Book Reviews

Corps Values

A pioneer of social entrepreneurship reflects on his career and
the future of public service.

By Mark Gearan

Tagged Social entrepreneurshipVolunteerism

Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in America By Alan Khazei • PublicAffairs • 2010 • 304 pages • $25.95

In his recent book Big Citizenship, social entrepreneur Alan Khazei shares a Václav Havel quote to describe the quality that binds the inspirational people he’s met over the years: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense no matter how it turns out.”

Khazei has encountered this quality in numerous individuals throughout his career and all over the world, people “who embodied and embraced this special sense of hope for the future. People who acted on the certainty that something made sense no matter how it turned out.” He might have in mind individuals like the Thai doctor he met bringing access to health care in rural areas, the Indian woman who started an organization to bridge the divide between Hindu and Muslim communities, or the South Korean activist in Vietnam who worked with returning refugees.

But the description fits Khazei (pronounced KAY-zee) as well. Well known in the service movement for his leadership in co-creating City Year, the innovative service program for young people that became the model for Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, Khazei has spent the past quarter-century thinking about service, leadership, and community, and honing his views on social entrepreneurship and its connection to the private sector, government, philanthropy, and the media. His book offers not just a lively story of the roots and rise of social entrepreneurship, but deftly articulates policy recommendations that will ensure a robust future for the service movement.

It wasn’t too long ago in historical terms that social entrepreneurship—the practice of solving a social problem through entrepreneurial means and techniques—didn’t even exist. A tiny movement in the 1960s and ’70s, the nonprofit service sector today is formidable indeed: It represents almost 10 percent of the economy, with one out of 12 citizens working in the sector. A social entrepreneur, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his impressive work in the areas of microcredit and microfinance, helping people with no collateral get loans from banks. Closer to home, programs like Teach For America and AmeriCorps have touched the lives of millions of Americans—and continue to grow in popularity. (Teach For America has seen applications grow by 30 percent for three straight years; AmeriCorps experienced a 170 percent increase in online applications from 2008 to 2009.) Big citizenship has become a big deal. That said, Khazei laments that nonprofit work is still seen as a second-class calling in America, a disappointing condition that he seeks to change.

Khazei’s own journey from Capitol Hill summer intern in 1981 to Senate candidate in Massachusetts 28 years later (he ran in the Democratic primary for Ted Kennedy’s seat) runs parallel to a story of the emergence and evolution of the service movement. He writes affectionately about growing up in New Hampshire in the 1970s with supportive parents and grandparents who instilled in him an ethic of hard work and service. As the son of an immigrant doctor from Iran and an Italian-American nurse, he understood the blessings of the United States as well as the responsibilities of its citizens. The town-hall meetings his father would take him to witness were vivid manifestations of the values of community and civic engagement in this “participatory, citizen democracy.”

With that bedrock of small-town New England values, Khazei would go on to become an instrumental figure in the rise of the service movement. Big Citizenship offers a highly readable history of the emergence of social entrepreneurship and the evolution of the idea of national service in this country, from the historic creation of the Corporation for National and Community Service—the federal grant-making agency operating AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America—to the enactment in 2009 of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. More than just a recounting of past episodes, Khazei clearly intended his readers to learn from the history of social entrepreneurship. The book even includes a useful appendix that has a timeline of the Save AmeriCorps campaign, which successfully reversed a proposed 80 percent funding cut in AmeriCorps, and the strategic decisions and tactical steps supporters made to ensure adequate funding.

Zelig-like, Khazei appears in some of this history’s major scenes. He worked as an intern for his congressman, Norm D’Amours of New Hampshire, while classmate Michael Brown (who would eventually co-found City Year with him) interned for then-Congressman Leon Panetta. In the first of what would become a pattern for the Khazei-Brown duo, they collaborated as interns advancing the legislation to create a Commission for National Service. That experience would spur Khazei’s scholarly interest in service as an undergraduate and law student, and would become his eventual passion and lifelong commitment.

Later brushes with the powerful follow, offering reminders of the formidable network Khazei has since constructed. There was the little-known presidential candidate making a site visit to a no-frills City Year headquarters: Bill Clinton. Khazei’s remarks at a youth conference introduced him to a supporter and eventual mentor in Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania. An invitation to a senator for City Year’s first graduation would lead to a longstanding relationship with the program’s key congressional champion: Ted Kennedy.

