Community Advocacy and Social Activism

Interview with Scholar and Community Leader Eric Liu

A conversation about civic engagement and the fight for a democratic system of law and power

Tuhin Chakraborty

August 8, 2023

Interview of Eric Liu was conducted  by Tuhin Chakraborty.

Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, which works to build a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship in the United States. He is also the founding director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program. Liu is the author of numerous acclaimed books, including most recently You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen  and Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy — a New York Times New & Notable Book. He is featured in the PBS documentary American Creed and is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Tuhin Chakraborty is a Harvard Law Student and was a member of the inaugural cohort of Citizen University’s Youth Collaboratory, where he, along with other high-school students, worked with Mr. Liu and his staff to learn about effective activism and civic power. 

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Tuhin: To begin, one of the themes in the Critical Corporate Theory lab is the outsized impact of corporate law firms on law student recruitment at top law schools. As an HLS graduate in the 1990s, how would you describe the pressure to go into big law back then? Is it similar to the pressure today?

Eric Liu is an HLS graduate and a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, serving as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1999 to 2000. He was also appointed by President Obama for serve on the Board of Directors of AmeriCorps and served from 2015 to 2017. Mr. Liu is also the CEO of Citizen University, a non-profit that promotes civic engagement across America to build a commitment to democracy and community action. He has authored many books as well, including You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen in 2017.

Eric Liu: Source-Citizen University website

Eric Liu: I think it was. I mean, it wasn’t so much that it was explicit pressure as it was, by far, the path of least resistance. It was a path that the institution cleared for students. It was the path that was most visible, available, discussable. And so, if a student wanted to explore plaintiff’s side law firms, if a student wanted to explore government, government service in the law, you had to search for it entrepreneurially. You had to go find your own way. Whereas every day, you know, there were fliers plastered on every wall and every column of every building and bulletin board of this corporate firm or this consulting firm or this big firm coming to recruit, etc. 

I was somewhat immune to the pressure only because I had chosen to come to law school in the first place, not with an intention of practice, but rather essentially to gain another pair of glasses to see these dimensions of power that were implicit in the law that I’d been exposed to in my years working in government in D.C. before law school. Everybody who I admired most had gotten trained in the law, even though almost none of them were, in fact, involved day to day in the practice of the law. I had come to law school, in some ways, thinking about it as graduate school with a major in law. I didn’t feel that pressure inordinately, but I was very attuned to it, just out of curiosity and interest, because I knew that I’d wanted to ultimately head to Seattle. I did arrange in my 1L summer to work at a great major law firm, Perkins Cooie here in Seattle, and had a wonderful summer experience as a summer associate there, working on a range of things. But that wasn’t so much overwhelming pressure. It was more just that I was curious. And the next two summers I did two things in journalism and in other domains. The pressure I think had been constant throughout for others. I think what has changed is that your generation of HLS students, as shown by the very existence of this lab that you are a part of, has far more opportunities, both formally and informally, to explore pathways beyond corporate law. 

Tuhin: Moving down the timeline a little bit: after graduating from law school, I recall that you worked in government for a time, including as advisor within the Clinton administration. Another frequently touched upon topic in law schools, and in this class, is the substantial role of private sector special interests in influencing corporate policy at the state and federal level. How did your experiences in government, if they did at all, inform your decision to later become a national leader in civic engagement and create citizen university? 

Eric Liu: Well, you know, as I said earlier, I went to law school to kind of get this other pair of glasses and see things in three dimensions. That’s because I served in government both before and after law school. And before I went back to the White House after I graduated, I graduated from Harvard College in 1990, I took a long, meandering route through law school. I started in 94, did one year, and then I took two years off on leave. And that’s when I began writing my first book, The Accidental Asian. It’s also when MSNBC launched, and I became kind of an on-air pundit for them. And for two years, I was based in Cambridge and was still kind of spending time in the intellectual life of Harvard writ large and meeting other students and faculty and so forth. But then by the time I came back to law school, I had that much more of a focused sense of what I wanted to learn. And all of that was informed by what you’re naming in your question, which is my perception during my time in government of how there is a language of power that certainly lobbyists and corporations are fluent in. But the language is not as simple as “Oh, we have money and we’re going to lobby and pressure you elected officials to do X or Y.” The language and the ecosystem of power is far more complex than that. And those years that I spent at Harvard, both in law school and on leave from law school, were a further deepening of such fluency of power, understanding the power of an institution like Harvard to shape norms and narrative in the country. 

Shall I hoard all the benefits of this wealth?

The power that people who are coming through different parts of Harvard, whether it is the Kennedy School or the business school, is the power to influence and direct institutions. And after that accumulation of knowledge and experience, I came to a certain point, probably about when I was 30, where I realized that I have a fairly simple, binary choice here with all of this knowledge, experience, and capital that I’ve accumulated: intellectual capital, social capital, relational capital. And the binary choice was: should I hoard, or should I circulate my resources? And I think at some point in life, everyone who’s in HLS or goes through HLS will face that same binary choice. Shall I hoard all the benefits of this wealth? And I don’t mean just literally financial wealth, but the wealth of relationships, contacts, knowledge, and other assets. Shall I apply this all to myself? Or shall I find a way to circulate it? And I kind of confronted that choice and decided to circulate it. And that choice led me in a direction toward writing my next book, which was about life changing mentors from all different walks of life and how they pass on what they know. And that work led to organizing conferences and gatherings that ultimately, over time, led to the creation of Citizen University. 

We need to democratize this knowledge of power, and we need to share this understanding with more people in more ways. And that was the genesis of this organization, Citizen University, whose whole mission is to foster a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship around the country by democratizing this kind of knowledge of how you can get things done in the community.