English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDCity2.0

Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power

Filmed
Views 1,814,266

Far too many Americans are illiterate in power — what it is, how it operates and why some people have it. As a result, those few who do understand power wield disproportionate influence over everyone else. “We need to make civics sexy again,” says civics educator Eric Liu. “As sexy as it was during the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement.”

- Civics educator
Eric Liu is a civics educator and founder of Citizen University, which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship. Full bio

I'm a teacher and a practitioner
00:12
of civics in America.
00:14
Now, I will kindly ask those of
you who have just fallen asleep
00:16
to please wake up. (Laughter)
00:19
Why is it that the very word "civics"
00:21
has such a soporific,
even a narcoleptic effect
00:23
on us?
00:26
I think it's because the very
word signifies something
00:28
exceedingly virtuous,
exceedingly important,
00:32
and exceedingly boring.
00:35
Well, I think it's the responsibility of people like us,
00:37
people who show up for gatherings like this
00:40
in person or online, in any way we can,
00:42
to make civics sexy again,
00:45
as sexy as it was during the American Revolution,
00:48
as sexy as it was during the Civil Rights Movement.
00:51
And I believe the way we make civics sexy again
00:54
is to make explicitly about the teaching of power.
00:57
The way we do that, I believe,
01:02
is at the level of the city.
01:04
This is what I want to talk about today,
01:06
and I want to start by defining some terms
01:08
and then I want to describe the scale
01:11
of the problem I think we face
01:13
and then suggest the ways that I believe cities
01:15
can be the seat of the solution.
01:17
So let me start with some definitions.
01:19
By civics, I simply mean the art
01:23
of being a pro-social, problem-solving contributor
01:25
in a self-governing community.
01:28
Civics is the art of citizenship,
01:30
what Bill Gates Sr. calls simply
01:33
showing up for life,
01:35
and it encompasses three things:
01:37
a foundation of values,
01:39
an understanding of the systems
that make the world go round,
01:43
and a set of skills
01:47
that allow you to pursue goals
01:49
and to have others join in that pursuit.
01:51
And that brings me to my definition of power,
01:54
which is simply this:
01:57
the capacity to make others do
01:59
what you would have them do.
02:01
It sounds menacing, doesn't it?
02:04
We don't like to talk about power.
02:07
We find it scary. We find it somehow evil.
02:09
We feel uncomfortable naming it.
02:15
In the culture and mythology of democracy,
02:17
power resides with the people.
02:19
Period. End of story.
02:21
Any further inquiry not necessary
02:23
and not really that welcome.
02:24
Power has a negative moral valence.
02:26
It sounds Machiavellian inherently.
02:30
It seems inherently evil.
02:33
But in fact power is no more inherently good or evil
02:36
than fire or physics.
02:39
It just is.
02:43
And power governs
02:45
how any form of government operates,
02:46
whether a democracy or a dictatorship.
02:47
And the problem we face today,
here in America in particular,
02:51
but all around the world,
02:54
is that far too many people
are profoundly illiterate
02:56
in power —
02:59
what it is, who has it,
03:01
how it operates, how it flows,
03:03
what part of it is visible,
what part of it is not,
03:05
why some people have it,
why that's compounded.
03:08
And as a result of this illiteracy,
03:12
those few who do understand
03:15
how power operates in civic life,
03:18
those who understand
03:20
how a bill becomes a law, yes,
03:22
but also how a friendship
becomes a subsidy,
03:24
or how a bias becomes a policy,
03:28
or how a slogan becomes a movement,
03:31
the people who understand those things
03:34
wield disproportionate influence,
03:36
and they're perfectly happy
03:38
to fill the vacuum created by the ignorance
03:39
of the great majority.
03:42
This is why it is so fundamental for us right now
03:47
to grab hold of this idea of power
03:50
and to democratize it.
03:54
One of the things that is so profoundly exciting
03:56
and challenging about this moment
04:01
is that as a result of this power illiteracy
04:03
that is so pervasive,
04:06
there is a concentration
