Earlier this month the Washington Monthly released its annual college ranking, which evaluates at American colleges and universities in part based on their commitment to service. Social entrepreneur Alan Khazei, CEO of Be the Change, Inc., an organization that works to create national coalitions of non-profits and citizens to address issues like poverty and education, is someone very committed to the idea of service.

Khazei, the co-founder of City Year, recently wrote a book, Big Citizenship. In his book he discusses his experiences with City Year, saving AmeriCorps, and creating a new national campaign to inspire and facilitate citizen involvement. He recently spoke with the College Guide about national service.

Washington Monthly: What is service?

Alan Khazei: It’s when someone decides to dedicate some of their time, energy, talent, to try to make a difference, to help other people in a hands-on, direct way. That is how I would define it.

WM: So that sort of thing is not just volunteer work, it’s also sort of a regular job one can do?

AK: It depends on the context of what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about citizen service, then you’re talking about either volunteering, or some kind of full-time effort like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps or the military, as distinguished from a service job. I would make that distinction.

WM: Are there other regular jobs you think of as service jobs?

AK: Well sure, there’s a whole bunch of them. But when people talk about citizen service or national service, they’re more talking about when people are dedicating themselves to a cause larger than their own self interest, and they’re trying to make a difference, giving to others, etc. They’re doing it as volunteers or they’re getting paid a stipend, which is less than they would normally make if they were working a regular job.

WM: To address that, one of the things you do point out is that you went to law school, so you have this sort of huge debt and you were able to take care of that through service through a particular agreement that Harvard law school had at the time.

AK: Actually I wasn’t, I actually got turned down for that program. I was hoping I would be able to qualify for this Harvard student loan forgiveness program the year I graduated. But they determined that what I was doing did not qualify for the program, which was geared more toward legal aid work. What I did was just live very cheaply, for the first few years out of law school, and paid back my loans. I was able to defer the loans for up to 9 months under the law that year because I didn’t have any income for starting City Year. We didn’t raise any money for the first 6 months, I didn’t get paid for the first 9 months. So after that I just lived fairly inexpensively and just paid it off over a seven or ten year term, I don’t remember exactly.

WM: In a greater policy sense, are there things that we should be doing to address that? Because you have to be kind of creative to figure that out.

AK: Well interestingly, five or six years later, another law student graduated from Harvard and she applied to start City Year in Columbia, SC and they qualified her for the loan forgiveness program so over time they expanded the definition. But I do think we should have more loan forgiveness programs so that people who go into public service work can help get their loans paid off. For a lot of young people, they graduate from college or from graduate school with huge debt and they feel like they don’t have any choice but to take the highest-paying job offer they can get.

I think we should bring back the GI bill but for civilian service. And what I would do is say that for each year that you do in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or another civilian service program, you would get a post-service award equivalent to one year of tuition, of books and fees at a state university.

That would be about $10,000 a year. Right now the AmeriCorps award finally was increased—it hadn’t been increased since ’94. Until the Kennedy Serve America Act it went from about $4,700 to about $5,200. It’s now on par with Pell grants. But I would make it so that for each year you serve you get a year, so essentially if you’re willing to serve for 4 years, anybody could get access to a college education at least at a state school level. I’d like to see a public policy effort whereby, if you were to serve your country and your community, you can actually get access to college.

So I would do that, I would also do more loan forgiveness programs, and I would also expand fellowship opportunities, things like the Echoing Green Foundation Fellowships. Echoing Green gives fellowships for people to be social entrepreneurs, they give two year fellowships. They had over a thousand applicants last year for just 20 fellowships. I’m sure that there were more than 20 great proposals. They just don’t have the resources to fund everybody who applies; it’s harder than getting a Rhodes Scholarship. I would expand opportunities like that to encourage more young people to be social entrepreneurs.

WM: Can you talk a little to me about how service has changed over time, what service people are more likely to do now versus how we considered service say, 50 years ago?

AK: I think there has been this significant service movement over the past 25 years, going back to George H.W. Bush when he said in his inaugural address, “any definition of a successful life must include service to others,” and then the Points of Light Foundation started giving out Daily Points of Light, and then it got a dramatic boost when Clinton came in with AmeriCorps just four years later.

