October 31, 2020

Before I got involved in politics, my first passion in life was music.

For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.

This article is part of the #BuildItBackBetter track “The Relational Era: Building a Culture of Connection, Bridging and Belonging” — presented in partnership with Einhorn Collaborative.

Before I got involved in politics, my first passion in life was music.

Growing up as the son of Indian immigrants in Greater Milwaukee, I found music to be a powerful force to understand and bridge the stark divides of our community — the most racially segregated metro area in the United States. I played with a surprising combination of bands, each a motley crew spanning multiple lines of difference. At one point, I was in a jazz ensemble, a 70s-era funk cover band (think James Brown and Earth, Wind, and Fire), a hip-hop band (complete with turntables and breakdancer), alternative rock and punk rock bands (influenced by Radiohead and Green Day), an Eastern European folk band that specialized in Klezmer music (our full-page ad in the Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle was a big moment)… and more.

Each genre tapped into different subcultures within Milwaukee. When I witnessed the convergence of these spaces and their musical fusions, I saw expressions of American democracy in action.

It was this experience as a musician that propelled my interest in political change, and the vision for Millennial Action Project (MAP). Today, MAP is the largest nonpartisan organization of young elected leaders, focused on developing a generation of political bridge-builders to strengthen our democracy.

As I launched MAP, I couldn’t stop thinking about the mindset that came from jazz. This uniquely American art form taught me how to listen — and jazz musicians take listening to another level.

Thinking back to my first day of jazz camp, our instructor said, “Put away your instruments. We’re not going to play a single note. We’re going to sit here and listen.” So we listened to Coltrane, Monk and the jazz greats. We listened to our fellow musicians. We learned how to open our mind and be more present with people. Equipped with a big ear, an open mind, and a compassionate heart, we could improvise, experiment and evolve together to reach new musical dimensions. At its core, jazz is a “call-and-response” art form, thriving on interaction among bandmates and with audiences. I realized that these jazz modes can flourish outside of music too.

There are many individual actions and institutional reforms needed to reinvent our democracy in this turbulent time. Part of the solution that each of us can embrace? We must all become jazz artists. Let me elaborate.

I believe that three key jazz modes can help us build a healthier democracy—each mode is essential to bridging our fraught divides and creating transformative change:

  • Listening: listening with humility opens our minds and hearts to new or different perspectives. This practice activates our sense of empathy and allows us to build authentic relationships.
  • Improvisation and innovation: just as musicians riff on each other’s ideas, the jazz mindset in politics reframes an idea, breaking out of old partisan silos. Importantly, this process is done with your full sense of identity and originality, reinventing what you just heard into a new transcendent idea.
  • Call-and-response: this quintessential aspect of jazz captures the importance of live, fully-present conversations to learn, evolve, and form coalitions. While American political discourse has devolved into a “call-and-shutdown” culture, a more dynamic version of American democracy is a call-and-response political system.

President John F. Kennedy’s final speech was a tribute to poet Robert Frost, focusing on the role of arts in democracy. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” he said. America’s troubled, yet revolutionary journey to pluralism has yielded uniquely American art forms like jazz. It makes sense, then, that those art forms contain the ingredients for democracy to function at its best. When we listen, we empathize with others; when we improvise and innovate, we transcend old divisions; when we call and respond, we work together. Now, when the heart of American democracy is severely weakened, jazz is a tonic for democratic renewal.

Steven Olikara is a political entrepreneur based in Milwaukee, WI. He is the founder and CEO of the Millennial Action Project and host of the Meeting in Middle America podcast.

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Rep. Sara Jacobs


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