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Khazei encourages students to be “change agents”

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Section: News

November 16, 2012

Co-founder of City Year and founder of Be the Change, Inc. Alan Khazei spoke Thursday about the need for the youth in the service movement and the value of the youth vote in recent elections. Khazei spoke to the students as part of the Eli Segal ’64 Seminar in Citizen Leadership and Service.

Khazei met Segal in 1984 while Segal was working on Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. Khazei commented, “When Reagan was elected and then re-elected, we realized that national service was not coming from the president.”

Khazei spoke about his model of “Action-tanks,” which combine the planning and policy ideas of think-tanks with the programs that do the work. City Year was built to develop theories and then test them, rather than just one. Khazei stressed the value of finding a partner and building teams. “It’s more fun. It’s more enjoyable and you have a better chance of success when you have a team,” he said.

In Khazei’s case, his longtime partner Michael Brown was initially his randomly assigned roommate during his first year at Harvard in 1979. “I still don’t know who put us together at Harvard but they knew what they were doing … We just clicked.”

Khazei attributed a fair share of his successes to luck. During the 1992 election, while involved with City Year, the group invited all of the presidential candidates, “to [clearly] be bipartisan” to meet with the organization’s members. Khazei considers it luck that then-Governor Clinton was interested in meeting with City Year and then lucky that he was elected.

From the meeting with Clinton, Khazei told an interesting story of when a member gave Clinton a City Year sweatshirt that President Clinton later wore when he gave a press conference about establishing a national service organization. Within eight months of President Clinton’s inauguration the legislation was passed and within a year it was all set up.

Tying it all back together Khazei spoke about how President Clinton asked Segal, who had become a significant mentor to Khazei, to help start AmeriCorps. After getting to the topic of when AmeriCorps’ funding was drastically cut in June 2003, Khazei discussed the importance of building a strong bipartisan coalition to pass legislation and restore the program.

Since 1994, when the GOP gained control of the House of Representatives, Republicans tried to cut AmeriCorps “but Clinton always defended it … In 2003 [George W.] Bush was president and both houses were Republican.”

“We all had to combine forces if we were going to save this program,” he said. Khazei said the program was not just grassroots but also had the support of numerous governors, mayors and business leaders. “We got all the money back plus President Bush promised to help grow the program.”

From the experience trying to save AmeriCorps, Khazei emphasized the power of coalitions and why he ran for office. In more than 20 years working with Senator Ted Kennedy, “I could see the huge impact that he made and what a difference it could make … I learned a ton, it’s like a passport … It’s amazing how people open up to you.”

One of the major themes Khazei emphasized was the idea of approaching government in a different way. Aside from Americorps as a specific example, Khazei spoke about changing the “fundamental question in campaigns,” from asking an individual ‘Are you better off?’ to asking ‘Is America is better off?’

“We gotta get back to our roots. We gotta talk about the role of citizens in our democracy,” he said. Relating to this, Khazei discussed how innovators and entrepreneur are not connected enough to government.“

In the last election, while Democrats were pushing for “more government” and Republicans pushed for “less government … it’s more complicated than that. I believe in government but in a catalytic active government that helps to spur change.” Khazei discussed the need for public-private partnerships and the value of bringing the public, private and nonprofit sectors together to build multi-faceted solutions.

The audience of mostly Heller students were largely excited to participate when Khazei opened the floor for questions. One of the first asked about how to bring large-scale changes into implementation. In response, Khazei emphasized the need to translate working for change, such as firsthand experience, into advocacy. Along with encouraging “change agents” to use their credibility to advocate for change, Khazei advocated the need to enable non-profit workers’ ability to not only help others achieve the American Dream but also have the American Dream for themselves.

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