Michael Brown: You Fight for What You Think the Country Is About

A Conversation with IS’ 2015 John W. Gardner Leadership Award winner Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year.

By Claire Wellington and Blake Warenik

John Gardner said: ‘Some people strengthen the society just by being the kind of people they are.’ How would you describe ‘the kind of person you are’?

I’m a product of my family and my time. My father was always talking to me about social justice. We would sit in the synagogue together and he would point out issues of justice. For example, he brought up Abraham’s argument with God about whether or not He would destroy these communities if he could find x number of righteous men. My father would say, ‘Justice is so important, you’re even allowed to argue with God.’

My mother also was very much a go-for-it kind of person, who encouraged us to pursue our passions and ambitions. She always said her job was to give us roots, and to give us wings. I had a wonderful and fulfilling home life and that’s a big part of who I am.

Another part of it was the time I grew up in, in the 1960s and 70s, when people were taking to the streets as part of the civil rights movement, or to stop the war, and so really seeing that active citizenship is about having an opinion and taking action. Lastly, I would also say that the space program had a huge impact on me. From the time I was 7 to 9, there was an Apollo mission every few months. As a nation, you try to do big things. That’s what the moon shot was. You do big things. You’re in the streets when it matters. You fight for what you think the country is all about—that was the civil rights movement. And you’re tied to your roots and your values.

What is your vision today of a just, engaged society? Why is national service important to that vision?

My vision for a just society, which I’m sure many share, is a society that looks out for the least among us. What I’m looking for is this: what are the structural barriers that might be holding people back?

I think finding that begins with a deep sense of empathy for the people in our society and the circumstances they may be in, from an aggressively nonjudgmental point of view. And that empathy should constantly inform our own approaches both as individuals and from a public policy perspective. That way, we don’t get locked into this dogmatic thinking that can often be highly judgmental, or even prejudiced. Along with this, following it, we need real knowledge and experience of what’s really going on in society. It’s the distance between us and others that can lead to otherness, lack of understanding, and ultimately injustice. Finally, you need the courage and will, generated within society, based upon empathy and experience to move a society forward.

How do you institutionalize empathy, experience, and will? For me, that’s what national service can do. If you call on every generation to give a period of service, whether it’s in the military or in a domestic setting, you can expose Americans to each other and, especially through a domestic national service experience, to the injustices of our society and their fellow Americans. It also creates goodwill across different backgrounds among those with whom you serve, as well as those whom you serve. It creates this experience that grounds you, so that no one can be a demagogue and tell you what’s happening in America, you know what’s going on in America through your experience.

Based on that experience, it often creates the courage to speak up for those that don’t have a voice, and you get that courage through the path of service. It’s been said by others that the path of service leads from charity to justice. Whatever reason you might get on that path, whether it’s out of a charitable instinct, if you stay on a path of service, it will ultimately lead you to a path of justice. So if we’re going to have a society that constantly examines ‘what is a just society,’ we’re going to have to institutionalize a period of empathy, civic experience, and citizen will. And the way to do that is to institutionalize comprehensive national service, so that one day, the most commonly asked question for young people will be, ‘where will you do your year of service?’


I think John Gardner is part of a second set of founders, or re-founders, of the country. He was a person who looked at American democracy and helped to build a new set of civic institutions that were critical to the age that he was in and that allowed us to continue to build our democracy for the next few hundred years.

John Gardner said that ‘for citizens to participate actively in the workings of their society is not only good democratic doctrine, it is essential to the renewal of the society. Communication upward from grassroots to higher levels of decision making regenerates the society.’ How have you applied this?

I’ll get kind of academic. In law school, I was exposed to a theory called civic republicanism, small-‘r’. It means that society can really organize around the concept of a deliberative democracy where people would really come together to deliberate the common good. Not out of a sense that they’re sharing their special or only interests, but actually that they’re supposed to share what they think is the common good. The role of government is to inculcate that shared common good, as opposed to just mediate between interests. This had a very profound effect on me.

Like a lot of people, I was taught the role of government was to be an honest broker between pluralistic interests. That’s important, too, but the root of civic republicanism is an Aristotelian idea of civic virtue, saying ‘this is what society needs, not necessarily what I need.’ That can be done through a period of service that builds a deliberative democracy, where the young people that serve can deliberate with each other. We have young people who will get a two-bedroom apartment that they’ll share with five or six other people. They’re on a team of ten people. They’re on a Corps of a couple hundred. We’re a 3,000-person Corps and now a 20,000-person alumni group. That’s an ongoing conversation, a deliberation, about what society needs, not only during their year but as alumni.

A period of service in direct participation is critical to the renewal and to keeping government honest. A citizen can say, ‘you can’t say that about the schools; I was in them! I’m a citizen expert at 21 about what public education needs or what our community or our society needs!’ As those young people mature and take leadership roles within society, they will take with them the relationships they built with the people they served and those they served with, and they will take the experience, the values, and the civic virtue of looking for the common good with them.

When you say some of these concepts sound academic—and they are high concepts—how do you translate those high ideals, practically, to inspire others to action?

It gets very practical in a hurry! For example: this is the most diverse country on the planet. The vast majority of people came here from somewhere else, or they’re indigenous people. I remember in 1984, when the Olympics were in Los Angeles, the city held a parade. And in that parade, there were people from every country on the planet. Never mind that they were from the United States. They were from the city of Los Angeles alone. Maybe you could do that in other countries? I don’t know! But that says a lot about this country. And the fact that we are so diverse should be a great strength. But the irony and the sadness too often is that, even with all that diversity, you can go through life in America in a deeply segregated way. You can spend your life with people who look like you, who have the same educational class or racial background, who live in the same communities you do, go to the same schools you do, go to the same colleges—or not go at all, and go through segregated work experiences. All within this enormously diverse country.

