Two Bright Guys, One Vision
On a hot July night in 1969, 8-year-old Michael Brown was awakened by his parents and led sleepy-eyed in front of the television. Sitting in their pajamas, he and his four brothers and sisters watched as men walked on the moon for the first time. Other nights, Brown watched his favorite show, Star Trek, with the Russian, Chinese-American, Vulcan, and African-American crew all working together on the Starship Enterprise. "I really associated with the idealism and everything that was happening in the '60s," he recalls.
About an hour from Brown's home in Boston, Alan Khazei was in the same grade. His mother was a nurse, his father a surgeon who told stories about his native Iran but imbued his son with a fierce love for his adopted country. The boys, from middle-class homes, finally met when they were assigned the same dorm room as freshmen at Harvard. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship and a powerful partnership. "When people ask us for advice about how to found an organization, we always tell them the same thing,'' Khazei says. "First, find a partner. Then you immediately have a team."
Today, Brown and Khazei are leading social entrepreneurs. Their creation, City Year, is a national-service program enlisting youths between 17 and 24 to commit to a year of work helping their communities. With more than 1,000 members serving in 15 U.S. cities and in South Africa, City Year has outpaced even Khazei's and Brown's brash dreams for it. "We just said we're going to change the world," Khazei recalls, "and, damn it, people should just help us."
Tall, dark, and intense, Khazei says City Year looks for leaders in unlikely places, among "young people who might otherwise be dismissed." Smart and self-deprecating, Brown has incorporated leadership lessons from the military, business, and education. But the key to developing leaders among City Year volunteers, he says, is to give them opportunity-then get out of the way.
Brown and Khazei live by example. Brown is married to a doctor who treats kids with AIDS. Khazei's wife has established three philanthropic organizations. "They live and breathe this job," says 27-year-old Andrea Eaton, director of special projects who came to City Year three years ago after hearing Brown speak at Cornell University. "I don't think leaders are born," says Khazei. "Our belief is that anybody can be a leader. It's a skill set that people can learn and develop."
Brown and Khazei draw inspiration from Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi for the leadership skills they've taught the 9,500 current and former members of City Year. Brown first encountered the concept of national service when he took a year off from college to work for then Rep. Leon Panetta, the California Democrat who would go on to become President Clinton's chief of staff. Just 20, he saw how volunteering could "turn young people into active citizens." After graduation, Brown went to New York to work for the City Volunteer Corps founded by Mayor Ed Koch.
Khazei put off law school to work on Sen. Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign because the Colorado Democrat was the only candidate to name national service a priority for the White House.
Joining the circus. At Harvard Law, Brown and Khazei continued to think about national service, but opportunity beckoned. Brown was awarded a prestigious clerkship with a federal judge but eventually turned it down. "It was almost like I had a foot on two different boards: One foot was my passion for the national service idea, and the other foot was on the board for a more traditional career with the usual notions of success. I realized I had to find the courage to jump from one to the other," he says. "Starting City Year was a little bit like running off to join the circus."
The judge for whom Brown clerked, Stephen Breyer, would go on to become a Supreme Court justice. He and Brown remain friends, and when City Year held its annual conference in Washington, D.C., almost 15 years after Brown gave up the clerkship, Breyer invited the volunteers into his Supreme Court chambers and later, in Boston, administered their oath of service.
Brown and Khazei have remained best friends for the 27 years they have known each other. They have weathered professional and personal crises together, consult with each other on virtually everything, and all but finish each other's sentences.
Compromise. Events have, at times, illuminated some differences between the two partners, however. When Hurricane Katrina hit last year, Brown called Khazei at midnight, telling him he wanted to send the entire 1,000-member City Year corps to Louisiana and Mississippi to help, calling the disaster "the moral challenge of our generation." But Khazei was reluctant to send everyone, citing commitments to other communities. The two stayed on the phone until 3 a.m., arguing back and forth before finally finding a compromise: creating a 16th City Year program, in Louisiana, within 90 days of the disaster-a process that usually takes two years. The new program was up and running three months later.
Khazei has just left City Year to work on a book about national service and is serving as a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics at Harvard. Brown is staying with City Year. Both have high hopes for its future. "We never wanted this to be about us," says Khazei. "We're frankly more ambitious than that-we wanted to build an institution that lasts way beyond us."
Bill Shore, the founder of the Share Our Strength organization and a member of the board of City Year, says Brown and Khazei have had a profound effect on public policy as a result of their "authentic belief in the power of ideas in the hands of young idealists," adding: "They have been more purposeful about codifying and institutionalizing what works than any other nonprofit leaders I know."
Someone who knows that lesson well is Stephen Spaloss. Now 37 and the director of the office of site leadership at City Year, he first heard of the organization when he was 21-and a wise judge allowed him to spend a year in Brown and Khazei's volunteer program instead of two years in jail for a serious crime. Spaloss quickly adopted the life of hard work and dedication that Brown and Khazei set as a standard, and he came to embrace its ethos as fervently as its two founders. A father, trusted employee, and respected leader in his own right, Spaloss credits Khazei and Brown with turning his life around. "Alan and Michael are the truest kind of leaders," he says. "They backed what they said-that 17-to-24-year-olds can change the world."
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.