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Civic Engagement Opportunities During Social Distancing


We've been talking about all the ways the coronavirus has changed daily life. Last week, we spoke with a group of religious leaders to hear about how they're trying to adapt worship and also support congregants. Now we want to think about civic life - you know, volunteering in schools, organizing book drives, delivering meals, maybe working for political campaigns or get out the vote drives. All those things are vitally important to millions of Americans and, frankly, the American way of life.

So what to do now that Americans are being implored to keep their distance from each other? For some ideas about this, we've reached out to Eric Liu. He is the founder of Citizen University. That's a group focused on bringing people together for civic engagement. And he's with us now from his home in Seattle.

Eric Liu, thanks so much for joining us once again.

ERIC LIU: It's great to be with you, Michel. And I'll just note at the beginning - I'm the co-founder with my wife, Jena Cane.

MARTIN: Sure. It does matter, and I appreciate your pointing that out. But I'm going to just start by asking how your family is doing because, you know, Washington State is one of the states that was one of the first to be hard-hit by the outbreak. Certainly, the epicenter's moved to New York. But, you know, how are things there now? Like, what's the mood there?

LIU: Thank you for asking. Our family's hanging in there. And I think the mood in the community overall is confused, I would say. I mean, of course, people are taking it seriously, and we're essentially sheltering in place now. And at the same time, because it's nice out, people are still taking walks and going on runs. And so there is this sense of unreality to it. But what's inescapable is just the facts and the numbers.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons that we called you is that, you know, Citizen University is exactly what it sounds. I mean, one of the things that you've been sort of experimenting with and developing with Citizen University is trying to get people to re-engage with their civic life, to take it as seriously as they take other forms of engagement. So do you have any tips for people at home about what they can do to try to stay engaged for as long as this may last?

I mean, I'm just thinking about the fact that, say, after Sept. 11, a lot of the coping mechanisms that people adopted are not possible here. I mean, people had vigils. You know, they packed into churches. They volunteered. They lined up to give blood - things of that sort. Those things are really hard now.

LIU: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what can people do?

LIU: It's really important right now, when we're prone to cabin fever, when we are physically separated from one another, to stop thinking about ourselves. And I know that's hard in a crisis.

But I think the fundamental question in this moment right now, if we're to put meaning behind the cliche that we're all in this together, is, how can I be useful? How can I be useful right now to somebody who - especially someone I don't know and can't see?

If there's some way I can be of service, there's some way I can share my gifts or knowledge, if there's some way I can connect someone who needs help to someone who could offer help. And to me, what's been so exciting in our work at Citizen University - we engage with civic catalysts of all ages and generations.

But it's especially been the young people, high school students and college students we work with, who are not particularly spending their time navel-gazing, they're just diving in. They're creating food drives and delivering food to food banks. They're figuring out ways to translate COVID-19 information into the languages that their immigrant parents and neighbors speak. They're creating text-based mental health services and mutual aid boards on Google Docs. And they're just figuring out how to be of use right now.

And that does a few things. No. 1, you are being part of the solution. But No. 2, it keeps you from feeling helpless and powerless in a time like this - the sense that, you know, the best way that you can calm yourself is to help calm someone else.

The best way you can be of service right now is to remember that all self-interest is mutual interest. This is a time for us to be returning to that spirit of mutuality and reciprocity. And we can practice it, in some ways, more easily and readily than ever because technology and social isolation are priming us to find creative new ways to connect with each other.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I mean, this is going to be over at some point, we hope. What would you hope would be the legacy of this experience? I mean, what would you hope for after this particular chapter ends?

LIU: You know, I hope that in this moment, that we are able to hold onto and sustain two things. No. 1, a sense of civic imagination - in a crisis, you open your imagination about solutions. We've got to sustain that. The second thing that we've got to sustain when this is all over is the thing that is holding us together right now, and that is a spirit of civic love - that belief that we are in it all together and connected to one another.

And that's heightened in a disaster and an emergency. And we've got to figure out ways that we're going to recommit to ourselves when the worst of this passes, to really think about how we're going to sustain that joy of singing on balconies, sustain that generosity of sharing our gifts, sustain the sense that yeah, it is OK to be in favor of higher taxes or paid sick leave for somebody I don't know because in the long run, that's going to be good for me - right? - and not just revert to the selfish zero-sum thinking that preceded the disaster.

If we can hold onto those things, then we'll have come out of this with some net benefit.

MARTIN: That was Eric Liu. He is the co-founder of Citizen University, and he was kind enough to join us from Seattle.

Eric Liu, thanks so much for your time. Wishing you and your family the best.

LIU: Thanks so much, Michel. It's great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.