What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
I remember going to vote with my parents as soon as they became citizens and when my mom went back to Romania during the Revolution of 1989, 60 Minutes asked her to film a piece for them. I remember at six years old, watching my mom on TV as Meredith Viera asked her if, “she felt she owed anything to the Romanian people for leaving?” My mom put her hand up, covered the camera, and said–“I did it for my children, how dare you. This interview is over.” I grew up with a deep appreciation for the democracy that my parents had fought so hard to come to and the rights, opportunities and obligations that came with it and I had a passion for sharing that appreciation with my peers.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
My first job was with Rock the Vote. I knew I wanted to work with young people and in politics so I Google searched “youth activism” (how else do Millennials find jobs?), and the first listing was Rock the Vote. I applied to be a Street Team leader and began my “career” registering voters on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, New Jersey at the MTV Beach House. I learned the voter registration wasn’t the goal, but instead a tool in the toolbox needed to be an active citizen but that experience shaped my commitment to mobilizing the Millennial Generation.
How did your goals change over time? And what is the goal today?
After the 2004 Election, the Millennial Generation lost a moment in time that should have been ours. Early the next morning, November 3rd, the AP reported that this generation had not turned out to the polls and they again began to spin the narrative of an apathetic generation. But I know that wasn’t true, I had seen the field work, learned the numbers and worked in large coalitions with amazingly talented organizers who had made youth turnout their mission. The AP later corrected their story, admitting that youth voter turnout had increased, but it was too late and four years later, we again fought the stereotypes of an apathetic generation. Which, on a side note, I hope has finally been put to bed because nothing could be further from the truth. I realized in 2004 that my energy would be best spent talking to Millennials about the reasons they should vote and how their civic participation would impact their lives beyond Election Day and that’s what I’ve had the opportunity to do for the past four and a half years at Mobilize.org.
Where did you grow up?
Maplewood, NJ. And, I will define my professional success over my lifetime by whether or not I am inducted into the Columbia High School Hall of Fame.
What College did you go too? Major/Minor?
Rutgers University, Political Science + Urban Studies
Did you have a favorite class or faculty member in school, what was memorable about it or them?
My most memorable moment at Rutgers had less to do with a class or the school, but with my decision to dedicate the rest of my life to public service. My first day of college was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
What occupation did you parents have?
My parents emigrated from Romania before I was born; in Romania my mom was a journalist for a communist newspaper (all newspapers were communist) and my dad was a professor of architecture. When they sought political asylum in the U.S., my mom cleaned houses and put herself through school and is now a psychoanalyst with her own private practice and my dad continued his work as an architect and recently retired.
What figures do you most admire, whose leadership do you follow and whom do you seek for advice?
The cliché but heartfelt answer is my mother, an amazingly strong woman who gave up all that she had for the vision and promise of our democracy and for a society, free of oppression, that her children could grow up in. In many ways, she doesn’t understand what I do and still remarks, when I receive a grant, that now I can pay for the wedding since I just received a check for $150,000. With never-ending patience, I explain fundraising ethics to her and tell her about my visits to the White House and speeches across the country. She’s content in knowing only that I do something that I couldn’t have done anywhere else but in this amazing country, and that it’s because of her struggles and sacrifices that I’m able to do it.
How is your life different now than it was before you started?
I have a job that I love and that I want to do for the rest of my life. My mom said to me once, when I was younger, that if a person has a job they love they will never work a day in their lives. I had the fortune of watching my mom do something that she loved, that she still does and I was lucky enough to find a job that made me want to wake up in the morning and not go to sleep at night.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation, and what youth-specific challenges do you face?
I am hopefully idealistic and believe that while we face a number of challenges, the diversity, size, technological savvy and collaborative spirit of my generation, the Millennial Generation, will ultimately solve some of the most pressing issues that our society is facing. It’s been amazing to watch as the definition of community is transformed and traditional barriers are broken down because of access, transparency, and technology.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell or ask him?
I would tell him that on Election Day 2008, after the results came in, my mom called me crying and said “this is why I came to America, Maya.” I’d thank him for that. Also, my grandmother, at 92 years old and an American citizen for 20 years, voted for the first time. I’d make sure he knew that too.
What was or what is your biggest challenge?
My job is to essentially cultivate leaders that are better than I am. That is a tremendous opportunity and obligation. But, I’m 27 years old, hardly as good of a leader as I can, or will be. I want to be better, so I can do better and share more.
How has technology, social media affected your work?
At times, I’m unmillennial that way–handing my BlackBerry to a program associate, because I don’t know how to make it sync or giving my Facebook password to our director of development because I don’t know how to build an event, linked to my Cause, published on our Fan Page. However, my life is shaped and directed by my use, and my peers’ usage, of technology. My BlackBerry is attached to me and I’m sure my heart rate increases in its absence. It increases access, familiarity, transparency, communication speed, and even the building of trust. I’ve attended countless events where I’ve had someone tell me that we’re friends on Facebook and they know all about Mobilize.org, or my wedding, depending on what I’m writing about that week, all before we had ever met face-to-face. I do stress, for myself and my staff, the value of maintaining interpersonal relationships, especially in the work that we do. In that way, I’m old fashioned–thank-you cards and handshakes won’t lose their place with me, but I do send myself a text message or record a voice note on my BlackBerry to remind myself to send the thank-you card.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be …
Working as a wedding planner, so I could get a discount on my wedding, which I’m planning now.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.