Big Citizenship

How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in America


By Alan Khazei

Formats and Prices




$13.99 CAD


ebook (Digital original)


ebook (Digital original) $10.99 $13.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 31, 2010. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Throughout his career, Alan Khazei has pioneered ways to empower citizens to make a difference. His work as cofounder of City Year, the model for President Clinton’s AmeriCorps, and with his second start-up, Be the Change, have put him at the forefront of a generation of innovators who have revolutionized social entrepreneurship.

Big Citizenship tells how, in the face of drastic budget cutbacks, Khazei led the effort to save AmeriCorps by convincing a huge coalition of people — members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, governors and mayors from around the country, private sector leaders, editorial boards of major newspapers, and thousands of American citizens — to lend their support to the fight. His journey — from the most local of grassroots engagement to Washington, D.C. — is an extraordinary story, and a vital model of idealism in action.


For Vanessa, Mirabelle, and Reese,
the lights of my life.

Sitting in the cramped hotel room of the Omni Parker House in Boston, Massachusetts, I typed speedily on my laptop as the hour approached 8:00 pm, when the polls across the state would close. Images flashed through my mind: the seniors in Lowell and small business owners in Quincy; the patrons at the classic Orchid Diner in New Bedford; walking Main Street in Hyannis and going door-to-door in Worcester; the veterans in Pittsfield, the student volunteers at Smith, and Sunday churchgoers across Boston; the many people who were hurting in the terrible economy; and the entrepreneurs and innovators who were showing new ways to attack old problems, from clean energy breakthroughs to education reform.
I have been an active citizen and voter, but this election was different for me. My name was on the ballot. I was quickly editing my remarks to share with hundreds of people who had gathered for our election-night party. Old friends from all times of my life and new ones I had made along the campaign trail.
The clock struck 8:00 pm and within minutes the newscasts reported the early results. As expected, the front-runner from the beginning of the race, the state attorney general, was far ahead, a well-regarded Congressman was in second, I was third, and a successful businessperson was fourth. I had come up short, but I was at peace. I had started just twelve short weeks earlier, an obscure candidate with 400 supporters, on Boston Common. With the help of a spirited campaign, we finished with 90,000 votes in the Massachusetts special election to fill the senate seat vacated by Ted Kennedy. And we had run the race our way by emphasizing grassroots, citizen-led politics and fighting the influence of special interests. With the help of my outstanding policy team, many noted that I added importantly to the debate and I achieved some unexpected endorsements. And we brought many new people and voices into the political process for the first time. Despite the results, the campaign was a hugely positive experience. And I was encouraged that, within a short window of time, our campaign's message and ideas started to resonate and break through in the final weeks. I realized the insights I had gained from almost twenty-five years in the service and social entrepreneurship movements, about how to rally people and all sectors to make progress, were applicable to the larger challenges facing my state and our country.
Campaigning across Massachusetts as a first time candidate in the Democratic Senate Primary, I had a profoundly moving, learning experience. That is one of the real privileges of being a candidate for national office. It is like having a passport or permission slip to talk to anyone and everyone about everything and anything. Whether it is meeting people from all walks of life, in schools, diners, and community centers at seven am or midnight, or connecting with practitioners and experts on major issues such as the economy, education, energy, health care, the wars, and more, you receive an unparalleled education and insight into what people are thinking and feeling. They speak freely of their hopes, dreams, and anxieties for themselves, their children, families and friends.
I know there has been a lot of talk about how angry voters are. But we cannot simply give in to that anger. I heard, for sure, a lot of anxiety over the economy and the rising cost of health care, especially for small business owners. People shared frustration with the dominance of special interests in Washington. Worried parents felt they couldn't get a high quality public education for their children and wouldn't be able to afford college. And there was significant concern about rising youth violence in our urban areas and the need for more opportunities for young people. Numerous others voiced disagreement with escalating the war in Afghanistan. Many voters across the state had lost their jobs, homes, or retirement savings. The pain and suffering was palpable.
But in addition to this anxiety, I also felt an undaunted spirit and quiet determination, a desire and willingness of people to roll up their sleeves, come together and tackle our state's and our country's problems. People were ready to regroup and rebuild, to find lasting and meaningful solutions and try new approaches, and to seize the opportunities of transformational times. And people wanted from their political leaders and candidates direct, honest, and straight talk about the challenges we face and what we can do about them. They wanted to recapture the spirit of common purpose that has always brought out the best of America in challenging times. But whether people are angry or anxious, we need to move beyond the recriminations and the finger pointing. Anger may or may not make us feel better, but it won't solve our problems.
