Steven Olikara was standing in front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial when something odd occurred to him.
"This is a man who lived to be 83 years old," he said. "But he wrote the Declaration of Independence when he was 33." By the time he died, the Declaration of Independence was still the most important product of his political career.
It made Olikara realize that the idea that millennials are too young for politics in unfounded. "The founding fathers themselves were young upstarts," he says. "The history books have tricked us because they were wearing powdered wigs. But they founded our country when they were in their 20s and 30s."
For Olikara, that realization changed everything.
As the son of Indian immigrants, Olikara grew up in Wisconsin, surrounded by an ethnically, racially, and politically segregated population. He knew from a young age that he wanted to find a way to bridge those divides. But it was that moment at the Jefferson Memorial that made him decide he didn't want to wait until he was older to get started.
In 2011, he founded the Millennial Action Project.
He started the MAP with a group of other young people who believed the way to fix a divided government was through cooperative, bipartisan action.
“I think two of the most powerful and important political narratives in our country are ‘the system is rigged’ on the left and ‘drain the swamp’ on the right,” Olikara says. “I think those are two sides of the same coin.”
He felt that, in many cases, liberals and conservatives had the same complaints: Government is broken, corrupt, dysfunctional, and unresponsive to the needs of the American people. And in that common dissatisfaction, he saw an opportunity.
“On one side, we’re as polarized and divided as we’ve been for multiple generations,” Olikara says. “But on the other, we have this rising millennial generation that has the chance to disrupt our politics for the better.” And that rising millennial generation is what he’s chosen to invest in.
Given the opportunity to speak face-to-face, a lot of MAP members find unlikely friends — some of whom come from way across the aisle.
For example, one weekend in Boston brought together elected lawmakers from all over the country.
“We had a young gentleman from rural Arkansas interacting, having conversations, and even becoming friends with an urban lawmaker from the Detroit area,” Olikara says. “You might think on the surface level they have very little in common, but they had a lot to talk about.”
The opportunity to be around a diverse set of viewpoints is something that isn’t lost on MAP’s members.
“They said, ‘I’m glad we have this opportunity to sit in the same room and have this dialogue,’” Olikara says. “It’s too rare. Those moments are really important.”
And when they get down to business, these millennials have real impact.
"At a time when people think that even some of the biggest issues are too polarizing, we’ve been able to work with our young lawmakers to disrupt that polarization, bridge the divide, and actually make some real progress,” Olikara says.
Take, for example, climate change.
“We helped bring together a bipartisan group of young congressional members last year to work on energy innovation,” he continues.
Environmental issues are typically left to Democrats and liberals to fight for. But MAP brought together a group that spanned both sides to discuss energy innovation — an approach to climate change that also has benefits for the economy and businesses.
And now MAP’s Republican co-chair, Carlos Curbelo, has actually gone on to become one of the leading voices in the fight for climate change action in Congress.
The success of the project proves that their millennial bipartisan initiative can work — it’s just a matter of time.
"By 2020, millennials are going to be the largest voting demographics in the United States," Olikara says. "So we have a chance to create a paradigm shift in our nation's politics."
The project intends to be there to help shape that shift — they’re already in 20 states and growing quickly. “We’re aiming to be in all 50 states by 2020,” says Olikara.
At the core of the Millennial Action Project’s mission is a commitment to getting more people engaged in policy.
“Public service, broadly defined, is trying to improve the society around you,” Olikara says. Lots of people contribute to public service by volunteering — doling out meals at a soup kitchen or cleaning up a local river or park. But MAP encourages millennials to see volunteerism as encompassing more than just the hands-on projects.
“Let’s also ask the question of why that park or why that river was dirty in the first place,” Olikara says. “That question is likely going to be a policy question.” By engaging in public policy, millennials can work to solve the same problems that their volunteer work does, but on a systemic level.
And whether it’s over a river cleanup or a bipartisan caucus meeting, he says, meeting with people of different viewpoints can have a huge impact. He believes it can even change the world.
“I think when you actually meet someone, you can understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “And then we have a much better shot of not only finding common ground and being able to promote bipartisan legislation, but even bigger — even more importantly — we have the chance to rebuild the civic fabric of our country.”
If you're a millennial or a generational ally interested in getting involved in your local government, find out if the Millennial Action Project has a Future Caucus that you can join in your state. Or if politics isn't for you, there are plenty of other ways to get engaged in your community. Check out State Farm's Neighborhood of Good to find an opportunity that suits you.