Last Thursday, Founder and President of the Millennial Action Project (MAP) Steven Olikara visited the College at the invitation of Rep. Chris Gibson, visiting professor of leadership studies. Olikara visited Gibson’s “Leadership and Political Change” course and participated in a lunch hosted by the Career Center, encouraging students at the College to overcome the cynicism of contemporary politics and find ways to involve themselves in the political process.
Olikara entered political work with an extensive background in music. “Music was the vehicle for becoming a coalition builder,” Olikara said. “I was the type of musician who really enjoyed bringing jazz musicians together with rock musicians with funk, R&B and hip-hop. In the absence of that, normally those groups would be isolated and playing by themselves. I thought the best music was when you brought those different stylistic backgrounds together. So that was really how, in my DNA, I discovered my calling for being a coalition builder.”
What prompted Olikara to apply that impulse to politics was the ascent of a charismatic young senator from Illinois who spoke of bringing the country together. “Back in 2004, I heard then-Senator [Barack] Obama say that we are not just blue states or red states; we are the United States,” Olikara said. “Once I found a political expression for what I was doing in music, I wanted to get involved politically.” He then got involved volunteering for Obama’s presidential campaigns and ultimately served as senior class president at University of Wisconsin–Madison. After college, Olikara served as the Harry Ott Fellow on Coca-Cola’s Environmental Team, working with the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID) on public-private water projects in Africa, and later as a Truman Fellow at the World Bank working on sustainable energy development.
Olikara ultimately left the World Bank to launch MAP, where he remains today. “A big part of our theory of change is to demonstrate how you get things, and then amplify that narrative across the country so millennials, in particular, can see public service as a vehicle for change.” MAP inspired the creation of the Congressional Future Caucus, a bipartisan caucus for members of Congress under the age of 40, and is attempting to launch state-level equivalents in every state by 2020. Moreover, MAP oversees the James Madison Fellowship to support bipartisan policy proposals put forward by young public service leaders and manages the Millennial Policy Project, which provides nonpartisan analysis on issues that specifically impact millennials.
In the hyperpolarized, hyperpartisan political environment of contemporary America, Olikara remains optimistic that millennials can achieve results in the public sector. “We know that there is no substitute for good public policy,” Olikara said. “There are a lot of issues … that speak to a generational experience where the dividing line isn’t so much left versus right, but it’s really about new versus old, so we get to embrace those issues.” Olikara points toward certain policy initiatives, such as passing ridesharing legislation and addressing student loan debt, as areas in which younger politicians have worked across party lines in the service of millennial interests.
Olikara, however, does not seek to unify millennials solely on the basis of their shared policy interests. “A plurality of millennials now identify as independent. Millennials are now the most politically independent generation in America. We do not want to be boxed into the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We want to be boxed into solutions that will help our generation,” he said. “You have this mentality of innovation that younger [leaders] embrace. For them, partisanship is the last thing they want to deal with.”
Nevertheless, Olikara understands why public service may remain unattractive to millennials, including students at the College.
“For elite schools, like Williams College, where you have some of the best and the brightest students, the recruitment for private sector organizations is much stronger than it is for public service,” Olikara explained. “I would not be surprised if there is a very high visibility on campus for some of the top consulting firms and financial services companies. Often what happens is that the public service or civic service organizations begin recruiting in the spring and, by then, plenty of people already have their jobs. I would encourage students, if they are interested in a particular issue … [to] peel the layers back and understand why we are not making more progress on that issue and start working on its root causes.”
According to Olikara, however, contemporary political developments may have activated some into service who would have otherwise ventured into other fields.
“I would say the election of President Donald Trump, for [MAP,] really made people realize the importance of what we are doing … The response from millennials has been really inspiring,” he said. “There has been a 25 percent increase in civic engagement amongst millennials since the election and that may end up being the most important takeaway…If millennials now see the importance of engaging in our democracy, and there’s a sustained increase in our civil and political engagement in a time where our political culture has been declining gradually for decades, I think that will be a huge result from this election.”