I had decided to run for the Senate after spending nearly twenty five years as a civic entrepreneur, taking the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative approaches often found in the private sector, to address social problems—starting from the ground up as the co-founder and CEO of City Year. As a civic entrepreneur, I work to put ideas into action as a way to improve civic life and participation and effect policy change.1 I also work to engage citizens and unite all three sectors—non-profit, private, and government—in new partnerships to promote innovative solutions.Throughout my career I have been involved in numerous efforts to make social progress. The key to each of these endeavors has been the willingness of people to unite in common purpose beyond their own self-interest. From that experience, I believe we need a fundamentally new approach to our politics and to how we solve problems, one that articulates a new public philosophy, a new way both to seize the opportunities and address the challenges of the uniquely demanding times we live in.
Immediately after President Obama's election, and in response to the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, leaders in Congress looked backwards for inspiration. Most Democrats argued for a return to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and talked of enacting some kind of new New Deal in which the federal government would be the driving force to rescue us from the economic crisis. Republicans reached back for Reaganism—tax cuts and smaller government. One side took refuge in ideas that were seventy-five years old, the other in ideas that were thirty years old. They are both out of date. They depend on a stale and discredited argument: that you must either be for big government or against it; government is either the solution to all problems or the cause of them.
The severity of the economic and social challenges of our times does not allow us the luxury of casually casting aside the possibility that government can help people. Nor can Democrats assume that government alone can solve problems. We need everyone to pitch in. The private sector has developed delivery mechanisms that should make government blush. Great innovation comes from many new, small, and medium sized businesses. Much breakthrough thinking and action for social progress is coming not from government or academia, but from the myriad not-for-profit organizations that are a rapidly growing feature of our national and international landscape. This mixture did not exist seventy-five or thirty years ago. Our times are our times; they are in our hands. So why should we look to Reagan or Roosevelt to guide us? We have to step up for ourselves.
President Lincoln's words spoken at a time of even greater crisis are an excellent inspiration for us today, because they contain a timeless principle and not a time-specific political ideology. He said: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. Our occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
We do need to disenthrall ourselves and develop a new politics, a new agenda, an improved role for government, and a public philosophy that supports us as we work together to solve problems. We need to do what we as Americans have always done, from the very founding of our country, at times of great crisis: turn to ourselves, get everyone engaged in addressing our challenges, and embrace the innovative solutions and approaches that will make our future even better than our past. The answer isn't to return to the past. So where instead should we look?
This book is not exactly a career memoir nor an autobiography. It's a story—and it contains many stories culled from many different people—of an idea. The idea is a perennial one in American life: that our greatest natural resource as a country is the diversity, talent, and commitment of the American people. Each generation of Americans has the opportunity to discover this fact and explore its boundless potential. The constant theme, however, is that America regularly calls upon its people to assume what Harry Truman called, on leaving the White House, the highest office in the land: that of citizen. The demands of citizenship, and the rewards, have never been greater. Our times call for "Big Citizens," individuals prepared not to seek what their country owes them, or what they can get from it, but how they can contribute to making it stronger. I have believed in this since, in a college dorm, I began to sketch out with my friend, Michael Brown, the idea of an organization that would allow young people, from every kind of background, to serve their communities in tackling some of the most entrenched and neglected problems.
Now, that idea needs to serve the nation.
What our national politics has lost in the partisan gridlock is the sense of our common purpose. When we neglect our shared purpose, we neglect an essential aspect of America, and in the end, the country loses touch with itself and its principles: we risk losing our soul. It becomes too easy not to embrace our shared responsibilities or to believe there's no value in learning from others. The evidence of every great leap forward should tell us this does not make any sense: the more widely we draw our inspiration, and the more broadly we encourage participation, the greater our chance of transformative success. We cannot solve a damaged economy individually any more than we can create a safe environment individually. We would be alarmed if we were singly responsible for our country's security in the face of hostile threats; we need to have that same sense of common cause in tackling our challenges at home.
