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Do We Need a New Approach to Public Service? Interview with Alan Khazei, Co-Founder of City Year

A note pinned on a peg board.

Is it time to usher in a new generation of service?

Alan Khazei, Co-founder of City Year and an advocate of national service says “yes.” From the moment he and Michael Brown sat in their dorm room envisioning City Year, to now, where he is working to broaden the opportunity for young people to serve through The Franklin Project, he’s been working on a new vision of service for over 25 years.

Of course, this journey doesn’t come without lessons learned. In the interview below, Alan talks to us about the Franklin Project, the potential impact of a national service program, and what keeps him committed to this vision.

Can you set the stage and talk a little about what the Franklin Project is striving to accomplish?

The Franklin Project launched with the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal, who is the former commander of International Security Assistance Force, ISAF and was head of all the forces in Afghanistan. He was speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012 and talking about how the country had been at war for the past 11 years and that for the first time in our history less than one percent of the country is in the military during wartime, we need to create a broader sense of commitment to service and sacrifice; a sense that we are all in this together. We need a universal national service program. It created an incredible buzz at Aspen and people got really excited, so Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, me and John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, got together to try to make something happen.

Gen. McChrystal laid out this incredible vision that a year of service should become a rite of passage for all young people as part of growing up in 21st century America. We’ve set a concrete goal of one million people in full-time civilian service which would be roughly on par with the one million plus that do military service each year.

What is it, do you think, about this time period in our history that makes this initiative so important?

We have been at war for 12 years now and the wars are winding down and you have this generation that has gone to war, who served at the highest level. What are the next big challenges for America? What battles can we fight at home? It’s time to make sure our education system works, tackling issues with preserving our environment, fighting poverty and more…

We have this millennial generation, which has grown up in a service movement. Many young people do service in high school. When I was going to college there these programs didn’t exist. The millennial generation is serving in high numbers. There are many more applications for open positions [582,000 applications for only 80,000 annual AmeriCorps positions for example].

We are a country that is becoming increasingly diverse. California leads the country in major trends and there is no majority race in California. Within 20-25 years, there will be no majority race in America. What’s going to tie us together as a country? By having a shared commitment to national service as something that everyone does together, across backgrounds, is an incredible and valuable way to unite the country.

It’s a great vehicle for opportunity youth. We have seven million young people who are not in school and not working who are looking for positive opportunities. We have great national service programs that have shown that national service can be a great vehicle for young people who need it.

Because things are so broken down in Washington. What are we going to do that shows we can be can-do, we can unite as communities and as a country? I think national service is the best expression of that and people are hungry for it. I’ve never been so optimistic that we are on the cusp of having a big breakthrough for all these factors noted and in more cost effective ways. We commissioned an economic study, done by Columbia University for the Franklin Project & Voices for National Service that found that for every $1 invested in national service there is a $4 return. And finally, we have strong bipartisan support. Every president going back to George H. W. Bush has strongly supported this initiative.

What impact could a national service program have on the philanthropic sector as a whole? 

Tremendous. We did a study of City Year alumni 10 years ago and found that our City Year alumni, most of whom go into social sector or nonprofit jobs, contributed to philanthropic and other causes at 4 times the rate of their peers, they vote at much higher rates than their peers, they play leadership roles in communities and in colleges at much higher rates than their peers, they develop and maintain friendships with people of more diverse backgrounds – this is a huge impact because people generally become more philanthropic.

I believe that everyone has a “justice nerve.” When people come face to face with injustice, they have to do something about it. You see this in particular at times of crisis, in a flood or an earthquake or hurricane for example. What do Americans do? We rally around. We support our neighbors. We don’t say that I am going to hide in my house and just take care of my own. We do the opposite. We donate blood, donate money, bring people into our homes. National service turns on people’s justice nerves.

Switching gears a little bit…I’m going to take you back to when you were sitting in the dorm room with Michael Brown, just starting City Year. What do wish someone would have told you early on when you decided to do this work? Or a piece of advice for working day in and day out on creating social change and wanting to make a difference in their communities?

