In 2004, Matthew Segal, a student at Ohio’s Kenyon College, was frustrated when he saw his peers trying to cast their ballots, and being turned away or forced to wait on long lines. Matt became a youth vote activist, eventually founding his own organization, SAVE (the Student Association for Voter Empowerment). He became one of the youngest regular visitors to Capitol Hill offices, lobbying on behalf of his generation. Matt ushered several pieces of election reform legislation through Congress, and testified before Congressional committees several times. In July 2009, Matt and SAVE co-convened the 80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs summit, bringing together a dedicated group of young people together in Washington with political leaders including then House Majority leader Steny Hoyer and Former Senator Tom Daschle, to take action to improve the economic reality for young people. Now, at age 25, Matt has transformed SAVE into OUR TIME, with the goal of bringing economic power to his generation, in the midst of the recession and beyond. Matt spoke to Fast Company exclusively, for the first time since launching OUR TIME, about the new organization, why he shifted focus, and explains why Bob Dylan is one of the leaders he most admires.
What’s your big idea?
I am in the midst of building an organization called OUR TIME, which will encourage young Americans to become drivers of the economy. We are leveraging pop culture, business partnerships, and online organizing to change corporate practices, create special products, and spark national conversation.
What was the inspiration behind OUR TIME?
Having been the only young person at the table in numerous beltway policy conversations (not by my choice!), I have personally witnessed how commonly resources are spent on older generations who bind together for a louder voice. I realized that we can do the same, but use the strength to institutionalize long-term thinking and economic sustainability.
What problem did you first try to address?
After being a part of the 2004 election in Ohio where my college experienced 12 hour long lines to vote, I recognized the problem of young voter disenfranchisement. I subsequently founded an organization in college called SAVE–the Student Association for Voter Empowerment–which promoted civic education and ballot access. SAVE expanded into 40 college campuses and over 10,000 members and its network is now merged with OUR TIME.
How did your goals change?
I realized that civic participation cannot only be built around an Election Day but that it needs to be a year-round process. I also recognized that young Americans have unbelievable consumer power, which can be translated into economic power to end the recession. Because voting demographics with greater economic resources have better representation, our focus should be on engaging young Americans around their wallets in addition to ballots.
What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
After being denied a hearing on student voting rights by the chairmen of numerous congressional committees, I decided to hold my own. I rented a room on Capitol Hill, gathered witnesses, hired a stenographer to transcribe testimony, and put together a committee of civil rights leaders. After the hearing was recorded and sent to various congressional offices, we finally got an official one. That’s when I realized that citizens have power.
Where did you grow up?
What do your parents do?
Mom works in advertising, Dad works as a stock trader.
Where did you go to school, what did you study?
Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. I majored in sociology.
What’s your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
My favorite teacher ever was named Ms. Kelly and she taught me English in high school. She was a much older teacher–probably in her eighties at the time–and had a soft-spoken presentation in class but a tyrannical pen when it came to grading. She pushed me to write, speak, and think with clarity and passion.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow?
Whom do you seek out for advice?
Jeri Thomson and Bob Dylan. Jeri Thomson is the former secretary of the U.S. Senate and is currently the chair of the board of OUR TIME. Jeri was responsible for making the trains run on time every day in the Senate (even during 9/11 and the anthrax scare), and she is admired and respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. Jeri is more passionate about civic education than anyone I’ve ever met, and has been an invaluable advisor to me for the last several years. Jeri always says: “Never the time to do it right, but always the time to do it over!”
I admire Bob Dylan because he had the courage to ask the questions that every young American was thinking at the time, but nobody was publicly saying. From what I understand, Bob Dylan never wanted to become a spokesman for a generation, but the sheer tenacity of his songs cast him as one.
How is your life different now than it was before OUR TIME?
I used to be a decent golfer.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
I am excited by the fact that we are willing to make sacrifices. It demonstrates that we are not a self-interested constituency who will perpetuate short-term thinking over long-term gain.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
I would tell him to make better use of the young Americans who elected him and ask them to do more than knock on doors, make phone calls, or donate money during Election seasons. He should tap them for their ideas, input and perspective.
How has technology and social media affected your work?
Technology and social media are in the DNA of my generation; they have become so ingrained that we can barely imagine life without it. Technology has affected my work in every way possible, but above all, it saves us thousands of dollars on postage!
What’s your biggest challenge?
Grabbing the attention of my peers. There is so much going on– endless media and advertising bombardment all competing for a limited amount of time– you’ve got to be a quick and savvy competitor or else you lose.
What assets or challenges do you have or face because you’re young?
The tenacity to believe I can do nearly anything is an asset. But, the dismissal of my opinion and ideas because I look young is a challenge.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
Youth unemployment would be dramatically lower; the debt would be significantly reduced, and most congressional offices and fortune 500 companies would be run by people under 40.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be …
Working on my golf game.
Follow OUR TIME and their work @ourtimeorg.
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.