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Young US activist discusses youth and social work in Beijing

David Burstein Photo: Billie Feng

“I was only 13 years old. I couldn’t vote. I couldn’t run for office. I didn’t know anyone important in politics. But I had the idea that there was something that I could do,” said David Burstein, who shared his views about social activities at Beijing LGBT Center on September 26.

 David Burstein, who graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, is a Millennial writer, filmmaker and storyteller. He is a frequent speaker and commentator on Millennials, social innovation and politics. He has appeared on various media such as CNN, FOX News, The New York Times and USA Today. He serves as the co-director of the Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellowship@Chicago Ideas Week, which helps outstanding young social entrepreneurs grow their impact.

His inspiration for engagement in social activities came on a day when he was watching the results of the 2004 presidential election in his home in the outskirts of New York. “I was frustrated that while the number of young people involved in the election had increased from 2000, it still wasn’t reported by media as anything of any consequence.”

Then he bought a video camera and decided to interview some influential people about what can be done to get more young people involved in politics. He went on Google, trying to find ways to get into contact with politicians. He sent emails to the addresses he could find and then waited for replies. A senator from Washington D.C. was the first to agree to give him a 15-minute interview. “Oh, what am I going to do now? I didn’t think anyone was actually going to say yes. So I had to think about what I was going to ask, Burstein said. After that he did over 100 interviews with senators, politicians and students all over the country.

Based on the interviews, he made a documentary film called 18 in ‘08, targeted at those who were first time voters in 2008. The film details the stakes for young voters in the 2008 election, how decisions made in Washington will affect young people for years to come, the issues and ideas that engage this generation, reasons for young people’s disenchantment with politics, role of technology in engaging young voters, and profiles of candidates who have inspired this generation. An part of the film was broadcast on ABC News and many people requested a copy of it. “We only had one copy, so I established this organization called Generation 18 and showed the film in as many places as possible. In the end, it was the largest turnout among young voters in over 20 years in the presidential elections and young people started to be recognized,” Burstein said.

Burstein admitted that technology plays an important role in increasing the impact of young people. “My stories are only possible because of the particular moment we are living in today. Take the world of music for example. There were only a handful of record studios. If you wanted to be a musician, you would have to convince someone who owned one of the studios to record a few tracks and get a recording contract. Today you can record that on your phone anywhere you are and upload it to the Internet. You can become a global superstar, totally bypassing all those gatekeepers. We are seeing the same thing in almost every industry,” he said.

Burstein thinks that young people don’t need to be too radical in the beginning; instead they can start with small steps. “When you have a small conversation with somebody, you actually plant a seed in his/her mind and then it begins to grow. It’s much better to bring people into a conversation or let them watch a movie than tell them to march with you tonight and advocate an idea. It really boosts your team and morale even if you succeed at small things.”

As for the LGBT movement in China, Burstein said, “You can build on initial things like anti-discrimination laws and then you can go one step further. Nobody wants to wait, but you have to work slowly in some sense. You can work as fast as you can, but the process can still be slow.”

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