Citizen University

Citizen University is one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’m a conference nerd who’s attended dozens of conferences over the past twenty years. Never before have I attended such an interdisciplinary, multiracial, multigenerational conference that brought together educators, organizers, and activists. Other conferences tend to reinforce the silo effect, either by discipline or by profession. This conference, based in Seattle, gave me the opportunity to hear from people I’ve long admired and to gain new sources of inspiration. Here are a few highlights:

  • Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University, told us to work for and fight for the “republic we were promised.” He asked what is the “future of whiteness”?
  • Keynote speaker Alicia Garza was absolutely brilliant and inspiring in talking about her work with #blacklivesmatter: black citizenship is conditional, we are all impacted by white supremacy, and access does not equal power.
  • High School students stepped onto an actual soap box for the “Mikva Challenge,” where they each shared a deeply personal story about gang violence, poverty, transphobia, fear of deportation, or another oppressive experience and then made a statement about action steps that can be taken. These were very brave young activists who give me confidence about our future.
  • Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s Latino USA (one of my favorite podcasts) explained how important it is for people to see themselves in the stories they hear in the media.
  • Melvin Mar, Executive Producer of Fresh Off the Boat, explained how he uses humor to resist stereotypes of Asian Americans.
  • Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of, discussed how important it is to represent more and varied stories of people of color through roles that are fully human.
  • Heather McGhee, President of Demos, said that we’re told we’re all in this country to compete against each other, but we need to question that narrative and focus instead on a destiny that can bring everyone together in resistance to a racial hierarchy.
  • Rinku Sen, President of Race Forward, ran a workshop showing how diversity is not the answer. It is not enough to just have a variety of people. We need to focus on equity, justice, and power.
  • Lunch was the most amazing meal experience I’ve ever had at a conference. Yes, the food was fantastic, but that’s not even my point. They simulated a community program called On the Table that brings together a diverse group of people to a table for a meal and provides them with guiding questions so everyone can share a bit about their experiences and their ideas. I met nine wonderful people from around the country, and it made me want to figure out how to do this at my college and in my community.
  • Then there was an impressive panel moderated by Tracey Meares from Yale Law School on Restorative Justice, a concept that I don’t know enough about but am eager to understand better. Nikkita Oliver, who had already performed spoken word, described her work in Creative Justice to provide artistic alternatives to discipline for youth. We need a restorative justice position in every school, rather than the police.
  • Brittany Packnett described her work on the Ferguson Commission and Campaign Zero, and she recommended we: 1. Start small 2. Listen to those most affected by injustice 3. Examine your power and take responsibility 4. Support urgent systemic changes.
  • Jose Antonio Vargas, who created the film Documented, said that we have never fully told our own history to each other, and we must. He asked how are blacks and indigenous people supposed to fit into the idea that “we are a nation of immigrants”?

This conference has given me much-needed direction and inspiration for my current sabbatical book project, a manual on systemic racism and racial justice aimed at white readers. My goal is to help readers move beyond white guilt, understand structural racism and its history and current impact, recognize that race is a social construct so that they can help un-construct it, and embrace an increasingly multiracial US without fear.


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