‘Action Tanks’ needed to bridge public policy and service, says City Year co-founder

Alan Khazei and Alex S. Jones

Alan Khazei and Alex S. Jones.

April 16, 2013 – After Monday’s tragic events at the Boston Marathon, the Kennedy School’s annual Public Service Week began on a somber note. Yet as the Shorenstein Center welcomed Alan Khazei, founder and chief executive officer of Be the Change, Inc., co-founder of City Year and HKS adjunct lecturer, the focus on service and policy seemed timely. Shorenstein Center Director Alex S. Jones introduced Khazei as a “genuine catalyst for positive change, and an inspiring leader of the effort to create social entrepreneurial ventures that benefit the common good.”

Reflecting on the recent tragedy, Khazei noted that in spite of the horrific events, “we also saw the best of America.” In the stories of first responders who rushed toward the scene to help others, the nurses and doctors who worked tirelessly, the people who opened their homes and donated blood – “the innate spirit of people comes through…and takes over.” When tragedy strikes, people want to take action, and “we have to recognize that spirit,” Khazei said.

City Year was founded out of the idea of an “action tank,” Khazei explained, a way to combine public policy with public service. Along with his friend Michael Brown, Khazei developed a theory that plenty of research had been done in think tanks about national service, but had never been tested. There were also programs emerging with a focus on service, but with no government support. Khazei and Brown then decided to start an action tank to “demonstrate the theory by developing a model that could test the theory, and put it into action.” They found support from the private sector, and worked with schools to give young people opportunities to serve.

Khazei said that while many organizations focus on direct service, they “don’t think about the larger impact.” His goal is to bring about a “commitment to national service,” so that one day a typical question asked of an 18-year-old is, “Where are you going to serve?”

While Khazei acknowledged the benefits of short-term volunteering, he said he is “an even bigger believer in national service.” A year of full-time service “turns on your justice nerves…and it’s hard to turn it off.” There is a spirit of public service among Americans, Khazei said, and “if we’re willing to tap into it and respond to it and encourage it, we can make our big dreams real…and reach the potential that is inherent in our community and in our country.”

Article and photo by Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center.