04:09
of knowledge, of understanding, of clout.
04:12
I mean, think about it:
04:16
How does a friendship become a subsidy?
04:18
Seamlessly,
04:21
when a senior government official decides
04:23
to leave government and become a lobbyist
04:25
for a private interest
04:28
and convert his or her relationships into capital
04:30
for their new masters.
04:33
How does a bias become a policy?
04:35
Insidiously, just the way that
04:37
stop-and-frisk, for instance,
04:41
became over time a bureaucratic numbers game.
04:43
How does a slogan become a movement?
04:47
Virally, in the way that the Tea Party, for instance,
04:50
was able to take the "Don't Tread on Me" flag
04:53
from the American Revolution,
04:56
or how, on the other side,
04:58
a band of activists could take a magazine headline,
05:00
"Occupy Wall Street,"
05:03
and turn that into a global meme and movement.
05:05
The thing is, though, most people
05:08
aren't looking for and don't
want to see these realities.
05:10
So much of this ignorance, this civic illiteracy,
05:13
is willful.
05:17
There are some millennials, for instance,
05:19
who think the whole business is just sordid.
05:20
They don't want to have anything to do with politics.
05:23
They'd rather just opt out
05:25
and engage in volunteerism.
05:26
There are some techies out there
05:29
who believe that the cure-all
05:31
for any power imbalance or power abuse
05:32
is simply more data,
05:35
more transparency.
05:37
There are some on the left who think power resides
05:40
only with corporations,
05:42
and some on the right who think power
05:44
resides only with government,
05:46
each side blinded by their selective outrage.
05:47
There are the naive who believe that
05:51
good things just happen
05:54
and the cynical who believe
that bad things just happen,
05:55
the fortunate and unfortunate unlike
05:58
who think that their lot is simply what they deserve
06:01
rather than the eminently alterable result
06:04
of a prior arrangement, an inherited allocation,
06:08
of power.
06:11
As a result of all of this
creeping fatalism in public life,
06:15
we here, particularly in America today,
06:19
have depressingly low levels
06:21
of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation,
06:23
awareness.
06:26
The whole business of politics has been
06:29
effectively subcontracted out
to a band of professionals,
06:31
money people, outreach people,
06:34
message people, research people.
06:36
The rest of us are meant to feel like amateurs
06:38
in the sense of suckers.
06:41
We become demotivated to learn more
06:44
about how things work.
06:46
We begin to opt out.
06:47
Well, this problem, this challenge,
06:53
is a thing that we must now confront,
06:57
and I believe that when you have
06:59
this kind of disengagement, this willful ignorance,
07:00
it becomes both a cause and a consequence
07:03
of this concentration of opportunity
07:07
of wealth and clout that I was
describing a moment ago,
07:10
this profound civic inequality.
07:12
This is why it is so important in our time right now
07:16
to reimagine civics as the teaching of power.
07:19
Perhaps it's never been more important
07:22
at any time in our lifetimes.
07:25
If people don't learn power,
07:30
if people don't wake up,
07:32
and if they don't wake up,
07:34
they get left out.
07:36
Now, part of the art of practicing power
07:38
means being awake and having a voice,
07:43
but it also is about having an arena
07:45
where you can plausibly practice deciding.
07:47
All of civics boils down to the simple question
07:51
of who decides,
07:54
and you have to play that out
07:55
in a place, in an arena.
07:57
And this brings me to the third
point that I want to make today,
07:59
which is simply that there is no better arena
08:02
in our time for the practicing of power
08:06
than the city.
08:09
Think about the city where you live,
08:12
where you're from.
08:14
Think about a problem in
the common life of your city.
08:15
It can be something small,
08:19
like where a street lamp should go,
08:20
or something medium like
08:22
which library should have its hours extended or cut,
08:24
or maybe something bigger,
08:28
like whether a dilapidated waterfront should be
08:29
turned into a highway or a greenway,
08:32
or whether all the businesses in your town
08:35
should be required to pay a living wage.
08:37
Think about the change that you want in your city,