If you think back to the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30s, that was all conservation work. And then the next big effort on service was JFK with the Peace Corps and that was all international. Now what’s happened—in conjunction with the rise of the nonprofit sector—we now have service work that really is involved in I think any social, domestic issue, or international issue. You’ve got people doing national service work. There are now 2,000 different AmeriCorps programs. That’s one of the beauties of AmeriCorps, it’s not a one-size-fits-all federal government program.

The Peace Corps is a great program but it is one-size-fits-all. You apply to the Peace Corps, you get selected, you serve for two years, you’re placed in a country, etc. AmeriCorps is much more decentralized, it was founded in the ‘90s, so it took advantage of the nonprofit sector and there are different opportunities. Some programs are really small, 5 -10 AmeriCorps members and others are really big like City Year and Teach for America, you know, hundreds. But you’ve got people doing work in the environment, people doing work in health care, people doing work in education and disaster response relief.

There are also growing international opportunities, some U.S. domestic programs are expanding overseas, like City Year this month is opening up in London, they opened up in South Africa seven years ago. Teach for America is expanding globally. You also have international service organizations like Red Cross or Special Olympics or Habitat for Humanity. It parallels the rise of the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit sector has doubled in the past 30 years. It’s the fastest growing sector of our economy, it’s now almost 10 percent of the economy and almost 10 percent of the workforce. There are 150 new nonprofits started every single day, so I think the birth of service programs and opportunities of where people can serve mirrors the nonprofit sector.

The other way it has changed is that it’s now really all-ages. People talk about national service…and are often focused on that critical time of youth to adulthood, 17-23 years old. But now, with the rise of the service movement, service learning has become more standard in schools, I think it should be everywhere, but that’s a growing movement. So kids as young as first graders are doing community service work in schools as public service learning all the way through high school. There is also a growing service movement for older Americans.

Organizations like Experience Corps and Civic Ventures are promoting “Encore careers” for people to do service work and become social entrepreneurs rather than retiring in a traditional way.

WM: We always include a service component in our annual college ranking. We now consider now Peace Corps participation, ROTC service, and the amount of federal work-study that goes toward service. Are there other things that are important to consider?

AK: If you’re including Peace Corps, I would include AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is now more than 10 times the size of the Peace Corps. I would include it as the number of students who have done AmeriCorps either pre- or during college. That’s another great thing about AmeriCorps, people do it during college as well part-time. If you did that you’d include Teach for America; Teach for America is part of AmeriCorps. I would look at both the numbers that participate and also the number of applicants.

One of the things I’ve been pushing is to accelerate the Kennedy Serve America Act. In 2008 we had 94,000 people apply to AmeriCorps, in 2009, 247,000 applied and I think those numbers are going to be even higher this year, so I would include the number who actually do it and the number who want to do it. Look at that.

I’d consider including Teach for America as a separate category, they had 46,000 people apply for about 4000 spots, it’s becoming I think the number one recruiter on college campuses. The other thing I would look at it is the college’s own commitment to community service. Do they have a robust community service program on campus, do they have service learning, and do they give course credit? Because it’s one thing to have the programs, it’s another thing to give course credit and actually put the service work in a larger context of societal issues. I’d consider looking at that. I’d look at the number of students who actually do service work on campus, who do community service, volunteer, and participate in programs. Hopefully more and more schools will make a serious commitment to it.

WM: Are there any schools that you can think of that do a particularly great job with service?

AK: There are a lot of them. I know two best. I went to Harvard which has a great community service commitment. It goes back a hundred years through the Phillips Brooks House Association. And they also, several years ago, established an assistant dean position for public service which I think is another great example of their commitment.

Tufts, where my wife went to school, has also just done groundbreaking work. They have a whole college now at Tufts, the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. [Loews Hotels Chairman] Jonathan Tisch endowed this college, which includes a whole variety of programs, loan forgiveness programs, special scholarships, and dedicated coursework.

The other thing that Tufts has done which I think is breakthrough is that if you do a certain amount of service and coursework through the Tisch School, they actually add that to your degree. It’s like graduating with honors, only it’s graduating with honors through commitment to citizenship and service, which I think is wonderful. I’d love to see every school do that. Notre Dame has a great program, a lot of Jesuit schools have great community service programs. Brown University, through the Swearer Center for Public Service, has a great program. So there are a number. You know Campus Contact, which is a coalition of hundreds of university presidents, who are committed to community service, started years ago, again as part of this growing movement. So there are a lot of really great schools promoting service on campus.
WM: You’ve said before that service was sort of an alternative to the old debate of big government versus small government. Can you explain what you mean by that?