America is a vast country that invites big contributions. This book looks at ways in which we can all contribute, inspired by an ideal of service to our communities and our nation, and attempts to show how that commitment might just fix Washington's broken political system.
Big Citizenship first and foremost means contributing to a cause larger than your own self-interest. It calls on each and every one of us to get involved in politics, to perform community service, to join with other citizens in larger movements for change, and to take personal responsibility. A philosophy of Big Citizenship also means having an economy that works for everyone and reclaims America's historic place as an opportunity society. We cannot afford to waste the talents or contributions of any single person. It also demands that we embrace entrepreneurs and innovators in both the private and public sectors to develop the new solutions and ideas to address pressing problems. It means that while rejecting both the big government and no government approaches of the past, we define a new role for government, one that sets standards and the rules of the game to ensure a transparent and level playing field, monitors and reports on performance, provides incentives and rewards results especially for innovation, and uses proven market mechanisms like competition and choice, while not relying on exclusively market solutions. Our problems and challenges are so great and so systemic we need all hands on deck and all three sectors—Public, Private, and Non-Profit—to work together in new partnerships. Most solutions will come from leveraging the unique talents, resources, and abilities of each sector working together.
Finally, a new philosophy of Big Citizenship and Common Purpose must be introduced to recapture the spirit that we are all in this together. We will rise or fall based on how we fare as a community and as a country. We must reassert the spirit of our founding fathers and mothers who "mutually pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor."
The spirit of the Greatest Generation, united in common bonds to survive the Depression and defeat Hitler and the Nazis, might seem to have passed into history, but that's not so. Times have changed and our wars are fought by a dedicated professional all-volunteer military and not soldiers drafted from across the nation. But the spirit of the servicemen and women in uniform is just as great as ever, discernible on every military base across the globe. Nor is that fervent spirit limited to the military.
In the summer of 2009, I was asked to speak to the annual conference of the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). It is an extraordinary organization founded by a small group of military spouses in 1998, over a kitchen table discussion about the special needs, challenges, and opportunities that military children face. Military children generally move between six to nine times during their K-12 years. MCEC recognizes that when a family member serves, the whole family serves. The organization identifies the challenges facing the highly mobile military child, increases awareness of these challenges in military and educational communities, and initiates and implements programs to meet the challenges. MCEC's goal is to level the educational playing field for military children wherever they are located around the world, and to serve as a model for all highly mobile children.
Before I gave the speech, I contacted Colonel John Tien and his wife, Tracy, whom I have been proud to know as friends for more than sixteen years. I wanted their perspective on MCEC and the unique situation facing military families, especially during a time of war. John is an extraordinary human being, a true American hero, the son of Chinese immigrants to America. Because of his belief in this country and the opportunities it provided him, he enrolled at West Point. John graduated number one in his class, went on to serve as a White House Fellow and a Rhodes Scholar. He served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-'91, and John has also completed three tours in Iraq. Like many in our armed forces, he has literally put his life on the line for our country. He now serves as the Senior Director for Afghanistan policy on the National Security Council in the White House. He and his family represent the very best of America. Tracy is also an amazing person. She is a wonderful mother to their two teenage girls, Amanda and Becky, and a great public servant in her own right as a teacher and military spouse of a high ranking officer. In response to my asking for her perspective, Tracy sent me an email that both profoundly moved and inspired me:
When I talk to people about the difference between civilian life and military life, I usually talk about how in "real life" (what my girls call non-military life), if you run a company, you do not live next door to all of your employees, you don't go to the same doctor (who is also a neighbor) that they do, you don't have your employees' spouses seeing you discipline your children in the grocery store that you all shop at, your employees don't see you or your spouse at the pool or gross in your workout clothes, your children don't go to school with their children who then tell their parents all the good or bad things that your child said or did in school that day. In the military, there is no privacy.
Military life is indeed a fishbowl, but the incredible tight sense of community usually makes up for it.