My advice is to find a partner and build a team. Nobody changes the world by themselves. I was blessed because Michael and I were assigned to be roommates and we became best friends. We discovered that we had this passion for national service and right away recruited a couple more partners, Jennie Eplett Reilly and Neil Silverston, who helped found City Year. It’s both thrilling and exciting to be a social entrepreneur and it’s hard. If you can find a partner to work with and build a team, you’re going to have a much better chance at success.

Keep your eye on the prize, but execute really well day to day. Keep in mind where you want to go, what is your big vision, but then how are you going to demonstrate that in a tangible way so that people can feel it, touch it and experience it. That’s what is going to get you there.

Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, notes every battle is won or lost before it’s even fought. You have to anticipate where you want to go and work backwards. For Sun Tzu, it was the preparation, the training, the strategy all done in advance. When people start out, you really have to look at where you want to be and work backwards from there.

What we discovered… if you are on a path pursuing social justice and pursuing your passion, people will come out of the woodwork to help you – I call it the Guardian Angel Rule. You get a lot more no’s than yes at the beginning and if you stick with it long enough, you’ll start to get those yes’s. Story after story, where we thought that it wouldn’t come through and then it came through. There is a spirit of social justice and when people hear about people doing good, important things, they want to help and you can almost count on it.

What’s the one thing that you have been able to do for yourself so that you can stay in it for the long-haul?

A few things – one, I had a great mentor, Ed Cohen, who founded the Echoing Green Foundation and got behind City Year really early on, who taught me it’s okay to take time for personal renewal. We were all working around the clock and Ed literally forced us all to take a vacation. I also have an incredible family, incredible wife, and incredible children and they are a huge source of joy in my life and that helps provide balance. And, I took a year’s leave from City Year, with my then Fiancé, now Wife, Vanessa Kirsch, to travel to study social entrepreneurs and change agents around the world. I had been at City Year for almost 9 years at that point and was burning out. I also had Michael, who was there and knew we had built a great team – he said go! It’s a long journey and you have to understand that it’s long march, not a sprint.

Build a great network of mentors. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have people invest in me going back to the very beginning and still do. Hubie Jones, who I met because I reached out to him when we were first starting, he is unbelievable. He is turning 80 this year and has been mentoring me for 25 years, one of my dearest friends and he is so full of wisdom.

And get your own personal board of directors – people who are there for you, will help straighten you out when you are screwing up, will get you to step back and reflect, force you to take time off, will point out when you are doing well, and will point out and support you even when you are messing up.

Closing Thoughts: We need every single person to do what they can to try to make an impact. We are in an age where citizens have to take charge, find their passion, be the change, be a big citizen and do what they are good at. If you look at all the great movements, it is citizen movements that have led big change throughout history. People need to figure out where they can plug in because our communities, our country, our world need that.

To learn more, visit The Franklin Project or to plan your year of service click here.

Alan Khazei is a social entrepreneur who has pioneered ways to empower citizens to make a difference in addressing our nation’s pressing challenges. He is most recently the founder and CEO of The Action Tank, a strategic consulting firm in greater Boston, MA. Alan is the co-founder of City Year, and the founder of Be The Change, Inc., a nonprofit that creates national issue based campaigns by mobilizing bi-partisan coalitions. In 2006 Alan was selected by US News and World Report as one of America’s 25 Best Leaders, and was chosen by the Boston Globe Magazine as one of 11 Bostonians Changing the World. He is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out The Best In America. Alan Khazei is also a co-chair of the The Franklin Project, which envisions an America where all young people are challenged and provided the opportunity to serve and will be drawing on leaders and citizens from every sector to realize the promise of a new American rite of passage. He lives in Brookline, MA with his wife, Vanessa Kirsch, and their two children.

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About the Author | Patricia Gentry is the senior operations manager at Share Our Strength where she supports over 80 culinary events including Taste of the Nation® and No Kid Hungry dinners across America. She is also a committee member of the Young Nonprofit Professionals - DC chapter where she is currently serving her second year.

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