Among David Burstein’s many accomplishments, one of the most unusual is that his face has appeared on the backs of millions of 12-ounce bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos. That was a result of Burstein winning the 2009 Do Something Award, a $10,000 grant that honors young people who take grassroots action to improve the world.
Burstein won the prize on the strength of 18 in ’08, a documentary film that he created and presented around the country to increase young-voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election. The screenings grew into a national peer-to-peer effort to register, engage and mobilize young voters that continues today as the group Generation18.
Shy Burstein is not; he made cold calls to members of Congress and other notables asking to interview them for his film. Many of them said yes. The film ultimately included Jeb Bush, Barbara Boxer, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Donaldson and Senator Robert Byrd, who died in 2010 at the age of 92.
Burstein did more than 1,000 screenings nationwide and registered more than 25,000 voters. He organized celebrity public service announcements, congressional forums about youth issues and used the film generally to engage young people with politics. At the time, Burstein was a student at Haverford College: He did a 35-state tour, taking all of his classes on Mondays and traveling the rest of the week.
He transferred to Gallatin in the fall of 2009, and if anything, he picked up the pace.
“I’ve never been without at least one major project in addition to my schoolwork,” he said.
He is currently working on a film project in the Middle East about the future of global higher education that he began while studying at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. He recently consulted for two philanthropists in Chicago; he writes a column for Fast Company, a magazine that focuses on innovation and technology; and he has written a book.
Burstein discovered while making 18 in ’08 that there was a whole community of young activists about which he hadn’t known. “I got a sense there was something different about this generation, and that it was a bigger story than just politics,” he said.
Burstein’s forthcoming book, Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping our World (Beacon Press, 2013), is about how Millennials are changing business, technology, culture and politics. Young people have many of the same concerns as older people, and the same frustrations with the system, Burstein said.
But, he added, young people are developing alternative approaches to solve these problems. “This generation is incredibly entrepreneurial,” said Burstein, who has written about this subject for the Huffington Post and discussed it on National Public Radio. “They are creating opportunities for themselves, starting their own jobs. They are pragmatic idealists.”
On top of all this, Burstein, a recent graduate, was putting together his Gallatin colloquium, which was, not surprisingly, on “the intersection of film, technology and politics, with an emphasis on youth.”
He plans to continue writing, speaking, consulting and filmmaking. “I like to shift gears and stay busy,” he said. “It’s a model a lot of young people are adopting. The career models of authors and journalists are changing, so now people are a little bit of all of these things.”
But Burstein may have learned that lesson from an older generation as well: His father has been both a journalist and venture capitalist. “My parents encouraged me to understand the responsibilities of being a citizen, to try to do something greater than yourself and to live a meaningful life. That’s something I try to do all the time.”