Steven Olikara says growing up in Brookfield, Wis., he learned about listening and collaborating. He says talking things through rather than tearing people down whose opinions you might not share just made sense.
But as a UW-Madison student, Olikara, who graduated with degrees in environmental studies and political science, saw the polar opposite when he spent time talking with legislators at the state capitol.
“I was one of the few people talking to both Democrats and Republicans. A lot of good ideas were dying because of partisanship … and every idea was pigeonholed into a left or right, Democrat or Republican,” Olikara says.
But Olikara found contemporaries who, like him, had more nuanced ideas and opinions. “But they didn’t have a space to really express that. That, of course, is a microcosm of what we were seeing nationally," he says.
That is what Olikara says fueled the creation of the Millennial Action Project (MAP), which works to recruit young leaders interested in bridging political divides.
“I had a few cofounders at the time who were also interested in public service and were just as concerned as I was about the polarization, but we were all looking at each other like who’s crazy enough to jump into this full-time,” Olikara recalls.
Olikara says part of his inspiration to take the leap came when he visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C.
“Dr. King’s conviction for a society that was connected that was linked together, in his words, ‘a web of mutuality,’ ” Olikara says.
Olikara was also inspired by how young King was.
“Dr. King was only 26 years old when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Every quote on that wall was delivered by a man in his 20s and 30s,” Olikara says.
Today, MAP has more than 1,500 members. Most members are state legislators from around the country, along with a few dozen young members of Congress.
“Clearly, the status quo is not working and this methodology of demonizing other people, dehumanizing other people is not what the future of American democracy should be and Millennial Project is trying to create a movement of leaders who believe that alternative path," Olikara says.
Olikara points to a two-year dialogue series held in Wisconsin as a sign that people with differing political views can come together.
"It was called the Red & Blue Dialogues ... We learned through that process how important it was to start with an open mind and just speak from your own personal experience," Olikara adds, "one woman said to me after one dialogue 'hey Steven, we're just agreeing too much' and didn't realize as a liberal she was sitting next to the local head of the Republican Party."
While MAP is based in Washington D.C., Olikara has been back in Wisconsin since last spring. Olikara says that decision was not driven by the pandemic.
“I see Wisconsin as the central arena for the future of our democracy. We’ve heard the phrase over and over again — Wisconsin is the tipping point for this election. I think that’s right, but we’re also the tipping point state for the future of our political culture and right now, Wisconsin has become the poster child of divisive, toxic politics,” Okikara says.
But he doesn’t believe that divisiveness lies at the core of Wisconsin’s nature. Olikara is putting energy into meeting people on both sides of the aisle to cultivate conversation in the months before the November election.
“I would like Wisconsin [to] become a leader for political bridge-building and that’s essential in our state because we’re roughly evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independents, so we can't move forward together if we’re not working together,” Olikara says.
Olikara recognizes that the odds don't look promising. You need only look at the chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic to recognize that Wisconsin and the country as a whole faces rampant partisanship. But he hopes the pandemic serves as a wake-up call.
“The turbulence we’re going to see after this election is likely another wake-up call for our country that these trends are just unsustainable,” Olikara says.
As his organization doubles down to inspire collaboration, Olikara says he draws strength from the words of Martin Luther King.
“Dr. King would sometimes say that the stars shine brightest in the dark of night and so sometimes when things get really bad you have the possibility of new structures, new ways of doing things, new leaders emerging,” Olikara adds, “I’m placing my bets on that.”
Olikara’s story is part of the documentary The Reunited States, which is featured at the Milwaukee Film Festival. It follows four Americans trying to reach across the aisle and build relationships between people who are not ideologically aligned.