Lesson

Citizen Power Makes Democracy Work

Overview

Most people would agree that engaged citizens are essential to a healthy democracy. But what does it mean to be a good citizen, and how do citizens learn to use their power to make change? This lesson invites students to reflect on those important questions using the work of Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University. As a “civic entrepreneur,” Liu helps Americans cultivate the values, knowledge, and skills of effective citizenship.

In his new book, You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen, Liu argues that literacy in power is essential to making democracy work. He writes, “the reimagining of civics as the teaching and learning of power is so necessary . . . If you don’t learn how to practice power, someone else will do it for you—in your name, on your turf, with your voice, and often against your interests.” In this lesson, we explore these ideas about citizenship, power, and responsibility by listening to and discussing a podcast featuring an interview with Eric Liu. Then, students watch a short animated video that illustrates Liu’s ideas about the steps that turn protest into lasting change. Finally, students deepen their understanding of citizen power by creating images or, in an optional extension, applying Liu’s ideas to key moments in the US civil rights movement.

Materials

Activities

  1. Activate Prior Knowledge Tell students that you’re going to be talking about citizen power in democracies. Ask them what words and images come to mind when they hear the phrase citizen power? What might be some examples of citizen power from the history or current events? What does citizen power look like and sound like? (Students may mention political campaigns, voting, protests, petitions, and other examples.)
  2. Listen to the Podcast with Eric Liu
    Play the podcast Eric Liu on Citizen Power. In this interview with Liu, he discusses some of the essential qualities of citizenship and civic power. Tell students that as they listen, they should write down words and phrases that help them understand the meaning of several key terms Liu uses: citizenship, power, and responsibility.

    Then, discuss some or all of these of these questions:

    • How does Liu define what it means to be a citizen? How is his definition different from others that you have heard? (It’s important for students to understand that Liu’s definition of citizen is much broader than those who are born or naturalized in a country.)
    • According to Liu, why is responsibility necessary in a democracy? What does it mean to be a responsible citizen?
    • How does Liu use the story of Rosa Parks to illustrate the qualities of a responsible citizen?
    • How does Liu define power? What does it mean to be “literate” in power? How is literacy in power similar to literacy in reading and writing?
    • Liu says that “power plus character equals citizenship.” Why are both power and character necessary to citizenship?

     

  3. Watch the Animated Video
    Show students the short animation from TED-Ed, How to Turn Protest into Powerful Change. In You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen, Liu identifies “the gap between making demands and making them happen . . . the gap between the rhetoric of revolution and the actual changes in values, systems, habits, and skills that add up to revolution.” The animation illustrates the steps necessary to bridge this gap.

    Ask students to pay attention to these key things as they watch:

    • What are the three strategies?
    • What images does the animation use to illustrate the three strategies?

    In small groups, have students share the three strategies and the images used to illustrate them. (For example, the strategy “pushing boundaries and expanding the frame of the possible” is illustrated with a thought bubble saying “what if?” that becomes a balloon and floats out of the picture.) Ask students, how do the images help viewers to better understand Liu’s ideas about how to turn protest into change?

  4. Reflect and Create
    Ask students to return to their notes from the podcast with Eric Liu. How could they use the inspiration provided by the animation to create their own illustrations of key ideas about citizenship, power, and responsibility?

    The Color-Symbol-Image strategy (adapted from a thinking routine developed by educators at Harvard University’s Project Zero) helps students to reflect on ideas in nonverbal ways and encourages them to think metaphorically.1 First, ask students to think about the most important idea that surfaced for them in the podcast—it could be about citizenship, power, responsibility, or something else that stood out to them. Once each student has selected an idea, ask them to think about how they can communicate the essence of that idea using a color, a symbol, and an image. Instruct students to:

    • Choose a color that they think best represents that big idea
    • Choose a symbol that they think best represents that idea
    • Choose an image that they think best represents that idea
    Students can make their own drawing, use found materials to make a collage, or create their color-symbol-image on a computer. They can also write an artist’s statement explaining their choices and imagining what it could look like to use this strategy to make change on an issue they care about.

Extensions

Apply Liu’s Ideas about Citizen Power to Analyze a Historical Moment
In the podcast and in the animation, Eric Liu invokes several historical moments—the US civil rights movement, the Solidarity movement in Poland, Indian independence, and the Arab Spring—as examples of protest and citizen power. These and many other moments in history, including some that may be in your curriculum, can help students to see citizen power at work. Select a moment from a history you’ve taught, or use Facing History and Ourselves’ resources on the Civil Rights movement (such as Eyes on the Prize or Choices in Little Rock), and ask students how they see Liu’s ideas about citizen power operating in these historical moments. Where do they see citizens expanding the frame of the possible, choosing a defining fight, and finding an early win?

Sources & Notes

[1] For more ideas about using Color-Symbol-Image, see Harvard University’s Project Zero.

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