Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer are a dynamic team advancing advocacy and citizenship. Both were born to hardworking immigrant parents and have elevated the conversation around important social and economic issues.
Liu served as a speechwriter for President Clinton, and later as the president’s deputy domestic policy adviser. He is the founder of Citizen University, which brings together leaders and activists to teach effective and creative citizenship.
Along with being an incredibly successful entrepreneur and investor, Hanauer is cofounder of the League of Education Voters, dedicated to improving the quality of public education in Washington. Together, Liu and Hanauer have written two books, The True Patriot and The Gardens of Democracy.
The two men also founded The True Patriot Network, a political action network framed on the ideas in their books, and they are strong advocates for gun violence prevention legislation and the recent push to raise the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 per hour.
Eric, congrats on your award as Citizen of the Year in King County. What advice do you both have for busy parents? What simple things can families do to be more engaged and involved citizens?
Liu: Don’t create a barrier for yourself thinking that it requires some giant, time-consuming act. Citizenship is a culmination of little acts and choices. It’s mindfulness of the way you are being a parent, being a volunteer at school, being a neighbor, or being a contributor to your faith or other community organizations.
Hanauer: Society becomes how you behave. The way in which you proceed through the world makes a huge impact on the dynamics of your culture and community. Opening the door for someone is an act of citizenship, letting someone into traffic is an act of citizenship, recycling is an act of citizenship, and these acts are contagious. Citizenship is the sum of these small acts of leadership in daily life, and it is something that everybody can do.
You cowrote two books; are there any other books in the pipeline? How does it feel to hear President Obama quote you when he uses the term “middle-out economics”?
Hanauer: We have affected the terms of the debate on the economy in a very consequential way, and we are proud of that, but we are 5 percent of the way of where we want to be in terms of changing policy, politics and the way people think about economics. So a third book is hard to think about when there is still so much work to be done.
Liu: When we were initially thinking of a third piece, it was going to be about specific policies. However, the way we are unpacking chunks of the books we have already published is to create policy debates in the world using these ideas. Currently, we are doing just that in Congress with legislators, and with policymakers in our city. We are participating in these policy debates rather than writing about them in a book.
What spurred your interest in advocacy for gun-violence prevention?
Liu: I got exposed to the issue after Columbine. I was working with President Clinton, and we organized a national campaign on youth and gun violence. That was in 1999, but after that, I didn’t delve back into that issue until Sandy Hook.
Hanauer: Sandy Hook is what spurred me.
Liu: We were together at a conference on evolutionary economics when the news of the tragedy at Sandy Hook broke. We were both sitting in this conference, and our emails and Twitter feeds started lighting up. Throughout the entire flight back from the conference, we talked about what we could do. This was beyond the pale . . . here we were talking about being engaged citizens, and with this tragedy, we knew we just had to do something.
You helped form the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility and have advocated for Initiative 594, which would require background checks on all gun sales. Legislation like this has failed before. Why do you think it is different this time?
Hanauer: We are at the strategic forefront of this fight nationally. Bringing the vote to the people changes the terms of engagement in a very positive way. Criminal background checks are supported overwhelmingly by voters. The advantage goes to ordinary voters over legislators.
Liu: Our state, our alliance, has catalyzed the use of the phrase “gun responsibility.” We are trying — not just with this initiative, in this state and this election cycle, but throughout the country — to get people to think beyond terms of just “gun rights” and “gun control.”
This is not about control, this is about responsibility. We have guns in our society and an amendment in the Constitution that protects those rights. But with rights comes responsibility, and injecting those terms into the debate can change the debate. We need to start thinking of gun violence as a public health issue, just the way we think of reducing traffic fatalities, obesity and other public health issues.
The past legislation was poorly crafted, and we also have the litany of mass shootings that have happened. One thing that happens with any social issue, take marriage equality, for example, is that people’s attitudes change. In the parenting realm, we talk a lot about changing the culture around violence. When it comes to guns, in the last 15 years, the culture has changed from people saying, “That’s someone else’s problem” to “As a parent, as a neighbor, as a person who goes to the mall and schools and movie theaters, that’s my problem.”
Hanauer: Many people are starting to realize that they can’t escape vulnerability to gun violence. That’s very different from the attitude we had a decade ago.
Has being a parent influenced your advocacy?
Liu: Our lives as parents influence all of our work. Certainly on gun violence prevention, on all of these issues, it gives us a heightened sense of urgency. I am the son of immigrants, and Nick is, too. We feel a great sense of “nothing is a given, nothing is taken for granted,” and if there is going to be an American dream for our kids and their generation, it’s only going to happen if we show up and do something. I think every parent wonders if their child will have more opportunity than they had, and it’s not like you are a spectator to that question — you are a coauthor.
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