Big Citizenship will be of particular interest to aspiring social entrepreneurs, whom Khazei seems to have had in mind in writing the book. He turns to J. Gregory Dees, professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, to define social entrepreneurs as people who

play the role of change agents in the social sector by adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value), recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission, engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning, acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.

Khazei can certainly relate to Dees’s depiction of a social entrepreneur as someone who acts “boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand.” Perhaps offering some reassurance to those who wish to follow in his footsteps was Khazei’s own early brush with failure. Armed with a detailed, 80-page business plan, Khazei seemed a good candidate for the Harvard Fellowship in Public Interest Law following his graduation from law school. He turned down offers from corporate firms and expected his fellow Harvard Law School (HLS) students to realize the merits of his innovative project and reward his initiative. Since he had no financial backing for City Year at that point, he sought loan forgiveness through a new law school program to assist graduates who were engaged in public-interest work. But he quickly learned disappointment the hard way: fellow HLS students rejected him for the fellowship, and the administration denied his request for loan forgiveness.

In detailing the creation of City Year, Khazei stresses an interesting and unexpected “number one rule”: “Find a partner that makes everything easier and more fun and then focus on building a strong team. Everything flows from that.” With Michael Brown, he found a lifelong friend who shares his vision for national service. Like Khazei, Brown put his own personal commitment on the line in going full time with City Year, leaving a prestigious legal clerkship with First Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Breyer, the future Supreme Court Justice.

One of the central lessons from their experience would seem to apply to governance as well. Khazei details that as a law student, he was taught to figure out the “core theory” for the case in order to bolster his argument. Once defined, “you need to narrate that ‘core theory’ through every single thing you do with that case. A strong core theory is both a sword and a shield, both moving you forward offensively and a defense against opposition, or attacks.” City Year, he argues, is defined by the core theory that our democracy requires “big, active, powerful, robust citizenship.” The notion that a “core theory” should animate every enterprise is a lesson progressives in all sectors of national life, public or private, should heed.

An unstated theme in Big Citizenship is that good intentions aren’t enough. Social entrepreneurs need to be willing to undertake the hard, messy work of politics. Even as political victories can bolster the service movement, the movement can in turn influence our politics, in a virtuous cycle that can inculcate the spirit of civic engagement in the American public.

As Khazei tells it, triumph can beget triumph. The coalitions behind the legislation to create the Corporation for National and Community Service, Save AmeriCorps, Voices for AmeriCorps (a coalition formed to celebrate service accomplishments and honor champions), ServiceNation (an organization formed to host a summit in New York on September 11, 2008, with presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain), and the Kennedy Serve America Act all built upon one another. Together, they gained experience, improved their networks, advanced their arguments, and saw some successes. In a cascading fashion, networks—and the movement’s confidence—grew. Khazei offers a succinct lesson: “It is the coalition, stupid. Leverage, leverage, leverage.”

One unanticipated outcome of the Save AmeriCorps campaign was Khazei’s “rekindled” interest in politics and policy. He came to realize that without sustained advocacy, Washington returned to “business as usual.” Khazei’s reflection eventually led to his decision to seek the Democratic nomination for Kennedy’s seat. The book’s chapters on this phase of Khazei’s career explore the personal, professional, and emotional tolls of a political campaign. Although both The Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette endorsed his campaign, he failed to capture the nomination. However, it’s clear that he intends to stay in the game, writing: “After my experience, I believe even more strongly that more people from the service and social entrepreneurship movements and the not-for-profit sector need to get involved in politics and serve in our government at every level.”

What should a politics of social entrepreneurship seek to accomplish? As rich as the book is as narrative, it is its articulation of a policy agenda for service that is its most noteworthy achievement. Khazei draws on Steve Waldman’s metaphor in The Bill likening national service to a Swiss Army knife—each has many uses and varying degrees of effectiveness. Service, he argues, has broad societal implications and benefits. It cultivates patriotism, civic innovation, and greater access to the American dream. A supporter of a voluntary service system, he reflects on Israel’s compulsory national service with admiration, noting the positive impact the Israeli system has in uniting the country and bringing common purpose to young people.

Big Citizenship’s most substantive contribution is Khazei’s elaboration of a new philosophy of Big Citizenship and Common Purpose. At its core is “an economy that works for everyone and reclaims America’s historic place as an opportunity society.” Whether or not his manifesto will gain political traction in our current climate remains to be seen, but candidates and officeholders alike may find useful approaches.

