The SIP: Season 2, Episode 2 Transcript

Ericka Jones (2011), Steven Olikara (2008), and Sue Suh (1992)

Learn more about The SIP and its second episode of the second season, A Quest to Rehumanize Politics with Steven Olikara (2008), here.

Intro music

Steven Olikara:

I started playing Wonderwall by Oasis. I don’t know if you recognized that. I was like, oh boy, I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that right now.

Laughing

Transitional music

Ericka Jones:

Hi, Coke Scholar family and friends, welcome to season 2 of The SIP, the podcast that shares a taste of the Coke Scholars around the world who are igniting positive change. My name is Ericka Jones, and I’m a proud 2011 Coca-Cola Scholar, originally from Los Angeles, and now finishing up my final year of ministry school in northern California. I’m an actor, a poet, a storyteller, but most importantly, a lover of people.

For those of you who are listening and may not be a Coca-Cola Scholar, welcome. We are glad to have you. To give you a little background, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation is the largest achievement-based and corporate sponsored Scholarship program in the country. Each year, it awards $20,000 to 150 high school students across the country who share unique passion for service and leadership.

It’s a competitive program to get into, but once you’re a Coke Scholar, the benefits go far beyond the money for college. You become a part of this bigger family for life. If you want to learn more, you can visit their website at Coca dash Cola Scholars Foundation dot org.

In this episode, 1992 Coke Scholar Sue Suh interviews 2008 Scholar Steven Olikara about his nonprofit, the Millennial Action Project, which works to activate Millennial policymakers to create post-partisan political cooperation. Sue Suh serves as the first chief people officer for TIME. Before joining TIME, Sue’s career spanned philanthropy and public service, including jobs with the Rockefeller Foundation in New York and Bangkok, and with the US Departments of State and Defense in Washington, D.C., New York, and Tripoli, Libya.

Sue was honored to be named a 2019 Folio 100 member in the C Suite category. Outside of media, she serves on the boards of the Classical Theater of Harlem and Special Olympics Asia Pacific. And recently, she served on the board of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. Sue graduated from Princeton University and Columbia University and was grateful to earn a Fulbright Award to South Korea, and a Presidential Management Fellowship with the US Federal Government.

Now let’s learn a little about Steven.

Steven Olikara is a political entrepreneur and founder and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, or MAP, the largest nonpartisan organization of Millennial lawmakers in the US. Working with over 1,500 elected leaders in Congress and state legislatures, MAP is building a new generation of leadership to bridge divides and strengthen our democracy.

A nationally recognized political commentator, Steven has been featured on news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, Washington Post, and USA Today. He hosts the WisPolitics.com and UW Milwaukee podcast Meeting in Middle America. Steven’s also the subject of the forthcoming documentary, the Reunited States. He’s been named a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum and an Aspen Institute Ideas Scholar, and a Truman Scholar. He’s based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and that’s not even half of his story. Now, here’s Sue and Steven.

Transitional music

Sue Suh:

Tell us what you’re doing right now. Like, what gets you up in the morning? What is your mission?

Steven Olikara:

Yeah. So that’s a good question. I feel called to serve a really challenging problem right now in our country, and it’s about the health of our democracy. And I think about the current challenge, which many of us see every day in the news, which is the toxic polarization in our country. But I look at it on an even larger time scale than that, because when you think about the American experiment in the context of human history, we are living amidst the first attempt to create the first ever multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, diverse democracy that governs itself ever in human history.

And that’s not easy, and we see the challenges of doing that in a number of the events we’ve seen this year, whether it’s the movement around racial justice, or being able to simply vote during a pandemic. But there is this underlying issue of a worsening polarization, suspicion and distrust in the political system that has manifested really in this dehumanization of each other, which is a huge threat to the ideal vision of a pluralistic, diverse democracy. And I think about that every morning, because people from backgrounds like mine, immigrant family, my parents came here from India, grew up in a town in Wisconsin where no one looked like me, or no one had a background like mine. And yet could still create community together, is truly revolutionary in human history, and it’s something worth fighting for.

