- The 31-year-old leader and organizer wants to create “a new business model in politics that incentivizes collaboration, dignity and inclusion.”
Wisconsin native, entrepreneur and nonprofit leader Steven Olikara has announced his bid for the U.S. Senate. The 31-year-old founder of the Millennial Action Project joins a large field of Democrats vying for the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. The Republican incumbent has not decided if he would run again in 2022.
Olikara, the son of immigrants from Kerala and Delhi, told American Kahani that he’s running for U.S. Senate “because our country is on an unsustainable track right now,” with “a business model in politics that incentivizes hate and dehumanization.” He notes that this kind of model “won’t work for a longer term in a diverse democracy.” So, “because of this polarization, he decided to take his movement “to the next level,” and run for the U.S. Senate.
Growing up as the son of immigrants in the greater Milwaukee area has taught Olikara that “our country is at its best when we see our diversity as a strength, and when we have inclusive communities and an inclusive democracy.” And so his mission is “to create a more inclusive and honest politics that ensures dignity for all. He wants to create “a new business model in politics that incentivizes collaboration, dignity and inclusion.” Noting that this will be “the most-watched Senate race in the country in 2022,” Olikara believes they have “the chance to build a movement here and impact the entire country’s politics.”
Olikara’s first brush with the government came in 2008 when he got involved with Barack Obama’s campaign,” with the mission of building “diverse coalitions for legislative leadership to help communities that are disfranchised.” In 2018, he testified before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business on protecting workers in the gig economy. When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened 2020 elections, “he advocated for safe voting reforms as a leader in the Vote Safe Wisconsin Coalition and organized the only statewide bipartisan public service announcement to promote voting,” according to his website. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to Kenya for President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
He is featured in the new documentary, “The Reunited States,” which follows Americans who are on the difficult journey of bridging political and racial divides. He previously hosted the “Meeting in Middle America” podcast in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Lubar Entrepreneurship Center. He is active in his local community, serving on the boards of The Community, which helps provide opportunities for justice-impacted people, as well as the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Performing Arts in Brookfield, and is a member of the Advisory Board of UW–Madison’s International Division.
Olikara’s run is historical. He is the first Asian “to run for this office in the state of Wisconsin, and when we win, I’ll be the only South Asian serving in the U.S. Senate.” He says his run is “important for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations, for them to be able to see someone who looks like them in one of the highest offices in the country. That will impact how they are treated in school because there’ll be a very visible political leader who is exposing Indian culture to the American public.” Stressing that “representation matters,” the young leader notes: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with over 2,000 elected officials across the country, including members of Congress, is that your life experiences really do shape your decision making and your values.”
This week, Olikara was endorsed by Todd Larson, Senior LGBTQI+ Coordinator for the Obama-Biden Administration; and Kriss Marion, a 3-term Lafayette County Supervisor, small business owner, and former candidate for Wisconsin State Senate.
Talking about the hesitancy and lack of interest among South Asian Americans in public offices and civic engagement, Olikara thinks “politics and civic engagement is the next great frontier for our community. He feels that the community “can reach the next level of cultural acceptance in the United States,” and that “political influence is a very big part of that.” And he believes that “our community is just on the verge of that breakthrough.” He hopes that his campaign “will be a catalyst for many Indian Americans to get involved, in many cases for the first time.” Not only as voters but also as volunteers, organizers and donors. “It’s extremely important that as a community, we can pool our capital and pool our resources to help elevate our community nationwide.”
Olikara is banking on the Indian American and South Asian American community in the state to support him. “I think we’ve a huge opportunity for our community to get involved in this race,” he says. We have a special responsibility in a very polarized time and I think our community can be bridge builders in our society right now. Olikara, who launched his campaign just over a month ago, is “starting to see that groundswell of support, His campaign is planning a virtual event for Indian Americans across the country. “We are engaging the Malayalee community, the Telugu community and many other communities so they can know how they can be involved.”
Although he doesn’t look like anyone that currently serves in the U.S. Senate, he says “it helps to underscore our larger message that we are looking to change politics, we want to change the status quo. He mentions how Indian American couples and families tell him how inspired they are and how excited their children are to see someone who looks like them running for this office. “I think that the polarization in our politics today is one of the main hindrances of progress,” he says. “We have so many generational challenges from economic mobility to climate change and immigration,” he notes, and adds: “So right now, I think the polarization just creates a stalemate and gridlock, and it’s politically more convenient just to kick the can down the road than to solve the problem now.” It is a “huge issue” and is “not sustainable.” So what is needed, in his opinion, is “a radically different politics and a radically different kind of political leader who can help to bridge the divide, and that’s my calling.” As a U.S. senator, Olikara says he “can help to be a bridge-builder and bring together people, not only across race and ethnic divides but also religious and economic divides.” And when “we can start to see the humanity and dignity in each other, then we will be able to work on these problems and I have seen it.”
He is frequently asked by his supporters if people are ready for his vision. “I think that’s a valid question, and what I point to is we are already doing it,” he says. For the past two years, his organization did a series of Red and Blue dialogues across the state “that builds incredible partnerships across the divides on issues like criminal justice, police reform and clean water access and higher education.” And because it’s “often not covered in the mainstream news outlets, we often only see the worst of what’s happening in politics,” he observes. But there is good, and my goal in this U.S. senate campaign and ultimately in our U.S. senate office, is to help elevate the good that’s out there.” He wants to bring together “people who do want to work together, who do want to have conversations, and be able to solve problems.” His “matrix of success in the U.S. Senate will not be just bills introduced, it’ll be bills cast,” he says, adding, “ I think it should be about creating an impact, not just boosting your own political stock.”
But for Okilara, the most important skill of a U.S. senator is listening. And that’s a way to address the polarization. ”We need to stop talking past each other, and start having conversations with each other,” he says. “And that’s why I believe that the biggest divide I think in America today is not so much about people who are ideologically left versus right; I think the real divide is people who are pro conversations and anti conversations,” he continues. “And in many ways that’s a proxy for people who are pro-democracy and people who are anti-democracy.” Noting that he has “friends across the political aisle,” people who he trusts and has been able to work on issues together,” the “strain of political culture” where people won’t even talk to someone who’s different than them, it “really dangerous and that’s the kind of culture we are trying to change.”
Along with his experiences in civic engagement and organization, music plays a big role in Olikara’s life. A guitarist, drummer and bass player, he has played in bands of every genre – from jazz to rock n roll to hip-hop and funk music and folk music. He is a former radio jockey as well. “Music is a big influence on me because I think that musical and artistic creations are the ones where you see fusions between perspectives,” he says. It was playing jazz music where he learned “about the power of listening; listening with a lot of humility and empathy. If we can bring that spirit of empathy into our politics; I think we can be much stronger.”