Millennial Dreams: Policy Leaders Break Through the Gridlock

January 16, 2019

Steven Olikara, MAP President and Co-Founder, sat down with the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago to discuss the Congressional Future Caucus and next-generation leadership.

The next generation of policy makers is circumventing current constraints on productive policy creation and adopting non-traditional approaches to making an impact in their communities and beyond. Positioned at the impasse of party and populism, young policy leaders are determining where in the political structure they want to operate —that is, if they even want to work within the system at all. 

Evidence of millennial dissatisfaction with the current state of American politics was obvious approaching the 2018 midterm elections, and according to a survey by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs at the University of Chicago, in the lead-up to November 6, “young people age 15 to 34 expressed widespread pessimism toward the political system and discourse in the United States today.” 

The 2018 survey asked who would do a better chance of running the country. The results were staggering.

While 63 percent acknowledged the impact their vote could have as far as enacting real change in the government, more than half of respondents were doubtful that there was any likely chance partisan divides would subside any time soon, regardless of the outcome. 

Coupling their disillusioned view of partisan politics with an increased interest in social activism, the next generation is in the unique position of being able to spearhead fresh approaches to policy and politics. When options for enacting change are endless, how does one choose the path to take? 

Before Nigeria surpassed India as the country with the highest percentage of its population living in extreme poverty earlier this year, the South Asian country of 1.4 billion had maintained its spot as the most poverty-ridden country in the world for decades. 

Shruti Kapoor MPP Class of 2020, who grew up in India, has witnessed the effects of this poverty’s effects firsthand. 

“There are a lot of social dilemmas there that are existing at this point and time,” she said. Although the poverty level is improving on a large scale, these social dilemmas, including job scarcity and rural underdevelopment, continue to affect pockets of the population in visceral ways. 

Kapoor arrived at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy this fall with four years of government and non-government development experience under her belt. While leading operations for the McKinsey & Company’s social development spin-off, “Generation,” which aims to devise disruptive solutions for youth unemployment in India, she pioneered partnerships with stakeholders who in turn provided training and unemployment to more than 4,000 unemployed youths across remote and semi-urban locations in India. 

She’s pursuing a degree in public policy because she wants to learn how to blend her experience in the field with analytical skills in order to assume a strategic position that will allow her to “up-scale” the impact of social development programs to a larger population in India. As a member of the Harris Public Policy Class of 2020, Kapoor is one of the 458 students who constitute the largest and most diverse class in the school’s history, with student representation from 40 different countries around the world, and an international cohort that remains robust despite a downtrend nationwide in international student enrollment — a large bloc of the 95 percent increase in applications to Harris over the past years are international. 

Kapoor’s aspirations to continue working in the social sector after graduation from Harris — perhaps at the World Bank, United Nations or International Labour Organization, she said — are indicative of the priorities shared by this new “Policy Generation,” who, disillusioned by increasing partisanship in politics, yet emboldened to be changemakers, are exploring avenues for policy creation outside the realm of traditional political structures, both domestically and internationally. 

“A party may have a certain set of beliefs on paper, but I know members that may not really abide by all those principals,” Kapoor said. “It’s a very, very turbulent situation at this point in time and therefore, I don’t think there is any [party] that corresponds to the kind of beliefs that I want to have. In the future, if something excites me, I do not mind working for them but…I want to be in a policy position to impact the population (of India), and not just the written policy, but also the implementation bit of it. Once the policy [rolls out], how can we design something [to ensure] that whatever is written and whatever is promised to people is actually done?”

Like Kapoor, Ellie Price MPP Class of 2020 has ambitions to enact policies that will have a direct impact on the lives of people who live where she grew up, and she’s not necessarily set on working through the traditional political structure in order to do so.

“I’m most interested in raising a venture capital fund to invest in companies across the region that I call home, which is the Great Lakes Region,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of job loss due to economic transformation, and we need investments that will create good opportunities of well-paying jobs and give people the chance to build the lives and communities that they want to in their hometowns. I think it’s more important than ever that young educated people who had the privilege of going to elite institutions, like (Harris), take that education back home, or back to places that are not concentrating all of the young talent, like the big coastal cities.”

Investing time, energy and resources in the development of non-metropolitan areas could in turn loosen the gridlock that presently defines Washington and other urban epicenters of political clout, as well. 

