Big Citizenship: Extended Interview

12/27/10 Dawn Morgan Elliott
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Alan Khazei is a proponent for national service. He has spent over 20 years trying to build a comprehensive national service system in the United States, which he sees as a pillar of a working democracy. As co-founder of City Year in Boston, which came to be the model for the federal AmeriCorps program, Khazei has helped millions of people help serve their country domestically.

His book, Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in Americawas published this summer. In an interview earlier this month with WMNF, Khazei gives a brief history of national service and how our its helped our democracy.

"The first formal articulation of what’s become known as national service was by William James in 1910 in an essay called the Moral Equivalent of War. He basically said that we needed to have an opportunity to spend a year in service full time working on domestic civilian needs, as the other side of the coin of military service. The first real expression of this made real in the 1930’s when Franklin Roosevelt set up the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, and had literally millions of young men do environmental conservation work. Then Kennedy picked it up with his inaugural address when he said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.' And he set up the Peace Corps right after he took office in 1961. And then Lyndon Johnson followed that with VISTA in 1965. Volunteers in Service to America, which was the domestic alternative to the Peace Corps.

"And then not much happened until the election of the first President Bush, 41, when he said in his inaugural address: 'Any definition of a successful life must include service to others.' And he established for the first time an office of National Service in the White House. Led by an extraordinary man named Gregg Petersmeyer. And he also established the Points of Light Foundation to, as he said, acknowledge and promote the points of light all across the country of people making a difference.

"And during President Bush’s term, Senator Kennedy authored legislation, the
National Community Service Trust Act. It was in 1990. It was a bipartisan bill he worked on with President Bush. And it was a bipartisan bill he worked on with President Bush and it set up a commission on national service and also established funding for demonstration programs.

"I had co-founded an organization called City Year, which was a model for national service that brings together young people aged 17 -24 for a year of full time service from all different backgrounds, working in schools, after school programs, etc. And we were named a demonstration program from that commission that Kennedy and Bush set up.

"And the big break through came when Clinton was elected and he set up AmeriCorps. In his inaugural address he said I want to challenge a new generation to a season of service and then set up Americorps. And we were fortunate that City Year was used as a model for that as well. And the exciting thing about AmeriCorps was that it not, it was a very different kind of program. It wasn’t a one size fits all federal program like the Peace Corps is. So what Clinton did was set up something called the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is a quasi-independent federal agency. It’s governed by a board of directors appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate. Has a CEO which is appointed by the president. But who reports jointly to the president and the board. And what they do primarily is give out funding grants. They don’t run programs, they provide matching funds to programs that are run on the state, local and national level. It’s very creative.

"It requires matching private funds for every organization and it’s also open to people of all ages, from 17 all the way up to the 80’s. And it’s spawned now over 2000 AmeriCorps programs across the country. And that the 2nd President Bush was a huge supporter of AmeriCorps and then he set up the USA Freedom Corps after 9/11 to promote service across the country. And then the next big break through in the early Obama Administration in 2009 in the first 100 days. The Edward M Kennedy Serve America Act was passed overwhelmingly bipartisan got 79 votes in the Senate. It’s designed to grow AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 people. Has more support for Encore Service, for the baby boom generation. It set up a volunteer matching fund to provide funds for those who want to do part time volunteering. It set up a social innovation fund for those who want to do social entrepreneurship. It’s very comprehensive.

"It also focused on setting up problem solving corps. There’s an education corps, a veterans’ corps, an opportunity corps to fight poverty, a green clean energy corps, and a health care corps to promote healthy living.

"So that’s a summary of how national service has developed in America."

So AmeriCorps fits right in there - you wrote in your book that “we need all hands on deck:” public, private, and non-profit working together.

