Activist seeks to boost youth engagement

segalOn Election Day 2004 in Gambler, Ohio, it was raining and the lines were long. Kenyon College freshman Matthew Segal was a volunteer worker trying to help people, especially his fellow Kenyon students, get to the polls.

It was the first presidential election in which he could vote, and he cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened at 6 a.m.

“I felt my vote would never count more,” he says, because Ohio was, as usual, a swing state and Kenyon is in a conservative district; he wanted his vote to show that not all voters there were supporting President George W. Bush.

That day set him on the course that has led him to the top position at Our Time, an advocacy and lobbying group for young adults that has been called the “youth AARP.”

He watched as Kenyon students waited and waited in long lines that began forming as early at 9 a.m. due to lack of sufficient voting machines and registration procedures that seemed designed to turn away students.

“So young people were waiting to vote while the networks called the election (for Bush,” he says. “I felt cheated. I felt the rights of my peers had been violated.”

Those in line when the polls were supposed to close were allowed to cast ballots; the final vote was cast about 4 a.m.

“It was wrong on so many levels. But it was a catalyzing moment,” Segal says. “It pulled me in and kept me in.”

As a result, he founded Student Association for Voter Empowerment, advocating in Washington for electoral reforms to reduce barriers for voting, especially for college students.

“A very small fraction of people would have the reaction (to the Ohio election snafus) that he did. He said, ‘This isn’t how democracy works and I’m not going to rest until I fix it,” says friend Jarrett Moreno.

Two years ago SAVE morphed into Our Time, expanding SAVE’s civic engagement and voter empowerment message to also try to give young adults more voice in Washington on all issues that affect them, especially on economic issues. Moreno was a co-founder with Segal.

Moreno calls Segal “ambitious, but not ambitious about making money.”

“He could have done a lot of things out of college and probably made a lot of money but his motivation has always been … if there is something he can fix in the world, he won’t sleep until he can fix it.”

The same zeal that energized Segal as a 19-year-old is evident today as a 27-year-old self-described “nonprofit founder” and early “voice for student voter disenfranchisement and continue to be the face of it.” His face is leaner and his look more sophisticated than when he first hit Capitol Hill eight years ago, testifying before a House committee on the need for new voting laws. He jokes that he used to always wear suits because he was only a college senior when he started SAVE and used the gray suit and button-down shirt to command respect. Now he doesn’t need the “costume” and prefers the more L.A. look of black jeans, dark shoes, casual crew-neck gray sweater and light blue button-down shirt, a little ragged at the collar.

“I’ve been called entitled and arrogant because I don’t want to wait in line. I think there is a need for new voices instead of deference to old,” he says as plops down in a burgundy chair in his conference room.

At 5:30 p.m. on a recent winter evening, the sky is dark outside the plate-glass windows of the small conference room. The navy blue walls of the conference room, burgundy chairs and dark wood conference table add to the dark feel of the room. But Segal is still brimming with energy from a day of nonstop meetings, keeping his Smartphone close but trying hard not to keep glancing at it.

“Every day there’s something he wants to do,” says Our Time Chief of Staff Johanna Berkson. “His energy is limtless. So every morning when you wake up you know you’d better be on because he is and you don’t want to disappoint him.”

Our Time’s offices are on the seventh floor of a nondescript office building on I Street, part of a group of nonprofits that share space in a suite labeled Fund for Peace, the biggest of the group. Navy blue walls offer a small effort at design chic in a suite dominated by gray cubicles, offices with cheap blonde pressed-wood desks and a feeling of emptiness, of temporary squatters.

He avoids his office, which is bare except for a pressed-wood flimsy desk and a few chairs. He doesn’t have a computer — left his laptop at home, he says.

But the lack of accoutrements isn’t indicative of lack of ambition for the organization or himself.

Pushing back his wavy brown hair, he leans forward, his intense brown eyes focused on his vision of Our Time’s future.

“I’ve been studying advocacy,” he says, how to leverage his more than 1 million-member email list to “build audience.”

“I’ve become very interested in the media, the way young people are characterized. … There is a vast apathy of the media elite for our voices.”

He is confident as he talks about raising capital, linking his fingers as he ticks off his ambitions: turning into a “content destination” to give young adults information on how what’s in the news, especially from Washington, affects them, creating “different verticals,” producing a news show, using celebrities like Jessica Alba and Steve Carrel. He says he travels constantly, making deals with places such as Huffington Post and Tumblr.

Berkson says Segal is dogged and “doesn’t accept, ‘ Wait your turn.’ He knows what it takes to get things done. He’s wickedly smart.”

Segal speaks deferentially about the famous people he’s let through his advocacy, from the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, who was the first to call him to Washing to testify, to Hillary Clinton when she was a senator. He’s clearly more starstruck by the politicians than the pop stars he’s come across.

“I have had the experience of meeting a lot of pop culture (icons). I don’t get impressed except when I met Bob Dylan.”

But he knows celebrities will help spread the message he has as part of his 2013 goal: to keep pushing voter empowerment for young people through reforms like online voting and to ensure young people’s interests are front and center on Capitol Hill. And to create a news operation at Our Time to give young people the information they need to understand what’s happening in Washington and how it affects them.

As he heads out of the office toward his next meeting, Smartphone beeping with messages as he thumbs through emails, he mentions a question he was asked by a reporter: What happens when he turns 30? Does he age out of the organization he founded?

“This organization ought to be in the hands of people who are young,” he says. “By the time I’m 30, it will be time for me to get out of the way.”

Moreno agrees, saying Our Time was founded to bring more young people into leadership positions in advocacy, politics and business.

“There needs to be young people at the head of Our Time. But we believe in the cause and we won’t turn our backs on it just because some calendar says you’re a certain age.”

And Berkson already is lobbying to raise the age limit they use to describe young – “It’s really 35,” she says.

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