On Tuesday evening, Feb. 3, despite icy roads and snow-filled walkways, members of the Brandeis community gathered in Levin Ballroom to listen to social entrepreneur Alan Khazei deliver the keynote address of the fourth annual ’DEIS Impact week titled “Social Change Through Civic Engagement and Pragmatic Idealism.” The talk was co-sponsored by the Eli J. Segal Citizen Leadership Program in collaboration with the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the Student Union.
Khazei, who was nominated as one of “America’s 25 Best Leaders” in the U.S. News & World Report from 2006, co-founded City Year with his college roommate, Michael Brown, in 1988. City Year, which now operates in 20 U.S. cities, Johannesburg and London, is an “education-focused nonprofit organization that mobilizes idealistic young people for a year of service in high-need schools,” according to its website. Khazei is currently the CEO of Be The Change Inc., another organization that he began as a way to complete collective social justice impact work.
Khazei ran for U.S. senator twice in Massachusetts, and while his campaigns were unsuccessful, he claims he learned a great deal from that experience.
“I gained an incredible appreciation for what people are going through, especially for people who are struggling,” Khazei said in an exclusive interview with The Brandeis Hoot. “It’s an amazing privilege when you run for office, almost like having a passport or a permission slip to talk to anyone about anything. What I didn’t expect was people would open up and tell their stories to a total stranger, just because I was running for office.”
Khazei’s talk began by highlighting his original connection to Brandeis. When he and Brown were first discussing the idea of City Year back in college, they approached the dean of the Heller School at that time to gain insight on social policy initiatives. Khazei said that is why he has such an appreciation for the school, and when he was invited to speak, he was more than excited to accept the invitation. He mentioned that he wished they had a ’DEIS Impact week when he was in college, and while he is enthralled with the idea, his two suggestions would be to spread the movement to other schools and to try to petition for students getting a full semester’s worth of credit for this social justice work.
His speech continued by thanking important members of the Brandeis community who have supported his efforts, including the late Eli Segal ’64, first CEO of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (more commonly known as AmeriCorps) and Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992. Segal was a mentor and close friend to Khazei who he claims, “completely changed my life.”
“Eli Segal was an extraordinary human being,” said Khazei. “He changed the world, and I know that Brandeis nurtured his own sense of social justice. I know that his spirit is the spirit of ’DEIS Impact. My message to you today is to take ’DEIS Impact and dedicate yourselves like Eli did to committing some of your time and energy to a world of more social justice.”
Khazei continued to speak about his time in college when he and his friends would stay up late at night thinking, “Why is America the richest country in the world yet we have such deep poverty? Why is it that we struggle, even after all the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, with issues of race and class?” He said he and his roommate were “thunderstruck” and had to do something about this problem, so they started the City Year model as a way to show what national service could accomplish.
He said that everyone has a different inspiration, but for him, it was his parents who individually shaped his dream to make the world a better place. His father, a doctor, was an immigrant from Iran who came to America to escape dictatorship and explore freedom. He taught his son to fiercely love this country and to stick up for its ideals and values. His mother, a nurse, was a “classic Italian,” and she taught him to love people and that every person has a unique gift to give. He also says that his mom taught him “the extraordinary power of unconditional love.”
Khazei said that the turning point at City Year came for him in 2003 when overnight, without warning, there was an 80-percent budget cut to the AmeriCorps program. He claims this was a result of “partisan politics in Washington, Republicans and Democrats fighting over this great program and AmeriCorps becoming this great pond in the middle.” In a matter of hours, they began a national campaign and gathered 44 governors, 150 mayors and 250 university presidents to join together to take a stance in gathering the funding back for the program. They conducted a Citizens Hearing for over 100 hours and brought together citizens from all over the country to plead the case. Not only did they get their funding back, but they won an additional $100 million increase in funding for the entire program.
“That was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” Khazei said. “I learned a lot from that fight. I saw the power of collective action, of collective impact, of people working together to combine their assets. That is why I ultimately decided to leave City Year and start Be The Change. I wanted to see if that strategy we had used defensively could work in an offensive way.”
Khazei closed his talk with his advice on what students should do if they feel inspired by making a difference. “If you have a burning passion, you should pursue it,” Khazei said. “Find a partner, and then, build your team. There’s a lot riding on your generation, but I’m convinced you will be the best generation yet. You have that energy. It has always been young people on the forefront of change.”
Tam Emerson, a City Year alumna and the director of the Segal Citizen Leadership Program, spoke first at the event, highlighting the success of the program, which serves as a “platform for citizen leadership, community building and leadership development for young people who advance change for the common good.”
“In 2007, when the program was formed for Eli Segal, he passed as a citizen leader, the truest form of it, understanding what it looks like to really make a difference,” Emerson said. “We are absolutely blessed to bring together young leaders who care about the world.”
Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment, followed Emerson’s remarks calling ’DEIS Impact week a “distinctively set of Brandeisian events.”
“While many of our speakers on campus for ’DEIS Impact achieve great things, the keynote speakers really embody our ideals,” Flagel said. “They are not only incredibly successful, but they are changing the world for the better through their efforts. And it’s hard to imagine anyone better fitting for that profile than Alan Khazei.”
Flagel commended Khazei for his success with his book “Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in America.” He recited one of his favorite parts from the book: “Big citizens are not the elected officials or the prominent leaders. They are regular, good-hearted people blessed with a loving heart and an open mind … At times of great crisis we often want to find that one great leader to bring us to a better day. But what we need to recognize is that throughout our history, it has been the willingness of regular people looking at themselves and being committed to causes larger than themselves that has been the key to making progress. At the end of the day, it is up to all of us.”