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Q&A with Steven Olikara

by WISCAPE Staff | Sep 14, 2017
Steven OlikaraIn advance of ​his visit to ​Wisconsin ​next week, we asked ​Steven Olikara, the founder and president of the Millennial Action Project and a 2012 graduate of UW-Madison, ​some questions about his experience as a student at UW-Madison, his passion for music, and more.

​Olikara will ​present a WISCAPE talk ​on Tuesday, September 19, 2017, from 12 - 1:30 pm. Th​e event is free and open to the public. Please join us!

Learn more about Steven Olikara's WISCAPE talk.

Tell us about your experience as a student at UW-Madison. How did your time on campus influence your path since then?

During my student days in Madison, I had the chance to work with state legislators on higher education and environmental issues -- that gave me a crash course in how partisanship leads to bad policies and outcomes. I saw a lot of good ideas die simply because policymakers weren’t listening and talking to each other. And many political forces beyond their control further polarized them.

At the same time, I came to believe in the importance of public service and learned about leadership. I became energized by the challenge of building bridges and elevating the quality of our political discourse. Great leaders bring people of different perspectives together to solve problems, and that’s exactly what we are lacking today in our nation’s political leadership.

Why did you go into public service?

My first passion in life was music, which helped me discover my interest in public service. Playing music in Metro Milwaukee created bridges across the deeply segregated communities in the area. My bands and radio show represented a cross-section of those communities, transcending many divides in Milwaukee and exposing me to very different people. In many ways, music taught me how to listen. It made me curious. I realized that I enjoyed bringing these communities together that were otherwise very divided. That approach became a common theme in my public service.

While playing music, I was also involved in environmental, health, and youth advocacy that lit the spark to transition into more direct civic engagement. Two experiences that were formative included leading a campaign to make healthy foods accessible in schools and youth initiatives in low-income communities with Usher’s Foundation (Usher, the recording artist). After graduating from college, it became clear that our toxic and dysfunctional political culture was preventing us from solving the big challenges in these areas. I thought I could have more impact working on this underlying issue, and looking at history, I noticed that major political change has been generational. That’s why I entered the political reform space and ultimately founded the Millennial Action Project.

Do you still play music? What do you play?

Absolutely. I’m a guitarist and drummer, and have played a lot of jazz, rock, and R&B. Believe it or not, we even had a klezmer band.

What are you reading now?

I just finished reading The Impossible Presidency, by historian Jeremi Suri. It’s a great read, not only on the evolution of the American presidency, but also on how we can all be more effective leaders.

What advice do you have for college students who want to make their voice heard on policy or local issues?

The biggest piece of advice I can share is to get exposed to different points of view. Young people in particular are spending more time online and on social media, and it’s easy to fall into a self-reinforcing echo chamber. You will become a more effective advocate and policy change-agent by listening to others in different political parties, cultures, and backgrounds. That will not only sharpen your own argument, but you will also have a chance to build coalitions capable of making real change. The great thing about our country is the goal of E Pluribus Unum –- out of many, one. Especially in a democracy like ours, change comes when we reach out, listen, and build bridges of cooperation.

Finally, one piece of advice I learned from music: don’t be afraid to experiment and innovate. We need fresh approaches today. In music, sometimes I accidentally played the ‘wrong note’ -- and it became the best one.

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