THE BLOG
09/29/2016 06:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power of Opportunity: An Interview with Alan Khazei

The first time I met Alan Khazei, founder and chief executive officer of Be the Change, Inc. and co-founder of City Year, I knew he was a unique and imaginative leader who has boldly championed the power of positive change and the importance of creating opportunities for economic and social advancement.

Over the last seven years I've had the chance to learn more about Alan through our shared interest in community, and I've continued to be inspired by his unwavering commitment to bettering the world, whether through programs for national service or policies to address poverty and youth unemployment.

Following the National Opportunity Summit on September 10, I had a chance to sit down with Alan to talk about an issue we're both passionate about: youth employment.

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Image: Alan Khazei at the 2016 Opportunity Summit; Photo by WEPS, courtesy of Opportunity Nation.

How did you get involved in issues like economic mobility and unemployment? What motivated you?

I'm a son of immigrants and the product of the American Dream. My Dad was from Iran. He left a country of dictatorship for America, a country of freedom and democracy, and became a doctor. My Mom was Italian and a nurse, and my grandfather was from Naples. He settled in Western Pennsylvania and was a shoemaker, and ran a small corner store. When Mom was growing up, Kittanning, Pennsylvania was a thriving middle class town but once the coal mines, steel plants and other factories closed, it went into an economic tailspin and still hasn't recovered. I've seen the impact of a loss of economic mobility.

My parents made big sacrifices so I could get an excellent education and taught me that you could be anything in America if you work hard and believe in yourself and our country. But, that isn't true for so many young people today.

I first went into the national service movement and co-founded and led City Year, an AmeriCorps program. All of our work was in low-income communities, so I saw first-hand how the challenge of poverty, unemployment and lack of economic mobility harmed people and communities.

What is the most urgent issue facing youth who live in low-income communities today?

One in three Americans live in poverty or on the economic brink, and half will experience at least one year of poverty or be close to it during their working years. For the first time in 50 years, a majority of public school children in America live in poverty and face a future that lacks economic mobility. That needs to be a wake-up call. The American dream has become a dream deferred for far too many.

What I've learned from our work is that it isn't just one issue. To tackle the challenge of poverty takes a comprehensive approach that includes education, health, safety, housing, service, and jobs.

Opportunity Nation, a campaign of Be The Change, Inc., has been tracking this issue with the Opportunity Index, a tool that measures 16 key factors that influence economic and social mobility, and serves as a roadmap for what states and communities can do to advance opportunity.

As citizens across the country prepare to decide our next chapter in November, closing the opportunity gap and expanding economic mobility should be at the center of our debates. Opportunity Nation recently released a policy plan with more than 120 other organizations that highlights the barriers to fulfilling the American Dream and posits six bold goals to boost opportunity for children, youth, and families.

When you talk about "Opportunity Youth," what does that phrase mean and what role do employers play?

Today, young Americans (ages 16-24) are experiencing unacceptably high unemployment rates -- five and a half million young Americans are neither working nor in school. These "Opportunity Youth" are most in need of opportunities for meaningful pathways to education and careers. They represent tremendous potential and talent for our communities, economy, and society.

Employers play an essential role of being able to hire, train and develop Opportunity Youth. A job with meaningful opportunities for advancement is still the best social program there is. Thankfully, there is strong energy in the private sector to engage and employ young people. Through apprenticeships, internships, and jobs, Opportunity Youth can work while also earning valuable skills and credentials. We talk more about this in "Retail's Opportunity: Exploring the Industry's Impact on People and Places," which shows how one sector is creating opportunity through its employment practices.

All employers need to work in partnership with the public and nonprofit sectors to develop strategies to ensure all young Americans are thriving in their jobs, schools, and communities.

You and your wife, Vanessa Kirsch, are both active in public and civic service while also busy raising two children. How does your role as parents inspire the work you both do?

Our children are the greatest blessings in our lives. Because we both work, we have the resources to provide our children with all of the opportunities they need to thrive while also balancing work and family time. It is a constant juggle. We are very aware that too many families and children do not have those same opportunities.

Once we became parents, our work took on even more meaning. We began directly experiencing all that children need in order to reach their potential. We have spent much of our professional lives working with young people and know firsthand that every single child has the potential to soar if they are given the love and support they need. We want our children to grow up in a community -- and a country -- where every child is recognized as a blessing and gets the love and opportunities they need and deserve.

As you think about the future of youth in America, what is your hope?

I hope we will listen to them and empower them! I am so inspired by the millennial generation and those coming after them. They give me so much hope. I wish they were in charge now. They are the most serving generation since the "greatest generation" of World War II, and yet we still are not providing every young person who wants to do a service year with the chance to do so. They are incredible social entrepreneurs and change agents who are tackling our most pressing issues from climate change, to education, to poverty, to advancing LGBTQ rights, civil rights and human rights. They are mastering new technologies and deploying them for new movements and efforts to make meaningful change at the local, national and global levels.

We need to provide young people with the opportunities they need and also challenge them to use their talents, idealism, passion and energy to make a difference whether they join the private sector, public sector or nonprofit sector. We need to recognize that our young people are not our "future leaders" but rather can be leaders today if we challenge them and support them in doing so.