So the way I express that is both politically and musically. We can get into the music if that’s of interest. But politically, it’s through Millennial Action Project, and it’s creating a generation of political bridge builders. And we focus especially on elected officials and state government and federal government, and that impact is going to grow over time, because these leaders will continue to rise in the system having built not only their relationships. I call it political bridging muscles. It’s a muscle you need to build just like you need to go work out every day.

Sue Suh:

Oh, really?

Steven Olikara:

And when you build that muscle, it becomes muscle memory. And we want to create that muscle memory for political bridge building in this time. And it’s important not just for the issues we see more immediately in front of us, like racial justice or immigration reform, or just trying to make sure we protect each other from the pandemic. But also longer term in terms of whether this experiment in diverse democracy will work out for the long term. That is a huge battle, but it’s worth fighting for.

Sue Suh:

I think that’s right. And do you believe it will?

Steven Olikara:

I think so. I think there are a few things that need to go right, for sure. I think we need to build a new consciousness of empathy in this democracy for it to really work. We need to express the empathy in not only our political conversations in Congress and policy conversations around climate change, for example. But also in our daily lives too.

We have a new film, a documentary that’s coming out, actually is out, I guess going to film festivals right now, called the Reunited States. And it features our journey with Millennial Action Project as well as a couple of other normal Americans who have been on this journey to depolarize the country, and probably the biggest takeaway from that movie is the idea that, what can we do about this? Each of us has a role to play in our daily lives in how we approach conversations with people around us. And that’s not only physically, but also digitally, on social media. And do we approach it with suspicion and demonization, or do we approach it with empathy and compassion and a desire to understand?

And that’s hard to do. I have a mentor who, he has this great line. He says, bridge building is not rocket science. It’s much harder. One thing I’ve been focused on recently is, how do we change the narrative on empathy, compassion, and bridge building in this democracy? Because sometimes there is somewhat of a narrative that it’s soft. It’s soft to be nice to people, essentially. And I think that’s wrong, because it is a strong expression of American democracy when we express empathy to each other. And we need to do a lot more of that.

Sue Suh:

You hear all of that, and you see what’s happening in the world. What are some things that you as an individual can do to take those steps? Because sometimes you hear, especially during this time of the pandemic when we’re all in our silos, in our separate places, and you see all of this polarized dialogue happening around you. What are tips that you can give to people that say, here’s how you can practice empathy in terms of where your own biases might be, other opinions that people have.

Steven Olikara:

Absolutely. Well, I’ll bring in the music here, because I find that music is a helpful metaphor for this question. And to give our listeners a little bit of background, I grew up here in Milwaukee, and my first passion in life was music. And I played in a lot of different types of bands. It ranged from rock bands, jazz groups, I had a folk band, an Eastern European folk band.

Sue Suh:

Oh my gosh.

Steven Olikara:

I had a klezmer band. And I’ll give extra credit to anyone who knows what klezmer music is. But also, I had a James Brown cover band. I had a hip-hop band with a turntables guy and a breakdancer. We really had a diversity of bands.

Sue Suh:

That is amazing. I’ve dreamt of being in a band, so I’m just living vicariously through you right now.

Steven Olikara:

It’s a lot of fun, and I’m still playing, and I’m working on a new album right now, actually. So I’ll give you three specific jazz modes that you can apply in your daily life. So, one is listening, taking a deep breath and listening. And I want to say just how profound listening is. Because on my first day in jazz camp, my instructor came up to us. We’re all ready to play, we’ve got our instruments and everything. And we’re just so amped to play. And he says, “No. Put away your instruments. We’re literally not going to play one note today, because the most important skill in jazz is the ability to listen with a big and open ear.

Sue Suh:

I love that.

Steven Olikara:

And that is the first step, because so often in our political conversations, we’re already revved up to give our side of the story, when the whole point of this experiment is to learn from different perspectives and think, by having a diverse legislature or Congress, we can get better ideas.