A new ethos of Big Citizenship and Common Purpose rests on five pillars. First, in “relying on we the people,” Khazei reinforces the fundamental civics lessons of each and every citizen working to contribute to the nation’s success. The GI Bill’s transformational impact has long animated our dreams of a collective purpose, and it’s that achievement that Khazei harks back to. Setting a goal of one million Americans engaged in a full year of voluntary, full-time national service, Khazei sees a “GI bill for civilian service” as the answer to today’s needs while producing a new corps of volunteers.

Second, he argues that our nation must foster greater innovation and entrepreneurship. Highlighting a myriad of current organizations and Administration efforts, Khazei charts out the “civic entrepreneurial ecosystem,” with government, philanthropy, the private sector, the media, and academia all co-existing and productively advancing the entire system. Khazei highlights models such as the Investing in Innovation (I3) fund at the Department of Education, which helps bring innovative programs to scale, and the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which leverages public and private dollars to promote new solutions to social problems. Nonprofit groups like Echoing Green, which invests in social entrepreneurs and their plans to launch high-impact organizations, put critical octane in the tanks of new start-ups. Efforts like these reward visionary leaders and populate the sector with leadership at a critical time. Investment in education is also an integral component. Khazei calls for more degree programs to prepare future social entrepreneurs, arguing the need for seasoned, well-trained, and appropriately compensated leaders in the service movement.

The third pillar is a radical change in the role of government, from a “top-down, bureaucratic, often one-size-fits-all approach” to a “catalytic, transparent and accountable” system that allows for experimentation and risk to encourage innovation. Noting that the private sector has been more welcoming to change in taking advantage of technologies and incentivizing reforms, Khazei cites the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” funding and the establishment of the Corporation for National and Community Service as examples of an entrepreneurial approach for the federal government.

In the fourth pillar, Khazei encourages increased public-private partnership, which he defines as “government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector, each doing what each does best to address our most pressing challenges.” He argues that recent growth in the nonprofit sector, civil society organizations, and corporate social responsibility make now an opportune time for these partnerships.

Khazei’s final pillar proposes “one central touchstone for all of our policies and programs—do they promote the common good and the national interest or are they favoring narrow, special interests?” Here he explores the historical context of prior citizen’s movements—abolitionists, suffragists, trade unionists, civil rights activists—and the power of one person to make a difference. Reflecting on his own life’s journey, he makes the summative point that citizens have enormous power to wield if we seize it and responsibly execute our civic duties.

As laudable as this platform is, Khazei could have provided greater guidance in how best to achieve its objectives. He readily admits the benefits he and Brown enjoyed by starting City Year in Massachusetts with an engaged political and business leadership; what might he suggest for other, less welcoming regions of the nation? How does he take his lessons and translate them for others? Pushing government into greater experimentation is a worthwhile mission. But in this age of assessment and carefully drawn metrics of outcomes, where do we position experimentation and risk? Given the venomous political climate, how can we rise above the fray and find a pathway for creativity and innovation?

And as important and compelling as Big Citizenship is about the past, and as impressive as it is in offering policy prescriptions, it is curiously quiet about the politics of national service for the future. Without Senator Kennedy (and Senator Khazei), how is the political landscape altered? Given his success in effectively advocating on the Hill, it would have been useful to hear his thoughts on how progress can be made in our hyper-partisan era.

But the book’s shortcomings are minor. Big Citizenship offers a unique and personal account of Khazei’s own journey while narrating the broader history of modern national service. His insights into national service—its evolution as a movement, as an idea, and as a political force—alone make the book a vital entry in the service movement literature.

With Americans volunteering in record numbers and applications for AmeriCorps and Peace Corps at impressive levels, this would seem an ideal moment in our nation’s history to deepen our commitment to civic engagement. Citizens want to solve community problems, and they see service and volunteerism as an effective part of the solution. For his part, Khazei is hopeful that the service movement follows an American narrative of citizens making “big dreams real in America.” Given the issues before our nation and the requirements of citizenship in the twenty-first century, Big Citizenship should serve as inspiration to future social entrepreneurs to take on the next set of challenges.

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Mark Gearan is president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He was director of the Peace Corps in the Clinton Administration.

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