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Big Ideas: Alan Khazei on reevaluating the roles of government and citizenship

   /   Aug 30th, 2010Government, Magazine, News

In our Big Ideas series, we check in regularly with top thinkers in the field of social innovation. We want to know what they’re working on, what questions they’re wrestling with, and what opportunities and challenges they see up ahead for the sector.

Alan Khazei, founder of Be the Change, Inc. and co-founder of City Year, has been a social entrepreneur, advocate, movement builder, political candidate, and, now, author. For more than 20 years, he has focused on encouraging and strengthening the power of citizens to serve and transform society.

On Wednesday, September 1 at 8 p.m. EST, to celebrate the publication of his new book, Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring out the Best in America, Khazei will be participating in a virtual book party by conference call with Davis Guggenheim, the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” and the forthcoming and highly anticipated film on education reform, “Waiting For Superman.” You can join by calling (712) 432-0075, with the code: 182915. RSVP by emailing

On the meaning of ‘big citizenship’: “When Harry Truman was leaving the White House, he said he wasn’t leaving the highest office of the land, he was assuming the highest office – that of citizen. We need to look at what’s driving change in America and around the world today: the energy, idealism and innovation of citizens. It’s people engaging in service, politics and movements, which is what has driven change in our country from the very beginning – whether it was the citizen soldiers of the revolution, or the abolitionists, or the suffragettes, or the civil rights activists. That’s what we need now, especially during this time of economic hardship. It’s up to all of us to work together to come up to the solutions to our problems. Nobody changes the world by themselves. I’ve been blessed to be part of a number of different efforts for progress. Whether it was starting City Year, saving Americorps or organizing the Service Nation campaign, at the beginning of every single one of them people said, ‘It’ll never work.’ What always has made it happen is the willingness of citizens to act – not necessarily the identified leaders, but everyday people.

“We’re going to have a website for the book and part of it will allow people to nominate their own ‘big citizen.’ There are literally millions. I’m hoping the website can be a vehicle for people to share their stories, and spur action. If we can get a critical mass of people to feel like they’re actually holding an office and using it to its full capacity, that will lead to big change.”

On moving beyond the old debates about government: “We’re stuck in this tired debate between ‘big government is the answer’ and ‘government is the problem.’ It’s looking at the wrong question – and it’s gotten to a silly level of partisanship. We’re not living in the 1930s of FDR or the 1980s of Reagan.  It’s our time and we need to do what Lincoln said, to ‘think anew and act anew.’ What I’m saying is both sides are wrong. What we need is big citizenship. And through it, we need to recapture our sense of common purpose. We need to move from the number one question at election time being ‘Are you better off?’ to ‘Are we better off?’ The focus on narrow interests is what’s gotten us into this mess. Our Constitution doesn’t begin with the words, ‘I, a member of the United States, in order to get more for myself…’ it begins with ‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.’”

On a different role for government: “Government isn’t the answer; it’s a part of the answer. We can’t just look to one sector alone to solve problems. Each sector has something to add. Increasingly, new solutions are coming from combinations of the private, government, and nonprofit sectors working together, each bringing what it does best.”

On changing the face of government: “We need more people who have had direct experience making change at the grassroots level to get into politics. They bring a different perspective about how things work and how to leverage the extraordinary power of elective office to make change. We need to broaden the qualifications for governing. If you look at the U.S. Senate, almost half are lawyers, a bunch are former elected officials, there’s one comedian – but there are very few people who come from the direct world of service, or social entrepreneurship, or the nonprofit sector.

“The debate in Washington would be very different right now if half the members of Congress had served in the Peace Corps, Americorps or the military. They would have a common bond. They would say, ‘I may not agree with you politically, but I respect that you have served the country and shown that you’re willing to put it first.’ I’m not impugning anybody’s motives, but we have to broaden the base of who is in elected office. And it’s not just Congress. We have 500,000 elected offices in the U.S. Increasingly in the 21st century, we’re going to have to fill them with leaders who understand how to bring all three sectors together.”

On his new ideas and upcoming campaigns: “Through Be the Change, we’re still pushing the Service Nation campaign. We’re working on a program called Cities of Service, with Mayor Bloomberg. We’ve got this great Mission Serve initiative, where we’re trying to bring together the worlds of civilian service and military service, looking for ways to support each other, especially the veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. And we’re launching a new campaign called Opportunity Nation, trying to build a coalition of practitioners who are promoting social mobility, economic justice and efforts to fight poverty. We’ll try to convene a big national summit to inject the issue of opportunity into the national debate around the 2012 presidential election, with a goal of hopefully coming up with new policies that will help to reclaim America as a nation of opportunity.”

Photo: Be the Change, Inc.

One Response

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