The last time I wrote about Steve Olikara he was being inducted into the UW-Madison's Phi Beta Kappa chapter and following the ceremony wound up chasing down a thief who had stolen a slew of coats in the Memorial Union's Great Hall.
We laughed about that when he stopped by the office the other day on one of his frequent trips back to Wisconsin, where he grew up and went to school and still serves on several advisory boards. After graduating from Madison in 2012, he founded the Washington, D.C.-based Millennial Action Project, which today is being hailed for its goal of changing the polarization and gridlock that has gripped the country's politics for the past several decades.
He views Wisconsin as ground zero for what's wrong with polarized politics. The state also can be an example of what's possible, he says. In fact, Olikara was here late last month to take part in the formation of the Wisconsin Future Caucus, the 19th state that now has a MAP-inspired organization of young lawmakers (age 40 and younger) from both political parties. The Wisconsin Future Caucus is chaired by Reps. Amanda Stuck, an Appleton Democrat, and Adam Neylon, a Pewaukee Republican.
At its first meeting in Green Bay, the caucus identified entrepreneurship as an important issue that the state needs to address. Steve Case, the founder of AOL and one of the country's first technology entreprenuers, was the main speaker.
Millennials — identified as those born roughly between 1980 and 2000 — represent the generation that will be the political, governmental and business leaders of the future. But, because it's a generation that doesn't see public service as a career path and is turned off by the overt partisanship on the part of both parties, Olikara believes they can become a force of change for the better.
Since the founding of MAP, Olikara has been a speaker in much demand at numerous conventions, conferences and forums around the country. He appeared on a panel at our Idea Fest in September, where he joined others to predict what our politics will look like in another 20 years.
He credits former UW history professor Jeremi Suri, now at the University of Texas, for inspiring his passion for nurturing the next generation of leaders by stressing how the next generation is more interested in the future rather than in how things have been.
His advice for today's college students is that they step outside their own echo chambers to sharpen their own views by listening to what others think.
The problem with today's polarized politics, he adds, is that it has become immensely profitable for some. By preying on fears, they can raise massive sums of money. And those who hire themselves out to promote that discord have an interest in making sure it doesn't change.
That's why a new generation that rejects the status quo can help make the changes that are so needed, he points out.
The articulate Olikara wants to get a MAP organization going in all 50 states. When that happens he's likely to come back to Wisconsin for good.
And who knows? Maybe he'll be one of those millennial political leaders of the future.