Politics, art and everyday activism in America

November 9, 2018

Politics, art and everyday activism in America

By Ben Phillips

From the moment I got to UW, and in the nine years since, I have always thought about my role in moving our country toward the conversations we must be having. I have always had a deep sense of responsibility, a desire to be part of creating and spreading the solutions to our country’s biggest problems and to bringing a rounded, multi-faceted approach to that work. 

Which is why, in the fall quarter of my first-year year, I took an Honors class in the art of political persuasion called How to Read, Write and Speak taught by Eric Liu. I loved the class and kept in touch with Eric over the years, reaching out after graduation to see if there was an opportunity to work with him in some way. I ended up as the outreach intern for Eric’s national conference on civic engagement and soon after became Eric’s executive assistant and the first employee of Citizen University, the non-profit that emerged out of that conference. As Citizen University grew, I became its first program manager and then senior program manager. My four-and-a-half years at Citizen University have been marked by growth: in my own career and responsibilities, in the organization’s programming and reach and in the awareness and deep need across the U.S. for the kind of work we are doing — teaching the skills highlight the values of what it means to be an active, responsible and powerful citizen.

The work is ever-changing and never done, but always connected to something bigger — a story of what the country can be, and the myriad acts, large and small, that help get us there. I’ve done this work with a growing team of passionate colleagues and alongside everyday citizens working at every level in communities across the country. From Starbucks headquarters to a community center in Wichita, Kansas. From election-related beach parties in Miami, to events in the heart of Washington D.C.

Particularly now when every day seems to bring a new vivid example of just how torn and dysfunctional our country is, I feel fortunate to spend my days in a way where I feel like I’m part of the solution, whether through the programs I’ve run or the new people I get to talk to and learn from every day.

Ben Phillips 2018 Fall newsletter
Ben Phillips (’13) speaking at CitizenFEST New Orleans, May 2018. Photo by Rose Bratcher.

This year I led a new program at Citizen University, a series of festive learning summits called CitizenFEST. We produced the event with partner organizations in New Orleans, Dallas and Memphis, including a mix of skills and frameworks, artists and local organizers and workshops and conversations. It was fascinating seeing how responses to citizenship and civic power differ in different communities that have had different experiences with government, history, and what has been asked of them. One thing constant across all of the CitizenFEST events was the importance of art. Song, poetry, dance and music were essential to creating an environment both purposeful and playful, inviting and new.

Combining art and civic engagement has been one of the highlights of my time at Citizen University. Running events like our Joy of Voting program has allowed me to provide others an opportunity to do the same. I’m deeply grateful for the many inspiring citizen-artists I have met who are doing this work in amazing ways every day.

At UW, I majored in political science and drama, and I’ve been always looking for experiences at the intersection of these passions. In politics and civic life, we typically know what we think (or are “supposed” to think) about a particular issue event before we enter a conversation or experience. But with art, it’s often impossible to know what to think ahead of time. Being open to seeing something in a new way is essential for good art, and it’s essential for us to cultivate in our civic and political life as well. We have to be open to being surprised.

Art, and especially theater, remains integral to my life and my understanding of the world around me. Together with a group of fellow UW grads, I founded a theater company, The Horse in Motion. I’ve played the Chair of the Foreign Relations committee in a dystopic thriller about American democracy 450 years in the future, Claudius in a production of Hamlet taking place in multiple rooms of a 117-year old mansion, and I’ve acted, written, and directed for our annual internet-inspired multi-media performance festival, where past themes have included Reddit, Craigslist, and BuzzFeed. Our work aims to create new relationships and foster engagement between performers, audience, our performance space, the art and the world. 

When I tell people that I work in “civic engagement,” the most common responses I get are “good for you” and “what’s that?” I think both of these point to a deeper problem in our country. The idea that civic engagement is some virtuous thing that other people do, or that it is simply some foreign concept are totally opposed to how I think about it. Civic engagement is caring what happens in your community and country and doing something about. And in recent years, both of these responses have been changing to “how can I get involved?” That’s encouraging.

That moment of stepping up to help – of stepping onto the stage – is the most essential in art and in civic life. Let’s all push ourselves and each other to find those moments every day. See you at the theatre, in the streets, and at the ballot box.

Ben Phillips (’13) graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in Political Science and Drama with College Honors. He is currently the senior program manager at Citizen University, and is also cofounder of The Horse in Motion, a local theater company.  You can see the Horse in Motion at their next show, IRL: Instagram, on December 14 and 15, at the Jewelbox Theater in Belltown.

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