08:41
and then think about how you would get it,
08:43
how you would make it happen.
08:47
Take an inventory of all the forms of power
08:50
that are at play in your city's situation:
08:53
money, of course, people, yes,
08:56
ideas, information, misinformation,
09:00
the threat of force, the force of norms.
09:05
All of these form of power are at play.
09:09
Now think about how you would activate
09:11
or perhaps neutralize these various forms of power.
09:12
This is not some Game of Thrones
09:17
empire-level set of questions.
09:20
These are questions that play out
09:23
in every single place on the planet.
09:24
I'll just tell you quickly about two stories
09:27
drawn from recent headlines.
09:29
In Boulder, Colorado,
09:31
voters not too long ago approved a process
09:33
to replace the private power company,
09:37
literally the power company,
the electric company Xcel,
09:40
with a publicly owned utility
09:42
that would forego profits
09:44
and attend far more to climate change.
09:46
Well, Xcel fought back,
09:49
and Xcel has now put in play a ballot measure
09:51
that would undermine or undo
09:54
this municipalization.
09:56
And so the citizen activists in
Boulder who have been pushing this
09:58
now literally have to fight the power
10:00
in order to fight for power.
10:03
In Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alabama,
10:05
there's an organization on campus
10:10
called, kind of menacingly, the Machine,
10:12
and it draws from largely white sororities
10:16
and fraternities on campus,
10:19
and for decades, the Machine has dominated
10:20
student government elections.
10:23
Well now, recently, the Machine
10:25
has started to get involved
10:27
in actual city politics,
10:28
and they've engineered the election
10:30
of a former Machine member,
10:32
a young, pro-business recent graduate
10:33
to the Tuscaloosa city school board.
10:36
Now, as I say, these are just two examples
10:39
drawn almost at random from the headlines.
10:42
Every day, there are thousands more like them.
10:45
And you may like or dislike
10:48
the efforts I'm describing here
10:50
in Boulder or in Tuscaloosa,
10:52
but you cannot help but admire
10:53
the power literacy of the players involved,
10:56
their skill.
10:59
You cannot help but reckon with and recognize
11:00
the command they have
11:03
of the elemental questions
11:05
of civic power —
11:07
what objective, what strategy, what tactics,
11:09
what is the terrain, who are your enemies,
11:13
who are your allies?
11:16
Now I want you to return
11:18
to thinking about that problem or that opportunity
11:20
or that challenge in your city,
11:23
and the thing it was that you want to fix
11:25
or create in your city,
11:27
and ask yourself,
11:29
do you have command of these
elemental questions of power?
11:31
Could you put into practice effectively
11:35
what it is that you know?
11:38
This is the challenge and the opportunity for us.
11:41
We live in a time right now
11:46
where in spite of globalization
11:48
or perhaps because of globalization,
11:51
all citizenship is ever more resonantly,
11:53
powerfully local.
11:55
Indeed, power in our time is flowing
11:57
ever faster to the city.
12:00
Here in the United States, the national government
12:02
has tied itself up in partisan knots.
12:04
Civic imagination and innovation and creativity
12:07
are emerging from local ecosystems now
12:10
and radiating outward,
12:12
and this great innovation,
12:14
this great wave
12:18
of localism that's now arriving,
12:21
and you see it in how people eat
12:24
and work and share and buy and move
12:26
and live their everyday lives,
12:29
this isn't some precious parochialism,
12:30
this isn't some retreat into insularity, no.
12:34
This is emergent.
12:37
The localism of our time is networked powerfully.
12:39
And so, for instance,
12:43
consider the ways that strategies
12:44
for making cities more bike-friendly
12:47
have spread so rapidly from Copenhagen
12:49
to New York to Austin to Boston to Seattle.
12:52
Think about how experiments
in participatory budgeting,
12:57
where everyday citizens get a chance
13:00
to allocate and decide upon
13:02
the allocation of city funds.
13:04
Those experiments have
spread from Porto Alegre, Brazil
13:07
to here in New York City,
to the wards of Chicago.
13:11
Migrant workers from Rome to Los Angeles
13:15
and many cities between
13:17
