Millennials are endlessly scoffed at for our alleged apathy: they say we care more about pop than politics, and they scrutinize us for not protesting the way our parent's generaiton did. I say, we do care and we do protest, but we do it in a way that is all our own. We might not often take to the National Mall with signs, banners, and political songs, but we've created a way to share our voice and our opinions, and we're continuing to define our world the way we want it.
One such millennial is 24-year-old David Burstein. Burstein is the founder of Generation 18 and the director of the new documentary Up to Us which recounts the challenges facing young people in America today. With the film, Burstein does what our generation does best; shares a perspective and gives voice to the political issues facing millennials today. In the uniquely millennial way, Burstein's films speaks directly to us, and not at us.
I spoke with Bustein about the film, Our Time's one million jobs campaign, our generation's commitment to service, and why it is imperative that each and every one of us goes to vote. Before you read the interview, be sure to check out the film, Up To Us:
Elena Sheppard (ES): How did Up To Us come about, and what was your role in the process?
David Burstein (DB): In the last election cycle I made a documentary film called 18 in ’08, about the importance of young people voting in 2008. Subsequently out of that film came an organization I started called Generation 18. With Generation 18 we took the film around the country, did voter registration, registered 25,000 new voters, and did a thousand screenings of the film all over the country. Obviously, the 2008 election cycle was an incredibly exciting time for young voters and then I was thinking about what to do for this election cycle, thinking about … How do we reflect where young people are at right now? And what the mood is? Because it’s different than it was in 2008.
Part of what I thought was really good about the film that we did in 2008 was that it started from a place of legitimizing young people’s concern and frustration with the political process – feeling like their vote doesn’t really count, feeling like special interests are allied against them – and we spent a good portion of the film addressing that concern. We met people where they were before we got to all the reasons why they should vote – and I think that young people appreciated that. Because if you just blow past all the concerns and the cynicism, and you just say, “everybody should go out and vote,” it misses a lot of people.
We discovered that the way to meet people where they were this time, was really around the issue of unemployment; it’s a crisis that is particularly facing this generation. So we went out and we found two young people who had been impacted by the economic crisis: one of whom is working in AmeriCorps and the other who is underemployed after getting an MPA and is working as a part-time staff person in local government in Long Island. We used them to tell the story of the incredible idealism, and power, and promise, of people in this generation, and how it’s not being utilized. And how even though these people are frustrated, they’re excited about participating in voting anyway.
ES: Can you tell me a little bit about Generation 18?
DB: Generation 18 is an organization that I started in the last election cycle ... at first I thought, oh I’ll make a documentary and go around, maybe show it at a couple of places. When I started showing the documentary people were just getting all these ideas, and wanted to screen it, and I saw that it could really be something more.
The idea is, young people respond best to other young people asking them and encouraging them to vote. The whole concept is about let’s do this on a peer-to-peer level, let’s not have someone in their thirties or forties going around telling younger people, “you have to vote, shame on you.”
And that’s what we’ve tried to do: use film as a powerful medium, and use peer-to-peer communication about politics to get young people engaged in the election. I’ll also say, the reason that we work in film is because there’s a tremendous power in visual story-telling to communicate a message. If you go to a rally, or you hear a speaker, or you go to a panel discussion, it’s not visual story telling, it’s a way of communicating a message and explaining things, but when you put a film together there’s really a tremendous amount of power because people can see it, they can understand it, you can control the narrative, you can weave together a story that excites people, and also you can spread it. If you went to hear someone speak and I wasn’t there, then I wasn’t there. With a film if one person sees it, they can then go and share it with 100,000 people. The multiplier effect is really powerful and works in a way that other mediums don’t. I think that’s why you see more and more political filmmaking going on in the last few years.
ES: Have there been any short films, or documentary films, or feature length films that you think have done a stellar job at putting their finger on the pulse of what’s going on right now in American politics?
