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Idealism — not individualism — is the true force of change in society, said City Year co-founder and CEO Alan Khazei, who spoke Friday afternoon in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. The country’s forefathers who dumped tea into Boston Harbor, the abolitionists, the suffragists, the civil rights activists were all rugged idealists, he said.
“Some people claim that America was founded by rugged individualists,” said Khazei. “I disagree. At each key point in our history, America has been built by rugged idealists, people who came together around shared ideals and fought relentlessly to put them into practice, people who weren’t intimidated by the severity of the challenge or the scorn of the cynics.”
And, throughout history, said Khazei, young people have been the driving force for such change. Today, technological advancements — YouTube, Google, MySapce, and FaceBook — are providing unprecedented opportunity for citizen empowerment, citizen movements, and citizen-based democracies. “Citizens all over the world are seizing their power and forging the future,” he said.
City Year, a national youth service corps founded by Khazei and former college roommate Michael Brown, began in Boston in 1988 with 50 volunteers. Today City Year is a global organization with an annual budget of more than $40 million and more than 1,000 volunteers.
It is now time, said Khazei to take the “idea to scale.” Describing a “new GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century,” Khazei proposed a plan that would provide expanded opportunity for all American youth. For each year of full-time service, through either the military, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps, the country would offer support toward attending college, home ownership, or start-up costs for a business or non-profit venture.
“America would become a nation of service,” said Khazei. “At their essence, AmeriCorps and City Year, are about tapping America’s greatest natural renewable resource — rugged idealism.”
Quoting political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, Khazei told the crowd, “You must become the change you seek in the world.”
Khazei delivered the keynote speech Friday afternoon to students from across the nation participating in the school-sponsored, student-led Public Policy and Leadership Conference held each year at the Kennedy School to promote public service opportunities for college-age students.
Photo: Mike Casey