"That’s right, absolutely. A big part of my career has been working towards trying to help bring about a comprehensive national service system in our country, which I see as a pillar of making our democracy work. Ideally it gives everyone a chance to be involved through service in the life of their community and our country. And a great thing about AmeriCorps is that it was designed this way. The challenge is just getting it to scale. My hope is to eventually we’ll go even beyond the Kennedy Serve AmeriCorps Act and 250,000 and get to a million people a year in AmeriCorps. And then we’ll reach a tipping point where it really has become the thing to do, a rite of passage, it becomes a common expectation and common experience for everyone."

How can citizens be more engaged in their community when they’re facing economics problems right now?

"It’s a great question, Dawn. I’d say a couple of things. One, we all have to deal with the issue of the economy. People are hurting all across the country, which means there’s an even greater need for people in AmeriCorps. And in fact, the applications for AmeriCorps have gone through the roof. Obviously people out of work have to focus on getting a job. But what we’ve found is that a number of people are choosing to volunteer both to help people who are in trouble now and as a way to stay active and get additional work experience."

You went to law school, but instead of working as a lawyer, you started a nonprofit?

"Yes, as I said, I became passionate about this idea of national service when I was in high school and then college and continued working on it in graduated law school. And during the mid-1980’s, there was a burgeoning movement around the country at the grassroots level with a number of people doing different programs. There were a lot of people in Washington that were sort of at that time writing about the theory of national service, all these great things they can do, we said well lets bring the theory together with the model program and try to prove the theory. And that was the idea behind City Year, which we started in 1988 with just 50 young people for a summer program. And then we evolved it into a full year program the following year. And we got lucky, Senator Kennedy took an interest in us and used it as a model in that first national service act. And President Clinton visited us when he was campaigning and then used City Year as a model for AmeriCorps."

It wasn’t easy starting City Year, you started it from scratch and learned along the way.

"We were very idealistic, we had a big dream and we didn’t have a track record. And one of the things we learned from one of our friends, is that a lot of things in life were more important than money, but they do cost money. And so part of the reason we started with a pilot program, a summer program was that it was much easier to raise $20,000 than one million, which was the budget for the first full year program. We didn’t raise any money for the first six months. We were all working second jobs, then we finally got our first check and it was $1,000. It got us started. Eventually after 7-8 months we started meeting people and they got behind us.

"The other challenge is that we wanted to do it with private support, corporations, foundations, and individuals. There wasn’t any government support for this kind of effort. What I learned, part of the reason I wanted to write this book Big Citizenship, is that what really made City year happen at the end of the day, it was that we were able to tap into a spirit of public service, a spirit of wanting to be involved with something bigger than themselves. We knocked on enough doors and enough people wanted to get involved through volunteering, donating money, signing up to join the program. And that’s powerful, tangible, real. I’ve seen that spirit happen. There were people who were willing to get behind an idea, and behind young people with no track record, to say, this is important, let’s go do it."

I think one of the most heartfelt stories in the book was when Stephen gave the shirt off his back. Can you tell that story?

"Sure. As I said, we set up City Year to be a demonstration. If we could show people that this idea works, they would become champions for it. So when President Clinton was campaigning for President, he heard about CY, thought national service was a great idea, and he wanted to visit so he came.

"And we had the mayor there, Mitt Romney, a Republican business man and another social justice leader there, Hubie Jones from Boston, but we had 8-9 young people there who had been in the corps. And one of our corps members who had had a rough childhood, was in trouble before a judge who said you can either go to City Year or you can go to jail, so he came to City Year and became a real leader.

"And he shared his story with then-governor Clinton, and Clinton asked him a bunch of questions and was visibly moved. We have City Year uniforms, a sweatshirt, with the “City Year” written real big on it. He literally ripped it off his back, and handed it to Gov. Clinton and said, “Please don’t forget about us!” And Clinton wraps him in a bear hug and says (imitates Clinton): “Don’t worry, I never will!” And said right then and there if I become president, I’m going to make this a national program.

"A year later, I’ve got CNN on in the background and President-elect Clinton is about to give a news conference and I look up and there he is just finishing up a jog wearing Stephen’s City Year sweatshirt.

