Big Citizenship

12/21/10 Dawn Morgan Elliott
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Alan Khazei is author of Big Citizenship, and co-Founder of City Year in Boston, a service organization for young adults that became the model for AmeriCorps, a national service organization started under President Clinton in 1993.

WMNF’s Dawn Morgan Elliott spoke with Khazei about his passion for national service and the start of City Year.

"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 it could do, we said 'well let's bring the theory together with a model program and try to prove the theory'. And that was the idea behind starting 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 us as a model in that first national service act. As I mentioned, President Clinton visited us when he was campaigning and then used City Year as a model for AmeriCorps."

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's a sort of pillar of making our democracy work. Ideally it gives everyone a chance to be involved through service in the life of their communities and the life of our country. And the great thing about AmeriCorps is that it was designed that way. The challenge is just getting it to scale. My own hope is that eventually we’ll go beyond the Kennedy Serve America Act of 250,000 people and get to a million people a year in AmeriCorps. I think then we’ll reach a tipping point where it really has become 'the' thing to do, becomes a rite of passage, it becomes just a sort of common expectation and a 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 just have to deal with the issue of the economy. People are hurting all across the country, which means there’s actually even a greater need for people in AmeriCorps. And in fact, the applications to AmeriCorps have gone through the roof. Obviously people who are out of work have to focus on getting a job. But what we’ve found is actually that a number of people are choosing to volunteer, both to help people who are in trouble now or as a way to stay active and get additional work experience that hopefully will lead to a permanent job."

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."

You can hear Khazei talk more about the history and future of national service on Monday, December 27 during a special author edition of the WMNF Evening News, which will feature conversations with current affairs writers such as Dave Eggers, Walter Dean Myers, and more.

full disclosure: WMNF’s Dawn Morgan Elliott is a former AmeriCorps volunteer.

Big Citizenship

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