When we started City Year—Alan Khazei, who was my college and law school roommate, and I—one of the things we thought was we really needed to unite people into teams. On a practical level, this organization is all about teams. We like to say that the difference between one and two is infinity. Two is a team. Alan and I were a team! When we started, then it became three, and four, and five. When you have teams, one day maybe you’re not up, but the other person gets you inspired, and you’re sharing energy, you’re sharing ideas. One of our key insights is that not only do Americans not experience the otherness of each other; it’s also that if you do care and want to dive in, you often feel isolated and alone in your idealism and your desire to give back, to do something. So if you give people the experience of being on a team—and everything we do at City Year is on a team—teams generate energy.

This is a real part of my leadership style and the main lessons we’ve learned: every important task must be done by a team. If you feel isolated, it’s because you feel like you’re doing this alone. It’s your teammates who build you up. The military has known this for years. People may fight in the military and put their lives on the line for many reasons, including a deep sense of patriotism, but when they’re in the battlefield, they mainly want to come through for their brothers and sisters in arms. It’s powerful, that sense of team and commitment.

At City Year, we also have this thing where we ask Corps Members to write a leadership statement about their leadership style and aspirations. Periodically we share them, and I’ll share mine with you. It says, ‘As a leader, I seek to be an instrument for positive, transformational change by sharing the idealistic vision, ideas, and energy with those around me and asking them to share the same with me.’ I want to share mine, and I want to hear theirs, and I want to grow ideas together. I want to be affirming for each other, and that’s how things happen. My ideas get changed, my energy gets re-energized, and hopefully I’m giving inspiration. Inspiration is an infinite resource. It can always be generated, and never completely dissipated. So that’s my leadership style.


The root of civic republicanism is an Aristotelian idea of civic virtue, saying ‘this is what society needs, not necessarily what I need.’

While we’re on leadership, let’s talk about John Gardner. How has John inspired or informed you? What does his legacy mean to your movement and to the charitable sector?

John Gardner has been a hero for me since I began to engage on this civic journey of mine. I started when I was 20 years old and I took a year off from college and I worked for Leon Panetta when he was a member of Congress. Through Leon, I became aware of John Gardner, reading his works on leadership and on civic renewal, and it had a big impact on me.

I like to study the founders of the country, and the founding ideals and that founding generation that Joseph Ellis writes about so powerfully. I think John Gardner is part of a second set of founders, or re-founders, of the country. He was a person who looked at American democracy and helped to build a new set of civic institutions that were critical to the age that he was in and that will allow us to continue to build our democracy for the next few hundred years. The fact that he started Common Cause, the fact that he started the White House Fellowship—as he looked at the White House and wondered why we weren’t bringing citizens into the highest levels of government—the fact that he started Independent Sector, the fact that he called for public financing of campaigns before anyone had ever heard of that concept.

Early in my career, I had a chance to meet John Gardner. People around me knew I was a fan of his. Our executive director in San Jose when we opened up there met him and helped me get a chance to have lunch with him. It was a tremendous highlight of my career and I got to thank him for his leadership, and he encouraged me in my work. I actually think that national service is a ‘Gardnerian’ institution, just by definition. To have full participation in our society of young people for year of service, that’s a Gardnerian idea, so I feel like I’m working with his ideas every day.

When I was on the board at Independent Sector, I remember a comment of his that we were all thinking on during a critical time when we were considering shrinking the size of the board, creating a more active board. I’ll recount what he said on why it’s so critical that all different people from a number of different sectors come out of our silos and work together. He said, ‘Those of us who are involved in this work, we have to put aside our own organizational interests, and we have to be a part of something larger than ourselves.’ We have to have what he called ‘obedience to the unenforceable.’ So even there, during that period of deliberation on what the IS board could look like, there were his words guiding our work. And now, in my own work, I feel like I’m helping to build a Gardnerian institution.

With regard to leadership, what advice would you give to others – particularly young leaders – based on your own experience?

My advice is to find your passion and to follow your passion. Passion is a force multiplier; when others are involved in your work, they are attracted to passion. It’s also a thing that keeps you going when there are obstacles in your path. Ultimately, try to find a cause larger than yourself. Gandhi said that you have to lose yourself to find yourself.

I’d also say that if you are passionate about something, try to become expert in it. Learn everything you can about it. You may find that there’s something that someone is already doing in this space, and you want to go join them, or it may be that you’ve learned everything you can about a subject, and you still have a different idea about it from others and you want to go on your own journey. Being an expert leads you one way or another.

Finally, I’d say that your commitment brings about the commitment of others. When you commit, people around you will commit. Until you’re committed, people are not able to follow, and to be inspired, and to do what you’re doing. So take the leap.

What would your advice be to idealistic people who are finding it difficult to find a livelihood where their passions may lie?

One good way to do it is to volunteer. After work and sleep, if you find your passion, and you can volunteer somewhere doing it, you should leap right in. If there is a chance to dive in on a volunteer basis, you will find satisfaction in that, even as you have to put bread on the table with everything else you have to do in your life. What’s more, and oftentimes I’ve seen this, is that the path of that volunteering could open up opportunities. By the very act of volunteering, you are expressing what you desire to do. And they may say to you, ‘why don’t we find a place for you? Why don’t you be here full-time?’ Things can open up. Otherwise, you’re just alone thinking, ‘I’m doing this job, but what I’d really like to be doing is something else.’ And no one knows it! Take that step. Joining the voluntary sector in some way can open up all kinds of opportunities.


On a practical level, City Year is all about teams. We like to say that the difference between one and two is infinity. Two is a team.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: IS Member, ISQ, Leadership Development, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell