April 23, 2020
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In the 2004 presidential election, Gambier made headlines nationwide for long lines at its polls and for Kenyon students’ willingness to wait as long as 12 hours to cast their ballots. At the time, Matthew Segal ’08 was a first-year, and the situation at the polls appalled him. He and a classmate, Jarrett Moreno ’08, took action, founding the voter-empowerment organization OurTime.org, and, in 2014, ATTN: (pronounced "attention"), a media company targeted toward millennials.
Before the Nov. 8 presidential election, Segal, who majored in sociology at Kenyon and who recently was profiled in the New York Times, answered questions about motivating and educating young voters through his organizations and about his development as an activist, starting with his time at Kenyon.
You’re known for starting both OurTime.org and ATTN:, organizations committed to engaging younger voters. What led to the creation of those groups?
With respect to OurTime, what led to the creation of it actually goes back to Kenyon College and the long lines of the 2004 election. I founded a student voting organization when I was a senior at Kenyon, and then when [Moreno and I] graduated we merged it into OurTime.org, which later became one of the nation’s foremost voter registration nonprofits. In 2012 we registered about 300,000 voters and in 2014 registered voters as well and also did a lot of advocacy work to make the voting process more accessible. The founding of ATTN: was in late 2014 after I personally, along with my co-founder, Jarrett Moreno, realized that the hard sell of asking people to register to vote without contextualizing and explaining the issues in a clear and compelling way was in some ways a futile exercise. So we decided to create a media company to help explain the issues in accessible and powerful content that would meet people where they lived through social media.
What are some of the issues that you think college students should especially be focused on today?
Some of the obvious issues economically are the cost of college and the student loans debt crisis that is not only affecting young people but even graduates who are five, 10, 15, 20 years out of college. Secondly, there are a lot of social issues that college students are clearly already concerned with — everything from LGBT rights to racial injustice and all the issues we’ve seen with police brutality and the relationships between police and community. Young people are really driving the activism and the national conversation around this topic. Finally, I’d say young people in particular care a lot about drug reform and the war on drugs. We’re going to see about a quarter of the country potentially start to legalize [marijuana], and that will have huge ramifications for our war on drugs and on our incarceration system.
Those topics can get really complex. How do you make those accessible to younger voters?
It’s something we definitely struggle with and think about every day. We like to focus on different shades of the story rather than necessarily the comprehensive story in our videos. If we’re covering marijuana, we might make a video about the economic benefits, we might make a video about the potential health benefits, we might make a video about the criminal justice changes that would happen, we might make a video about some of the benefits to communities with respect to treatment of veterans or treatment of people with PTSD, but I don’t necessarily think that we would make a video combining all of those different things because you’re biting off so much. We zero in on different sides of the story.
You’ve consistently focused on issues facing millennials, including their turnout at the polls. Why focus on that demographic?
We are the largest growing voting block, and to let other people decide our futures for us is totally illogical and shortsighted. So it’s imperative we vote because why would we want people choosing for us, especially people who won’t be living with the consequences of the decisions we make as long as we have to? Secondly, civic education in this country has failed young people. Fewer and fewer states are teaching anything about government or the voting process and why people’s involvement in shaping legislative outcomes is necessary. I think it’s a responsibility of good media companies and good editorial companies to help offset the fact that in many ways our public schools have failed people there.
What advice would you give to Kenyon students looking to get into political activism?
It is critical to actually educate yourself on the issues first. Read things. Watch things. Understand the process. The process matters. The procedure of how government works matters. And then once you have that understanding, join an organization and try to become a leader in that organization that agrees with your ideology. There are so many great nonprofits and organizations and initiatives that address pretty much every issue on the planet imaginable. I would also say make sure you vote and you get all your friends to vote, because being a voter and reflecting the spirit of an active voter when you’re young will inform lifelong participation. Getting people hooked and addicted while they’re young is critical to keep them voting and participating for the rest of their life.
What memories or experiences from Kenyon have stuck with you?
The long lines of 2004 have sort of been a permanent imprint in my head. It’s something that was just insane and unfair, and demonstrates a process that still needs to be reformed. And just being in a great state like Ohio during a critical election year — it’s a pretty intoxicating place to be. If you think your vote doesn’t matter in Ohio, you’re really delusional because that is the epicenter of at least the presidential election.
This interview has been edited and condensed.