I feel that the girls and I serve and sacrifice for our country, too. During the deployment, I felt that my job was to support the families of the battalion, so the soldiers in our battalion could concentrate on fighting the fight and coming back safely to us. We did many things to keep life going—by "we" I mean the all-volunteer force of battalion spouses who were willing to take on a leadership role during the deployment. If that meant babysitting some kids overnight while their mom had emergency surgery, we did it. If that meant calling all the women to let them know that there had been an accident, but all of our guys were safe, we did it. We trained spouses how to help other spouses if their husbands were killed or injured, and we took training to recognize signs of possible suicide. We attended all the memorial services. There were just so many things that we as a team did.
The girls were troopers also. Amanda took a babysitting course taught by the Red Cross. I would then use her and some of her friends to babysit some of the younger kids during meetings so that the moms could attend. Both Becky and Amanda helped me prepare for meetings by stapling papers, putting together information packets, wrapping door prizes for me. They supported me, so that I could support others.
During a deployment, maintaining the connection within the family unit is crucial. It is hard to know what to share and what not to share with the other spouse—why worry your spouse when they can't do anything about it? It was hard for me not to feel guilty that I was relatively safe while John was continually in harm's way and for John not to feel guilty that he wasn't contributing to the parenting of our daughters. We talked when we could, sent daily emails, sent weekly packages and letters, but it really takes a lot of commitment on everyone's part to keep doing that for over a year; without it, however, the family unit just breaks apart.
To survive a deployment—and I mean for the families, not for the soldier—the military community is crucial. You need your neighbors and your friends to talk to and to listen to. Professionally, we neighbors would bounce ideas off of each other and share opportunities. For example, as a teacher, I would usually organize and run seminars for my spouses on stress management, dealing with angry children, managing personal funds, etc. Another neighbor was not so good with people, but was great with a computer and spreadsheets and she would share all of these forms and flyers so we didn't have to recreate the wheel. Another neighbor, a former cheerleader, had an abundant amount of energy and loved to socialize and seemed to know the name of every person she came across; she came up with great ideas for fun social activities for the spouses and their children and we would all piggyback on those. So we all shared our skills to make things best for the community. We probably all had dinner together at least once a week, shared birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas together. For one of the memorial services for a soldier who was killed, one of the neighbors just could not emotionally bear to attend another service, but she volunteered to collect everyone's kids after school and watch them and then have dinner waiting for us when we got home. There is no way that I could have made it through 15 months of John away without my neighbors, my battle buddies.
Probably the lowest point of the deployment for me was when, a week before school started after summer vacation, I had to tell our youngest daughter that her best friend's father had been killed and that the friend might not be returning to school. Somehow I had to convince Becky that even though her friend had lost her daddy and that John was at the same place the friend's dad had been, John was fine and would continue to be fine. How do you tell an 11-year-old that?
The girls have never had an opportunity not to be involved with service. They were born into it—literally, since they were born in army hospitals. Their father is in the army, their mother a teacher. They have learned about citizenship and what it means to serve others and their country their whole lives. Even on an army base, when you go to see a movie, they play the national anthem before the previews. During the deployment, we read the book about "Molly," one of the American Girl Dolls that was set during WWII. In the story, Molly's dad is an army doctor overseas, but Molly keeps busy knitting socks for soldiers, collecting cans, planting victory gardens, etc. As we read it together, the girls asked me why it is so different now (in 2006), why only army kids feel the war and are doing things, why doesn't everyone know there is a war? I didn't really have a good answer for them.
I think now they both realize that there are ways outside of the military to serve others. Becky is always volunteering herself (and John) to help our local environment by clearing weeds from parks, planting new trees, picking up trash along the riverbank. Amanda likes to volunteer at homeless shelters; this year, she also worked with a club that sponsors girls in other countries so that they can attend secondary school. Amanda plans to do City Year after college and Becky told me she wants to get a degree in math from MIT and then do Teach for America. Both have big personal hopes and dreams, but both continue to think of ways to incorporate service into their lives.
