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The Political Aspirations Of A Social Entrepreneur 02:14

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Alan Khazei began shifting his vision from non-profit work to the political arena two years ago when he resigned as head of City Year, an organization that pays a modest stipend to young people to work full-time in under-served schools as tutors and mentors. He co-founded it a year out of Harvard Law School in 1988.

Now Khazei is trying to turn his community organizing experience into a political asset.

Alan Khazei announced his candidacy for U.S. senator on the Boston Common, Sept. 24. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Alan Khazei announced his candidacy for U.S. senator on the Boston Common, Sept. 24. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

"Some pundits will say I’m a good guy who’s done a good thing, but I don’t have a chance, because I don't have political experience," Khazei said in a speech announcing his candidacy, Sept. 24, on the Boston Common. "And in one way they will be right."

"I don’t have any experience in running up trillions of dollars of debt," Khazei went on. "They will say that I start behind in the money race, the horse race, the name ID race and the ad wars — but that will all change very quickly because of you."

Khazei's line is that he started City Year with no money. He taught himself to mobilize large groups of volunteers and convinced corporations to sponsor City Year. Today the organization is also funded by the federal government and donations.

This ability to pull together different constituencies has prepared him to run for office, said his long-time mentor Hubie Jones. Jones is dean emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work, and he met Khazei 22 years ago.

"He has always demonstrated an ability to move across the political spectrum," Jones said. "It’s about the interest he’s pursuing. It’s about the vision he wants to make happen. And he has this ability to engage people at all places in the society. It is truly amazing."

Shifting From Non-Profit To Public Office

"People who have started foundations and seek to serve the public, I think, make very strong candidates," said Jennifer Duffy, who is following the race as the senior editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington. "One, to make their group go they had to be the front person, to convince a whole lot of people — whether it be investors or the people they serve — that they are capable and competent and can  run this organization."

But, Duffy added, because so few non-profit leaders run for office, it is difficult to predict how applicable Khazei's experience will be in Congress. It is that lack of an obvious path that makes him vulnerable. But Khazei's supporters see his run for Senate as the obvious next step as a social entrepreneur.

City Year board member Billy Shore said Khazei wants a bigger stage. "You can innovate, as he's done. You can be entrepreneurial as he’s done. You can be closer to the people that you serve," Shore said. "But that when it comes to taking those ideas and scaling them up, then you need public will, then you need public purse strings, then you need the support of the government. So I think it’s the natural evolution of everything he’s done as a social entrepreneur."

From The Wings To Center Stage

Khazei began that evolution two years ago when he started Be The Change, Inc. — a political organization that mobilizes people on behalf of legislation and changes in public policy. It has put Khazei behind the scenes in Washington. Now he is front and center in his own campaign for the Senate.

It is a shift for a man who has always focused on helping other people, something Khazei says he learned from his father, who emigrated to America from Iran in the 1950s.

"He taught me that America is the greatest country in the world, because of our ideals," Khazei said. "And that you can be anything in America if you're honest, get a good education and work hard to achieve your dreams."

Now Alan Khazei is focusing on his dream — becoming a U.S. senator. Khazei said he is running to have a larger platform and support his vision of expanded community involvement, but first he's got to convince the community that he's the man for the job.

This program aired on October 7, 2009.

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