DB: There haven’t been a ton that have been specifically focused on this election that I’ve seen. There is one that I thought was quite good; a film called Follow the Leader. Which is about three young conservative guys and their coming of age in the new political world. I think it’s an interesting look at the ways that people mature politically and the way we train young people to think about politics and what’s possible, and what’s not possible.
ES: How do you think the service message in your film plays out across our generation? I tend to feel like people our age are solely invested in making money, but this film made me a little more hopeful.
DB: Part of the goal of the film is to get people to rally behind this campaign for one million new service jobs. The reason for pushing that idea is that these are jobs that people in this generation want to do and find fulfilling and exciting. And they’re also jobs that solve critical problems in our country. They’re jobs that help improve our education system (with organizations like City Year and Teach for America) and have a remarkable impact on the way that young people in underperforming school districts can learn. You’re providing those services – to places that don’t have money – at a huge discount. I mean, paying someone in AmeriCorp $30,000 a year to participate in a service program is huge bang for your bank in terms of what’d you’d actually have to spend to improve that school in terms of bureaucracy and how many hands that money would have to pass through. It’s huge value.
From a generational perspective I think that this is sort of the ethos of our generation. There’s a sense that there’s some kind of responsibility to serve, and I think that where sometimes it’s confusing is that service looks different to every person. For some people it means formally participating in a service program, for other people it means starting a business that has a positive impact. And I think for the first time people can do good and do well. They can make money and have a positive social impact …
ES: One of the quotes from the film that stuck with me, and resonates with me, is “we don’t have faith in the system, but we have faith in ourselves.” Do you think our generation is going to change the system in such a way that we have faith in it? Or are we always going to be on the fringes of the political system the way that we are now?
DB: We’re working towards shaping the system in the image that we’d like it to be. Young people today have more power and opportunity than ever before ... I think that’s really exciting. Young people are starting their own businesses, starting their own organizations, and saying “I want to change the way that something works.” This is not to say that we can do this easily, but at least now, there’s a possibility that it can actually be done. Whereas 15 years ago, a group of young people getting together like that would have seemed kind of silly.
When we look at business models, today’s young people have been one of the driving forces towards pushing social entrepreneurship, and businesses becoming more socially responsible … this generation really pushed that into overdrive.
From a political perspective faith in institutions (politics, the media) is at an all time low. That’s among millennials and also among everyone else. We have faith in ourselves, that we can go out and build something that can have a big impact.
ES: Final question. I think that a lot of people our age are apathetic about voting. What would you say to a millennial who is saying, “I don’t think I should vote this year?”
DB: This is the argument that I think is the most compelling in terms of why we should vote. If you think about return on investment and what the impact of an election is. We get one opportunity to pick someone who is going to make tons of decisions over four years. Like it or not, those decisions are guided in large part by who the people are who support them and/or their party.
In 2008, you had young people turning out in record numbers voting for Barack Obama and Democrats. As a result, Democrats paid more attention than ever before to issues like student loans, health care provisions that allow people to stay on their parent’s health care for longer, and a slew of issues that actually make a difference in young people’s lives. This is not a partisan thing, this is a factual statement of what happened.
Similarly, young people didn’t vote in large numbers for Republicans, so Republicans didn’t show particular excitement about those issues. When you put into the system and you say, "hey we’re young people and we turned out, and we can vote, and we can help elect or not elect people" then you have the ability to get your issues on the agenda.
So that’s what it’s about. And this is particularly important for young people in, not just swing states, but in places like New York or California. Because when the election is over there’s a breakdown that comes out that says here’s the percentage of young people that voted. Or here’s the percentage of this different ethnic group or gender that voted, and that’s the number that’s looked at by people in power. It’s not necessarily a state by state breakdown, it’s the overall number; it's about how many young people turned out around the country. So each one of us who contributes to our generation's voice, gains us more power in the political system. Voting is not somehow just accepting the system, it’s being part of the change you want to see. It starts with the vote, and you build power from there. That’s what this is about.