When Alan Khazei graduated from Harvard, he faced a fork in the road that many recent grads are forced to confront: choosing a solid career path or following a passion. Khazei’s choices – law school or a social entrepreneurial venture – were laid out when Khazei received a piece of fateful advice from his mother: Do what is in your heart, what will make you happy.
Luckily for millions of Americans or thousands of other young graduates, Khazei chose to pursue his commitment to public service, and went on to co-found City Year, the national service organization that allows young people to make a direct impact on the country’s most impoverished cities as volunteers, mentors and teachers.
“Alan is someone who took a very big chance; his personal narrative explains his achievements,” remarked President Mark D. Gearan during Thursday afternoon’s President’s Forum address as he which welcomed Khazei. “I believe we can learn from his leadership role and what he has accomplished – what his work with City Year has meant for our country and how he has kept a steady focus on service.”
Khazei’s passion for City Year began when he was in college. Late night discussions with his roommate – and City Year co-founder Michael Brown – found him pondering the paradoxical nature of America, a place where so many live in wealth while others see some of the world’s deepest poverty and hopelessness. “We thought that the conversation in America had gone off kilter. The question was ‘Are you better off?’ when it should have been ‘Are we better off?’ We needed to assess how we as a community were doing.”
With the advent of City Year, Khazei and his friends sought to be an “action tank” for national service – an organization of ‘doing.’ They hoped to create a program that allowed the city to be a classroom, a place where people could come together for a common cause and learn together.
However, after 20 years with City Year, Khazei had a revelation. “Service is great, but it is not enough,” explained Khazei, leading him to found Be the Change, Inc., an organization that seeks to create national issue-based campaigns.
Following a campaign to save AmeriCorps from a vast cut in funding, Khazei saw the importance of organized, grassroots movements in creating real change. “If you get involved in service, you cannot ignore politics. Ultimately, it is the representatives who made the decisions concerning education, poverty and the environment.”
In a time that Khazei sees as divided by narrow, partisan politics, he encourages young people to help the country move beyond these simplified arguments. “It has always been young people at the forefront of change,” said Khazei. “Use your energy and idealism to bring in other partners. Show others how we can solve a problem when we roll up our sleeves and work together.”
Although there are countless obstacles in creating lasting change, Khazei offered suggestions on ways to begin to turn the tides. Engaging politicians about issues facing young America is essential – and can be done at a local level. Be outraged, offered Khazei, and advocate for engagement. Share your stories with others so that you might in turn inspire them, and know that no injustice is insurmountable.
“It is students who will wake up the world and force our political leaders to deal,” said Khazei. “The world is in your hands; you aren’t future leaders – you are leading right now. After spending the day here, I see that it is in good hands.”