Protesters lock arms as they block a driveway at the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services building in San Francisco on May 1, 2017.
Protesters lock arms as they block a driveway at the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services building in San Francisco on May 1, 2017. Jeff Chiu/AP

Eric Liu, a writer and thinker who teaches citizens to create their own power, has a bold challenge for city leaders.

By the diagnosis of the writer and thinker Eric Liu, protests are one way a city’s immune system tells the body politic that it’s sick.

“Protests about monuments are not just protests about monuments,” Liu said Tuesday in remarks at CityLab Paris. “They are a plea to be included in the story of ‘us.’ If that story is leaving out large numbers of people who can’t see themselves as ‘us,’ the immune system’s gonna tell you.”

Liu, the founder of Citizen University and an Aspen Institute program on citizenship and American identity, has spent the past several years teaching “ordinary people” how to find their power through his organization, in a recent book, and in widely viewed TED talks. But on Tuesday, he tweaked his message for a somewhat different audience at a convening in Paris, comprised mostly of city leaders and officials—in other words, an audience that already has power.

His prescription: Resist the impulse to hoard that power, or your city will be weak and susceptible to illness.

Liu recounted an exchange he had with a mayor who “shall remain nameless” during the Paris convening. When Liu told the mayor the subject of his work is citizen power, the mayor replied, “Is that a good thing? Is it a good thing that citizens all around the world are feeling empowered to topple inherited hierarchies?”

Liu implored city leaders to recognize that this question is the problem. The goal of cities, he said, is not to serve primarily as centers of economic opportunity or concentrated talent. It is to make great citizens. To do that, he said, circulate your power.

At CityLab Paris, Liu implored leaders to grow citizen power. (Melanie Leigh Wilbur)

Liu, who worked in federal politics in Washington for years before founding Citizen University, presented an alternative to the way he said Washington functions. Federal policy-makers act as if power is a zero-sum game in which a gain for one party is a loss for another. This game has led to increasing dysfunction at the national level, and cities have been positioning themselves as more effective alternatives.

But by Liu’s account, power is infinite and citizens can add new power through engagement and organizing.

“Our job now, given today’s dysfunction in national capitals and international bodies, is to make sure that cities are in fact the laboratories of democracy that we are saying they can be,” he said.

To foster democracy, he said, cities must do three things: One, “teach power relentlessly,” through programs that allow citizens to learn by doing, like participatory budgeting, which asks citizens to devise and vote on funding projects; and the Mikva challenge, which invites young people to come up with and execute on new civic ideas. Two, incubate mutual aid, which Liu describes by reference to entrepreneur “incubators” that foster new business ideas. He calls for “civic collaboratories” that include Tea Party founders, Black Lives Matter founders, immigrant leaders, and other innovators in their own area of expertise finding points of collaboration. Three, listen to the body politic. In addition to protest, he said, leaders should be attentive to “long silences of cynicism,” suggesting a lack of faith in the legitimacy of government bodies.

When you don’t listen to those “aches from the body politic,” Liu warned, “you get the situation that too many cities around the planet are in right now, in which they are becoming, like my own town of Seattle, fortresses of compounding privilege, of self-reinforcing opportunity for a smaller and smaller ‘us.’”

Liu acknowledged that citizen engagement can be “awfully inconvenient” for city leaders, creating more process and complicating efficiency and management. Resisting the natural flow of power toward self-perpetuation and justification takes intentional work, he said.

Which is why he delivered a hopeful warning: “I think the reality is today that cities will save democracy—if they don’t kill it first.”

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