Traci's description of her life as part of a military family contains a vision of an America where people support each other, look after each other, and have a deep commitment to service, Big Citizenship, and to the best of our ideals. I have seen this America not only in the military but over and over through my work in the service and social entrepreneurship movements. And we all recognize this America in the way the country responds in times of crisis or natural disaster—after 9/11, and after the disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We saw it after the terrible Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, when Americans opened their hearts and their wallets once again, and reached out literally half a world away to help those in need. It was evident in the reaction to the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The first response of the Big Citizen is not simply to take care of ourselves, but always to reach out to a neighbor in need. We rally around. We support each other. We gather together around our common purpose. Traci Tien's America demonstrates that when community is strong anything is possible. All obstacles can be overcome. All challenges can be met. Traci Tien's America is the America we love. It need not be limited to military bases; in fact, it's vital that it isn't.
I felt that same sense of community at Judy Cockerton's Treehouse Foundation in Easthampton. Judy was running two successful children's toy stores in Brookline, Massachusetts called No Kidding! One day, reading the newspaper, she was struck by an article about a five-month-old foster baby who had been kidnapped from the crib. Then and there, she decided to become a foster parent. But she didn't stop there. She studied the foster care system and realized it was flawed: foster children who "age out" of the system at eighteen are much more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, struggle in poverty, and become homeless.
So Judy sold her stores, moved to Easthampton and established the Treehouse Foundation, which is a residential and intergenerational community that offers a comprehensive approach to meet the needs of foster children. As part of Treehouse, Judy provides affordable housing for foster families who adopt, and also for "elders" who want to be surrogate grandparents. It is a win-win for everyone. What makes it all work is an entrepreneurial approach and the willingness of citizens to serve others. Judy soon recognized that the foster care system relied too heavily on an "all-or-nothing" approach. Essentially people could either choose to be foster or adoptive parents, or not be involved. She realized that others would want to help, but may not be able to make such a tremendous commitment. So Treehouse has a variety of ways people can support it, from volunteering in the afterschool program or community garden, to serving as a mentor for a child, to joining community activities and holiday celebrations, to making a donation. Treehouse, a not-for-profit organization, is a creative public-private partnership. She has partnered with a private real estate company, Beacon Communities, LLC, to develop and manage her property, and with Berkshire Children and Families to provide ongoing programming. Treehouse is funded through a combination of state and federal tax credits and grants and private philanthropy.
In addition to Treehouse, Judy has founded two other nonprofits. Sibling Connections helps to maintain contact among siblings who have moved into separate homes. And through Imagine That!, Judy is working to replicate her model and advocate for a change in government policies to make the foster care system more effective. Asked in an interview what motivated her, Judy, who has an optimistic and can do spirit backed by steely determination, responded:
"What struck me was the disconnect between the general public—you, me, everyone—and the 800,000 children in foster care. It was like they were invisible, they became members of a stigmatized club, with no intention or desire to be members of this club. I started Treehouse in 2002 because I wanted every child in the Foster Care system to be treated with respect and dignity. When I have a quiet moment, I ask, what else can I do to support children and how can I get more people involved? Getting the country to turn around and embrace children, that's the real challenge. I'm pouring my heart and soul into making that happen. And I believe we can succeed. I believe Treehouse can make that happen. I do believe that."
When you visit Treehouse, you believe, too. You see elders who have found a new sense of purpose and belonging; new adoptive parents who have found a supportive community; and children who have recaptured a sense of joy, hope, and possibility.
Throughout my nearly twenty-five years as a civic entrepreneur, I have witnessed over and over the power of belief backed up by a hard-nosed, entrepreneurial pragmatic idealism. I have been privileged to be part of many efforts for progress. What usually begins as the seemingly impossible turns out to be a reality, with the common thread for success being Big Citizens working together in pursuit of Common Purpose. And more often than not, especially at the beginning, these Big Citizens are not household names. They are not the elected officials or prominent leaders. They are regular, good hearted people blessed with a loving heart and an open mind. Anyone can be a Big Citizen and join with others in common purpose. You just need to listen to that voice inside that says: "I, too, want to be part of making my neighborhood, my school, my community, my country, my world, a better place for all of us."


On Sale
Aug 31, 2010
Page Count
320 pages

Alan Khazei

About the Author

Alan Khazei is an award-winning social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life and work to strengthening American democracy through the engagement of citizens in service and public policy. He is the founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc. Prior to that he was cofounder and CEO of City Year.

Learn more about this author