"And in this news conference he said I’ve got four top priorities: I want to get the economy moving and balance the budget, I want to provide health care, and I want to start a national service project. And then our phone started ringing off the hook. So it just shows you what a simple act of kindness, it literally changed the course of our organization.

Last year you ran for the seat that was opened by the passing of the late Senator Edward Kennedy?

"Yes I did. I’ve had this extraordinary career where I spent 20 years working at City Year and helping to build this organization from scratch and be part of this larger movement for national service and for the social entrepreneurship movement. I was involved in an effort to save the AmeriCorps program when it was almost wiped out because of partisan politics in Washington.

"I worked with every president going back to George Bush 41, and with leaders in the Congress. And I worked closely with Senator Kennedy and I was really inspired by what he was able to do. I decided to jump into that race, and try to bring a different perspective, a different approach to solving problems, a different experience. I didn’t win, I came in third but I learned a lot. It’s like having a passport or permission slip to talk to anyone anytime about anything. What struck me the most was even while people are hurting and there are a lot of people who are hurting in this troubled economy, there’s still an unbounded spirit. There's still a willingness of people to roll up their sleeves and work together and try to get to a better day."

Can you talk about what you do now with your current org?

"Yes, it’s Be the Change. The name is inspired by Gandhi who said “You must be the change you seek in the world.” And what we do is this really grew out of my experience with City Year and this effort I mentioned saving AmeriCorps. The AmeriCorps program was almost wiped out seven years ago because of partisan politics and mismanagement in Washington. I helped to organize a coalition to save it, bring together leaders from the service movement. And we did both a grass roots and a grass tops campaign. Grasstops getting leaders – mayors, governors, business leaders, philanthropic leaders, faith based leaders, university presidents. All to say this should be saved. Then we did a big grass roots campaign, getting hundreds of people to come to Washington. And we did this crazy hundred-hour hearing because we couldn’t get people in the Congress to pay attention to what was happening at the local level because of these terrible cuts in the AmeriCorps program, because it’s all done at the state level.

"And that’s what really did it, all these regular did it was all regular citizens showing up in Washington. And we testified and stayed through the night for more than four days. We got a lot of media attention. We reached out to a lot of members of Congress and that turned it around. We got half the money back that year and we got the all the money back plus 100 million increase to grow the program by 50% not gut it which was what President Bush promised to do after 9/11.

"You know I had started City Year with a dream of hoping to inspire a larger national service program. And love my work a City Year, but also saw a new potential to do a different kind of change work which was more coalition based. You know, pick an issue, build a big coalition of practitioners, and leaders, grass tops and grassroots, and try to move that issue.

"Our first issue was service and we launched a Service Nation Campaign. We did a big summit on 9/11 & 12 in NYC in 2008. We were able to get both Obama and McCain to come. They both signed on to new legislation that we had worked with Senators Kennedy and Hatch on. It was the only thing during the campaign that they really agreed on.

"And then it happened as I said in the first 100 days of the Obama administration. And the new campaign we’re doing now is called Opportunity Nation. And it’s a similar effort all geared around promoting opportunity, social mobility, fighting poverty. We’ve already got 50 signed up to join a new coalition. And we’ll do a big summit next November [2011]. And we work on a bipartisan agenda to get broad support from the left, right and middle. To really push America back to being the land of opportunity which my dad and my grandparents and so many people to come here.

"If each of us does our part, does what we can do, through service, through political engagement and joining movements, that’s what changes the country. You don’t have to be Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa, you just have to do what you can. It all adds up, I’ve seen it, that what led to starting City Year and saving AmeriCorps it’s what’s made Be the Change work. It all starts with regular citizens. And then the candidates and business leaders follow."

Moral Equivalent of War

VISTA

White House Office of Service

Points of Light Foundation

Encore Senior Corps International

Be the Change

*Full disclosure, this reporter served one year as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

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