Review: You're More Powerful Than You Think

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Thanks to our friends at the Chicago Community Trust, fellow supporters of the #CivicsIsBack Campaign, we were invited to a program featuring Eric Liu and his new book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think, at the Chicago Cultural Center last month.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with Eric for the past several years through his leadership of the Civic Collaboratory, self-described as a national “trans-partisan” group broadly committed to civic empowerment. Civic education has long had a seat at the table, and Eric has lent his hand specifically to promoting “action civics,” best embodied locally by the Mikva Challenge.

You’re More Powerful Than You Think contains a number of important lessons transferrable to the civics classroom.

Power lies at its center, and is defined as “...the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Liu then pivots to three power axioms:
  • “Power concentrates”
  • “Power justifies itself”
  • “Power is infinite”
As we engage students in a process of civic inquiry, an assessment of the status of power in our communities, states, country, and world is a critical place to begin. Who has power? And how do they justify wielding it to the detriment of others?

As they examine government institutions and other entrenched sources of power, students understand what they are up against in their quest to effect positive change. But as educators we cannot allow their journeys to end here, because power is indeed infinite and contrary to conventional wisdom, our students hold latent political power in spades.

Student voice should be honored in our classrooms, hallways, and auditoriums. These venues must serve as platforms for students to flip the script of concentrated power that justifies itself. Storytelling is an incredibly effective tool as students paint a picture for a better world, use stories as an organizing principle, and construct fables illustrating the fight for what’s right.

Liu’s book is inspirational in stringing together inclusive stories of civic engagement that span age, race, ethnicity, class, geography, and ideology. Yet young people emerge as frequent heroes, including #BlackLivesMatter, the DREAMers, and even a conservative campus coalition supportive of concealed carry.

While most of the book is devoted to the what and how of power, Liu concludes with the why, an important lesson in civic virtues. As we engage our students in the process of examining and ultimately contesting the existing power structure, we must also emphasize the importance of acting with integrity. Their advocacy should also be inclusive and serve a cause greater than self-interest.

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