Big Citizenship: Where social media meets social activism (Part 1)

Social media has powerful implications for social activism that drives positive change. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Alan Khazei, author of Big Citizenship in which he shares the lessons he learned from building City Year, a nationwide volunteer movement in which young people give a year of service in schools and classrooms around the country. Plus he shares his thoughts on the role that social media can play in driving change on the global stage.

SM: Alan, the thrust of the book is the role that citizens can play in transforming the country? Given the struggles government faces to create effective change, what role can a citizen play?

AK: I think part of the reason our government is stuck is because of the dominance of special interests. They dominate the political system. More citizen movements are necessary to overcome these special interests. I think it’s going to be up to more citizens getting involved in the political process, getting behind candidates they believe in, trying to help drive money out of politics. That’s something we saw in this last election: the extraordinary amount of money being spent. The one thing that can break open this log-jam is more citizen involvement.

SM: But why should a citizen feel like their efforts will make any difference?

AK: When I first started working on City Year it was just a small group of us who came together, then it grew and grew. What happened was we tapped into a spirit of public service out there. That’s what made City Year happen. It wasn’t because of me. It was because of people’s willingness to come together. I’ve seen the ability of citizens to come together and have an enormous impact, both on the community and the political process.

SM: Do you believe this is a function of necessary social activism or that citizens innately want to do good?

AK:  Both. I do think it’s innate. We all started in villages and tribes as social beings and were dependent on a larger community for survival, so I do believe it’s in our DNA. But I’ve also seen this power of social activism. To anyone who thinks they can’t make a difference, I say study our history. If you look at the history of America, going right back to the founding of our country, no one gave that small group of citizen soldiers a snowball’s chance to take on the greatest empire of the day and yet they succeeded. Just look at the suffragettes, and the trade unionists and the generation of the depression and WWII and the civil rights activists. Our history is actually one of citizens coming together to say “We can do better.  We can keep marching on that journey to a more perfect union.”  What’s driven big change in this country is a combination of citizen movements with visionary political leadership, but it was the citizen movements that made the visionary political leadership possible.

SM: Do you believe social media has a significant role to play in social activism?

AK:  Absolutely. I think it’s one of the most powerful breakthroughs in the past five or even ten years because it’s much easier for people to organize and share information for people to find people they want to work with. I think about my father’s country in Iran after the elections a year and a half ago. Thankfully, somebody in the State Department called Twitter and told them not to shut down, that they were the main tool which allowed people to protest. It’s an incredibly powerful tool and it’s only going to get more powerful, especially because now everyone has everything on their cell phone.

Thanks to Alan for sharing his thoughts and for the inspiration that City Year (@cityyear) provides. Do you agree that citizens around the country need to play a bigger role? What role do you see for social media?