AK: I think we need a fundamentally new approach to how we solve problems. We’re watching another election season and we’ve been stuck in this tired debate between big government’s the answer on one side, and government’s the problem on the other side. We keep going back between FDR and Reagan for years and years. I mean even after Obama was elected, the fallback position in Congress for most Democrats seemed to be “we need a new New Deal to solve the economic crisis.” And the Republicans said “no we just need to go back to Reagan and cut taxes and scale back government.” And I think that’s a simplistic debate. I try to offer something new, which I call “big citizenship” which has several key tenets. First, we need to reengage and look to citizens to help solve our problems. I think we should get AmeriCorps to a million people a year, not just 250,000, because then you’d unleash each generation’s energy.

But in addition to that, I think we need to push and encourage more of our citizens to get involved in politics…we barely have half the country voting in Presidential elections and only about a third will vote in this election coming up. So get them to vote, but also get them involved in politics, join campaigns. There are 500,000 elected positions in America, everything from school committee to town council, city council to state rep, state Senate, library commission, etc. Many of those run unopposed, especially at the local level. I’d love to see more people competing for those offices. And then also citizens joining together in movements. If you study the history of this country, great breakthroughs happen through a combination of citizen movements and visionary political leadership. Whether you look at the very founding of the country, with the citizen soldiers or the abolitionists or the suffragists or the trade unionists or the greatest generation or the civil rights activists. We need more citizen movements and energy I think to break the logjam of special interests that dominate our politics.

And—again this goes to citizen energy—I think we need to look to innovators and entrepreneurs who throughout our history in both the private and public sectors that have come up with the new ideas and the new solutions. I think we need to have a system that encourages that in the private and public spheres. It’s part of our history on the private and public sector side. It’s the clean energy entrepreneurs for example who are finally going to get us off Mideast fossil fuels. Similarly it is leading social entrepreneurs and organizations that are driving education reform through groups like the KIPP Schools, New Leaders for New Schools, Teach For America, Mass 2020 and many others. I think we need to look to innovators and entrepreneurs to make sure we have a system that identifies those innovations and scales them up.

WM: What needs to change to make that happen?

AK: The role of government has to change. I’m not an anti-government person, but I’m also not a government-can-solve-everything person. I think we need a different kind of 21st century government that is more catalytic, more transparent by using the Internet and other opportunities, more accountable, a government that helps to set the rules of the game. It is through government that we express our collective will as a democracy. So, we need an active government that sets the rules of the game, ensures a fair playing field but also that rewards results, that scales things up that work and is willing to shut things down that don’t.

The Race to the Top education fund is a great example of what I’m talking about. We have a 4.3 billion dollar fund, and before a dollar is even given out, 30 states changed their laws just so they can apply. And again, it’s not the federal government telling you “you must do this,” on the one hand, and on the other hand it’s not the federal government saying “we’re hands off, we’re not going to be involved in education.” It’s the federal government saying “if you will push some reform items, accountability, etc., then you can apply for this pool of funding. I think it’s government as catalyst, as well as helping to reward results.

I also think we need more public-private partnerships. We can’t just look to government to solve problems and we can’t leave it up to the market alone either, that’s not going to work. I think increasingly, 21st century solutions are going to involve innovative and creative partnerships that involve all three sectors working together, each doing what it does best. We built City Year, for example, as a public-private partnership, I think that’s part of the key to its success and why it’s been able to grow and it’s sustainable now for more than 20 years.

And then finally, in terms of what I am calling “big citizenship,” I think we need to replace what’s been the perennial question at election time since 1980 — “are you better off?” – with what I think needs to be the right question — “are we better off?” Our Constitution doesn’t begin with the words, “I, a member of the United States…in order to get more for me.” It begins with three simple, beautiful, powerful words, “We the people…in order to form a more perfect union.” It was all about helping to give birth to a new nation of liberty and justice. I think we need to recapture that spirit, and recapture the sense of we’re all in this together. It’s not just about service, that’s a cornerstone, expanding national service so it becomes more comprehensive. I feel that now as we enter this election season, we’re stuck in this sort of simplistic and tired debate, which I think people understand is too simplistic. That’s part of the reaction we’re getting to politics now. [Image courtesy Be the Change, Inc.]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer