Becoming one of the country’s most vital civic organizations.
Citizen University began with a simple idea: what if each of us believed we had the power to make change happen in civic life — and felt a responsibility to try?
From that first spark, we have grown into an organization focused on equipping citizens around the country with the tools, ideas, and relationships needed to make civic culture change take root — all with a strong dose of civic spirit. Explore the history of CU!
Where it all started
As some of our longtime friends will tell you, Citizen University started out as a two-day national conference. Our co-founders Eric Liu and Jená Cane had been part of a team organizing an annual gathering on the art of mentoring. A few years in, they realized the central theme of citizenship: how we create and sustain community and how we pass on our values and knowledge to others in the community.
In 2012, the conference took the name “Citizen University.” This convening brought together a wide range of national civic innovators and everyday citizens for a few days of deep learning, spirited conversation, and strengthening civic commitments. As the years went on, interest in this work began to grow. Our definition of citizenship (that citizenship = power + character) was one that resonated with many. We thought, how else might we share these ideas with our community? And that’s how we started running programs year-round.
Launching our programs
Our earliest programs, like Joy of Voting and Sworn-Again America, gave a taste of our secret sauce: creating civic rituals that reanimate people’s sense of commitment to our democracy and each other.
After the seismic impact of the 2016 election, we held the very first Civic Saturday — a civic analogue to a faith gathering. We didn’t know how many people would show up, but over 200 people turned out that day, packed into the basement of Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle. We saw how important it was to have a space for reflection, reckoning, and recommitment to living like a citizen. So we began designing gatherings, learning experiences, and rituals to help people around the country be stronger civic catalysts in their own communities.
Expanding around the country
Our work has connected us to collaborators and citizen partners from coast to coast. We’ve worked on CitizenFest conferences in Memphis, Joy of Voting projects in Miami, and Civic Saturdays in Maine. But ultimately, we recognized that the work of building stronger civic culture was most effective when led by trusted members of local communities who felt called to spark a renewed sense of democratic spirit in their hometowns. We call these people civic catalysts, and they are at the heart of our work.
We have now trained over 120 people and counting in our Civic Saturday Fellowship program. The sixth cohort of our Youth Collaboratory will start up with a new group of high schoolers in 2022. We’ve held over 30 National Civic Collaboratory meetings that have spurred hundreds of collaborations between civic innovators. Our newest initiatives – Citizen Refined and Local Civic Collaboratories – are beginning to spread through community foundations, YMCAs, schools, and other local organizations.
Propelled by spirit and driven by justice
In the face of incredible challenges facing our communities and our country, the need to continue building strong civic culture feels as urgent as ever. So what comes next for CU?
We will continue to seek out Americans of all stripes — to help create a new narrative that can take hold in communities and spur action by sparking new civic embers person by person, community by community. For the civic catalysts in our program communities, we are developing new ways to deepen and strengthen relationships, resources, and knowledge sharing to build these networks. We are growing our partnerships and collaborations with organizations nationwide.
As an organization striving to strengthen the civic health of our communities and democracy, we recognize that living up to the values of liberty and justice for all starts with each of us. Our team has been reckoning with what it means to be equitable in our practices, to promote justice, and to create a sense of belonging for all. We choose these words intentionally as we see them in service of our mission of building a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship. Read more about our equity, justice, and belonging commitments.
No matter the program, civic spirit will always be a deeply embedded part of our DNA. Imagination, creativity, joy — these concepts are not just nice to have. We see them as essential elements of a vibrant and sustainable civic culture. To be certain, the work of fostering a strong democracy is not always easy. But we know that our country’s ideals are not made real by the mere fact that they are written on paper; they come to life and legitimacy through the internal commitments and beliefs held by our citizens. And that takes heart.
As we like to say, democracy is a garden — and we each have a role in tending it. We hope you’ll join us in taking on this important and sacred responsibility. No matter the challenges we face together, our nation will always need strong citizens. And as our work grows, we will proudly remain true to that foundational ethos that power + character = citizenship. Let’s get to it.