“For me, it’s very important to go and find ways to serve in those mid-sized cities, where you do have a little more…diversity of walks of life, and educational status, and political view,” Price said. “I come from a rural area in upstate New York, but I’ve lived in a lot of metropolitan areas and maintain conversations across those lines. I think it’s more important than ever that young people don’t self-sequester themselves into these bubbles, but continue to build real relationships with people in the physical community around you, because that’s what’s going to spur on dialog across political spectrums.”

Payton Head, a first-year candidate for an intensive MA in Public Policy at Harris, originally considered law school prior to applying to Harris. 

“One of the reasons that prompted me to go into policy school [was] to understand a little bit more about how the laws and guidelines and policies are crafted…my local stations, so that I can help translate that nationally and internationally. I think that anybody who’s really intentional about making real change and a real difference is taking the time to evaluate the true impact of electoral politics in this time and in this moment, as opposed to engaging [the community] in ways that they haven’t been engaged before, especially using policy and politics as a tool.”

William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics the Harris, said that this next generation of “policy entrepreneurs” must look for alternative ways to advance their goals in order to circumvent the current political dysfunction. He said his students are inspired to get involved with social movements rather than move up the party ranks. 

“Rather than taking your cues from Trump, either in what to do or what not to do, you try to build organizational capacity and, through it, power through local organizations,” he said. 

Steven Olikara, president and founder of Millennial Action Project (MAP), said he doesn’t anticipate this generation to only work from outside the system, but to disrupt from within, as well. 

“For those who go in the system, we will see a different way of governing, a different way of doing business and a different culture, because the system is outdated right now,” he said. 

“Government is outdated,” Olikara declared. “And what our generation will do, I think, is try and reinvent government for the 21st century. We’re seeing these young lawmakers seek to reframe issues, not in terms of left versus right, but instead in terms of the future versus the past. Using that type of generational approach has allowed us to bridge the divide on supremely difficult issues.”

In 2013, MAP organized the nonpartisan Congressional Future Caucus, the nation’s first and only caucus for young members of Congress, consisting of more than 30 members of Congress across party lines.

“We care about the issues, and what we’re seeing this generation hit when they enter the political system is a binary, two-party system that’s constricting the universe of solutions that we can have,” said Olikara. 

Some of the issues that MAP’s Congressional Future Caucus tackled this legislative year include a bill to help train returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan into careers of the new economy, as well as an update to the Department of Defense skills training programs. Additionally, the Caucus was successful in passing and signing into law  a bi-partisan proposal that authorized the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

“What we’re trying to advocate for is effective legislating,” said Olikara. “That means working across the aisle and listening to different view points so they can sharpen your own ideas. That’s the whole reason that a legislature exists, to reconcile and represent the diversity of our country.”

Approaching policymaking with a willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to think outside the box will afford the new policy generation myriad points of entry to enact change within the realms they care about the most. 

“The work of political advocacy and social movements needn’t just be about finding opportunities to advance a particular policy agenda that you can’t get through, say, Congress, through traditional means,” said Howell. “It may be also about the work of political incorporation, about institutional reform, and about the reform of extra-constitutional organizations like parties. All of this is the subject of meaningful political action, and where I get hopeful is that young people will step into this space and set to work on reforming what we’re accustomed to calling traditional political organizations, but making them anew.”

“Where exactly can I have the biggest impact?” As he’s gotten deeper into his first year of studies, Head said he has been asking himself wherein the system (or outside of it) he will be able to have the biggest impact. 

“Is it within the system of electoral politics, which many times can be very slow going dealing with a very slow bureaucracy?” he said. “There’s power and there’s money and there’s politics and there’s campaigns and there’s deals and there’s so many different things that can sometimes hold people back from doing some of the real good work that they want to do. At the end of the day, you can know public policy, but if you don’t know and understand politics, and how that plays a role in actually getting things done, then you’re doing your people a disservice as well.”

During a panel discussion regarding millennials and the midterms hosted by Harris at the end of November, Olikara, Howell and others discussed what millennial voting patterns from the midterms indicated about the generation’s political priorities more broadly. 

Dubbed “insurrectionists within institutionalism,” by Olikara, this generation’s defining legacy might not be their party politics or affiliation, but rather the structures they create or remake.

Millennial Dreams: Policy Leaders Break through the Gridlock

The next generation of policy makers is circumventing current constraints on productive policy creation and adopting non-traditional approaches to making an impact in their communities and beyond. Positioned at the impasse of party and populism, young policy leaders are determining where in the political structure they want to operate -that is, if they even want to work within the system at all.

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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