are now organizing to stage strikes
13:20
to remind the people who live in their cities
13:22
what a day without immigrants would look like.
13:24
In China, all across that country,
13:27
members of the New Citizens' Movement
13:30
are beginning to activate and organize
13:32
to fight official corruption and graft,
13:34
and they're drawing the ire of officials there,
13:36
but they're also drawing the attention
13:38
of anti-corruption activists all around the world.
13:40
In Seattle, where I'm from,
13:44
we've become part of a great global array of cities
13:46
that are now working together
13:48
bypassing government altogether,
13:50
national government altogether,
13:51
in order to try to meet the carbon reduction goals
13:54
of the Kyoto Protocol.
13:56
All of these citizens, united,
13:58
are forming a web,
14:01
a great archipelago of power
14:03
that allows us to bypass
14:05
brokenness and monopolies of control.
14:07
And our task now is to accelerate this work.
14:11
Our task now is to bring more and more people
14:14
into the fold of this work.
14:16
That's why my organization, Citizen University,
14:18
has undertaken a project now
14:21
to create an everyman's curriculum
14:23
in civic power.
14:26
And this curriculum starts with this triad
14:28
that I described earlier of values,
14:30
systems and skills.
14:32
And what I'd like to do is to invite all of you
14:35
to help create this curriculum
14:38
with the stories and the experiences
14:41
and the challenges that each of you lives and faces,
14:43
to create something powerfully collective.
14:47
And I want to invite you in particular to try
14:50
a simple exercise drawn
14:52
from the early frameworks of this curriculum.
14:54
I want you to write a narrative,
14:57
a narrative from the future of your city,
14:59
and you can date it, set it out one year from now,
15:02
five years from now, a decade from now,
15:06
a generation from now,
15:07
and write it as a case study looking back,
15:09
looking back at the change
15:13
that you wanted in your city,
15:15
looking back at the cause
that you were championing,
15:17
and describing the ways that that change
15:20
and that cause came, in fact, to succeed.
15:22
Describe the values
15:27
of your fellow citizens that you activated,
15:28
and the sense of moral purpose
that you were able to stir.
15:31
Recount all the different ways
15:34
that you engaged the systems of government,
15:36
of the marketplace,
15:39
of social institutions, of faith organizations,
15:40
of the media.
15:42
Catalog all the skills you had to deploy,
15:46
how to negotiate, how to advocate,
15:50
how to frame issues,
15:52
how to navigate diversity in conflict,
15:53
all those skills that enabled you
15:56
to bring folks on board
15:58
and to overcome resistance.
16:00
What you'll be doing when you write that narrative
16:03
is you'll be discovering how to read power,
16:06
and in the process, how to write power.
16:10
So share what you write,
16:15
do you what you write,
16:17
and then share what you do.
16:19
I invite you to literally share
16:23
the narratives that you create
16:25
on our Facebook page for Citizen University.
16:26
But even beyond that, it's in the conversations
16:29
that we have today
16:32
all around the world in the simultaneous gatherings
16:34
that are happening on this topic at this moment,
16:36
and to think about how we can become
16:39
one another's teachers and students in power.
16:40
If we do that, then together
16:44
we can make civics sexy again.
16:46
Together, we can democratize democracy
16:49
and make it safe again for amateurs.
16:51
Together, we can create a great network of city
16:54
that will be the most powerful collective laboratory
16:59
for self-government this planet has ever seen.
17:01
We have the power to do that.
17:05
Thank you very much.
17:08
(Applause)
17:10

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Eric Liu - Civics educator
Eric Liu is a civics educator and founder of Citizen University, which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship.

Why you should listen
Civics is about the teaching of power. So why don't more Americans understand how power works? In this talk, educator Eric Liu talks about ways to make civics sexy again -- and why cities must be a democratic laboratory for experimentation and innovation.
More profile about the speaker
Eric Liu | Speaker | TED.com