Civic & civil Civic & civil Civic & civil

Husky Civic Saturdays bring people together to explore moral questions that concern all of us.

By Caitlin Klask | Illustration by James Steinberg | March 2024

We have a strange storm brewing in the United States. Civil unrest and political disagreements dominate social-media feeds and news broadcasts. The Surgeon General declared an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in 2023, stating that a lack of social connection can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything in early 2020, weekly church services reported a dramatic drop in attendance, down from 137 in 2000 to a median of 65 two decades later, according to NPR. Many of us who grew up attending church services simply stopped going as we aged. Today, many of us work from home, or struggle to connect as individualism becomes society’s norm.

But a solution is in the works for Husky alumni: Citizen University and UW Impact are working together to present Husky Civic Saturdays, a civic analog to a faith gathering, hosted by Huskies. Eleven UW alumni trained in community-gathering methods this past fall have gone back to their communities across the country to find out if a gathering grounded in ritual—like a church service, but not based in faith—would bring people together.

It’s a gathering that shows it’s really possible to come together to build bridges.

Talya Gillman, ’08, Citizen University program director

“It’s a gathering that shows it’s really possible to come together to build bridges,” says Citizen University Program Director Talya Gillman, ’08. “Not through dialogue or debate about contentious topics, but to transcend that and explore moral questions that concern all of us. … like, what are the dreams you have for what things could be like [in our community]?”

Citizen University, a Seattle-based nonprofit that is dedicated to building civic connection and a culture of powerful, responsible civic awareness across America, created Civic Saturdays in 2016 after the U.S. presidential election. Co-founder and CEO Eric Liu, an author who worked in both the Clinton and Obama presidential administrations, designed Civic Saturdays alongside his wife, Jená Cane, as an antidote to feelings of confusion and being overwhelmed. They started small, hosting local gatherings in Seattle, and realized there was an appetite to scale up. “Over time, people started asking, ‘Can you teach us how to do this? We know Eric can’t come everywhere all the time,’” says Gillman, who oversees the Civic Saturday Fellowship program. “And that’s how the fellowship was born.”

Civic Saturday gatherings operate much like a religious service: Singing opens the gathering, followed by a civic scripture (sharing speeches, newspaper clippings or poetry), civic sermons, breakout groups, more singing, announcements and often breaking bread together. “We’re trying to ignite a new kind of civic ritual that people can look forward to, that they can come back to over and over again to feel energized, activated, fortified, celebrated,” says Gillman.

While the hopes are grand, the challenges are formidable. “We are living in an era where trying to encourage constructive political debate is extremely challenging,” says Chris Olsen-Philips, ’17, associate director of UW Impact, the legislative advocacy program of the UW Alumni Association. “Almost any source of information you look at says that the divide is growing, and it’s hindering democracy.” Instead, Civic Saturdays encourage participants to start locally: Energize your neighbors, then scale up.

By partnering with Citizen University on Husky Civic Saturdays, UW Impact hopes to make alumni more comfortable participating in the democratic process. “Part of going through the higher-education experience, we hope, is being a contributing member of whatever society you’re in,” says UW Impact director Courtney Acitelli, ’08.

Danny Williams, ’99, had already been thinking about giving back to the Tacoma community when he heard about Husky Civic Saturdays. But one day as he drove around the city not long after attending his training session, someone shot a bullet through his car. He (and his dog in the back seat) escaped injury, and the incident inspired him to ask even more questions. “How can we be more engaged? What can we do to be better neighbors, and then maybe effectively make change?” he wonders. “I’m concerned about what’s going on in Tacoma.

I’m not going to tell you how to be a better citizen. I want to reinvigorate and engage people in what citizenship is.

Danny Williams, ’99

“The purpose is to be a better global citizen, acting locally,” says Williams, a UW Tacoma grad, small-business owner and longtime Tacoma resident. “But I’m not going to tell you how to be a better citizen. I want to reinvigorate and engage people in what citizenship is.”

Gillman stresses that the Civic Saturday model is not about engaging in political arguments or talking through differences. “It’s really important to come together in ways that remind us of what we do have in common,” says Gillman. And what could be a better shared interest than attending the UW?

Jasmine Ames, ’14, decided to apply for the program to show some love for her alma mater, but also for her hometown of Vancouver. She’s a vice president relationship manager at U.S. Bank in Portland, serves on several boards and is working on a Doctor of Law and Public Policy degree, so making time in her schedule is no easy task. She hosted her first gathering in Portland in December. While UW Impact offers promotional support, she sometimes finds the logistics of planning events (while juggling law school and a full-time job) cumbersome. Among the things on her mind: will the churchlike similarities exclude Vancouver community members who have had unfavorable experiences with religion? Still, she’s excited to meet with her community and discuss issues and positive impact in a nonpartisan way. The next step: scale up.

“I think it would take a lot more than me. I think it would take a network of civic fellows to really roll up their sleeves and engage the broader community,” says Ames, who created a Civic Saturday Instagram account to attract a wider audience. “Once people start understanding what it is, why our society needs it so much, then everything else will follow suit.”

UW Impact’s Olsen-Philips, who has been through the Civic Saturday Fellowship training, is optimistic about both personal development for participants and the potential for change in the community. “Voices are feeling disenfranchised, and we need to find a way to invite everyone back in,” he says. “This is bringing people together, bridging divides, where everyone feels welcome and included.”