Over winter break, Eric Liu ’90 attended a typical Yale gathering in a Seattle teahouse. The meeting, planned to welcome newly admitted Yalies, quickly turned into an three-hour discussion among dozens of current students, alumni and newly admitted high-school seniors that centered around the racial controversies that dominated campus life last fall.
“There was a wide range of political viewpoints and perspectives from different generations, and it was incredibly values-laden and heart-and-head connected,” Liu said of the impromptu conversation. “It made me appreciate that when Yale works, it can create a sense of community that allows people to disagree, and disagree well.”
It is just this spirit of optimism and possibility that animates the Yale Civic Leadership Initiative, created last spring by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Liu at the first Civic Leadership Conference in February 2015 — an all-day event which involved roughly 60 Yale students. It is now run by a group of undergraduates who are planning the second iteration of the conference, set to be held Jan. 30. According to the student coordinators, the conference aims to empower Yale students to affect change regardless of their social standings and positions in extracurricular activities. The conference will also host a range of speakers, including American civil rights leader Rashad Robinson, tech-startup founder Amanda Slavin and filmmaker Lynn Novick. Moreover, coordinators hope the conference will serve as a starting point for students to have a larger discussion about the idea of civic leadership, while keeping in mind the unusual spike in student activism and lingering tensions on campus.
“Civic leadership can seem like a fluffy term, but it essentially means being active in a community,” said Diksha Brahmbhatt ’18, the initiative’s head of public relations. “We want to give people the skill set to do so.”
The initiative is partnering with Citizen University, a nonprofit organization founded by Liu to democratize how power functions in civic life through educational programs, case studies and conferences. Liu, who served as deputy assistant for domestic policy to President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 between 1999 and 2000, said this means teaching and empowering people to be positive social contributors in their society, regardless of their background.
Civic leadership, Liu added, means being able to move others to join in collective action even if they do not possess leadership titles.
“Civic leadership comes from everywhere, and from people who have and do not have authority,” he said.
The initiative’s coordinators said that at Yale there is a certain stigma about civic leadership that must be overcome. Conference chair Stella Yang ’16 said she is often met with cynicism about civic leadership and questions about why such an initiative is relevant for students. Yang said the mission of the initiative is to give students concrete skills to bring about change, in whatever field they enter.
In planning the upcoming conference, student organizers have also had to grapple with finding the most appropriate way of framing last semester’s student activism within the conference’s context. Ariel Murphy ’18, one of the coordinators for the conference, said the organizing committee wanted to make sure that the conference was not “tone-deaf” to student activism on campus, and other organizers said they will frame these events as a case study for civic leadership.
“Students who are not necessarily student-leaders and not administrators were able to organize voice and numbers to create real change,” Liu said of last semester’s student activism. “It is certainly civic leadership.”
Students interested in attending the conference must register by Jan. 24.