people.”

Artists can imagine a better future, and help others see it, too.

One way that grassroots organizing campaigns are often waged and won is through portraying an alternative future, encouraging people to imagine something better. Artists can help make that alternative vivid, and they can also invite the community to imagine together.

Springboard for the Arts’ Artists & Aging project with Citizens League, which Eric Liu has been involved in through his work with the Aspen Institute’s Pluribus Project, is one example. For Artists & Aging, which you can read about here and here, artists worked with community members and organizations to investigate the topic of aging in the Twin Cities and explore how policies could change. It was exciting, Liu says, to see artists and citizens asking questions about making spaces more inviting to elders, and building meaningfully intergenerational communities.

And by daring to imagine the future, Liu says, artists can actually help bring it into fruition. One of the key principles he discusses in You’re More Powerful Than You Think is the idea that power is not finite, permanent, or zero-sum. New power can be created through what Liu calls “the magic act of organizing,” when people come together and advocate for their needs and goals.

“Artists — by creating space, by inviting people, by depicting possible futures — are at the heart of that organizing work,” Liu says, “and therefore at the heart of generating brand-new power that can change very stuck or static situations in communities around the country.”

Artists’ ability to imagine the future is especially important right now, Liu says, as civic life is dominated by the current presidential administration. There’s a danger in focusing too much on opposition instead of constructing something new.

“It’s not enough just simply to try to block or say no to this thing that you’re resisting,” Liu says. “To be fully powerful in civic life, you want to depict the affirmative alternative. What would it look like to have an administration that was welcoming toward immigrants and did not operate from unfounded fear? What would it look like for a city, instead of deciding to build a multi-hundred-million dollar new youth detention facility, to plow that money into youth mentoring and prevention of delinquency, and strengthening the foundation of community out of which crime emerges? Depicting the alternative in an affirmative way is something we all have to do, and artists can and should be at the front lines of that work.”

Artists can uphold the values and character that drive civic power.

With Citizen University, Liu has been involved in the creation of a Citizen Artist Fellows program through the Kennedy Center, celebrating emerging artists who use their art for positive community impact. Fellows include Vijay Gupta, whose Street Symphony brings live musical performance to communities experiencing homelessness and incarceration; and Michelle Angela Ortiz, a muralist and community arts educator who uses her art to represent communities whose histories have been lost or co-opted.

“All of the work that these citizen artists are doing is animated by the sense that it’s not enough to understand how power works; you have to couple that literacy in power with a grounding in what I call character in the collective,” Liu says. “They’re coupling their understanding of how you get stuff done and how you wield power with a moral sense of why you should wield power and on whose behalf, with what sense of legacy, and with what spirit of justice.”

That understanding of the values and purpose that undergird civic power, of the why as well as the how, is a vital part of becoming an active citizen, Liu says. Art carries and reminds us of those values.

Artists’ community relationships are often overshadowed by stereotypes about isolated creators and lone geniuses. In fact, Liu says, art-making tends to be deeply collaborative and rooted in place.

“Working collaboratively with others, and doing so in a way that’s based in a place and rooted in a community — those are really key to healthy citizenship and a spirit of democracy,” he says.

Eric Liu is optimistic even in these “dark times for our country,” he says, because of the citizen artists he sees inspiring joy and participation. Rather than inciting fear or making civics feel like a chore, these citizen artists are inviting people into the process, empowering them to make change, and helping them envision the future. And all of us can join in.

Citizen University 2016. Eric Liu. Photo by Alabastro Photography. #CitizenUCon16

Featured image: Citizen University National Conference 2017 “Reckoning and Repair in America”. “The Moral Citizen” panel discussion. Photo by Alabastro Photography.