The second key jazz mode is improvisation. And you’ve probably heard this term used more in a musical context, but it has a non-musical application as well. But it is about this art of reframing a challenge. And we work on this in any number of policy issues. If you take climate change, for example, that we’ve had these old left versus right debates that are really conditioned in our minds, and if you can reframe it in a different way, in more of a future versus past type of lens, that’s something we do across the board in MAP. You can build new coalitions. And reframing is essential to almost any problem you need, because it allows you a new space for creation.

So that’s the innovation part of this. The third jazz mode is call and response. This is the most live…

Sue Suh:

Yes. I just wrote that down. That’s so funny. I was like, ask him about call and response.

Steven Olikara:

Did you really?

Sue Suh:

Yes.

Steven Olikara:

That’s perfect.

Sue Suh:

I love it.

Steven Olikara:

That’s perfect. So you’ve probably been to a couple jazz clubs out there in New York.

Sue Suh:

And also it’s like, jazz is so much about, as improv is being present.

Steven Olikara:

Yes.

Sue Suh:

Really, and that’s so much, and it can be so hard to be present in 2020, where there’s so much pulling at your attention and devices and everything else. But being present is such a core part of being able to navigate and bring your best self, and get the best out of others.

Steven Olikara:

Absolutely. You said it better that I could. That’s what this is all about with call and response is being present in order to have a true conversation with each other and hear phrases like bipartisanship and bridging and compromise. You wonder, well, are we just coming to find some least common denominator here, where it’s a dilution of ideas?

And I say no, in the jazz spirit, it’s an evolution of ideas when you’re riffing on each other. And you do so with your full sense of identity. And so for our sports fans out there, I’ll give a little football analogy. This is not about meeting at the 50-yard line. It’s about moving to a new field altogether. Again, not just at the high level. In our daily lives. Every interaction we have has a ripple effect, and over time it turns into a tsunami of impact.

Sue Suh:

I love that. And I think, and it’s interesting, the bipartisan, bridge building, we think that’s incredibly important. Sometimes it can be hard to get people’s attention with that, because it’s less electrifying, it’s less exciting sometimes. And I don’t know if you’ve been following, there’s a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. They just came out with their recommendations in the past couple of weeks. And they would always joke, we’re the most popular kids on the block.

It’s really interesting that we know this is the right thing to do, to bridge, and yet, to get that air time, you’re often crowded out by the more polarized opinions. How do you navigate that?

Steven Olikara:

Yeah, Sue, you’re so right about that. I’ve been reflecting on it today about that exact topic, because it is hard to get a positive constructive message out when it’s disproportionately not covered in the media. But I have to compliment you. The fact that you’re following the recommendations from the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, just is music to my ears. I’m kind of just in shock right now that you just said that. That is amazing. Wow.

Because that’s the kind of constructive, deliberative process that in many ways embodies how a Congress is supposed to function, that gets very little media attention. We all know that the media model generally is, if it bleeds, it leads, right? And with Millennial Action Project, we are in the business of building cross-partisan coalitions to get tangible things done. Gerrymandering reform, gun violence prevention research, clean energy technology development. Getting issues moved up the hill.

And I just see how the media reacts to those things. They usually focus so much more on the problem. But then when there’s solutions, there’s much less coverage. So now let’s get to the positive part of this conversation.

Sue Suh:

Yes. Let’s.

Steven Olikara:

So a couple of things there to highlight. One is, there actually is a very powerful new network of journalists focused on solutions, and it’s aptly called Solutions Journalism Network. We’ve worked with them on a few occasions. I’ll just give an example. Here in Wisconsin, we did a two-year-long dialogue series, across the polarized divide, called Red and Blue Dialogues, bringing elected officials, constituents across the divide, focusing on tangible issues, and taking action afterwards.

So that’s one exciting development. And then two other exciting developments that I just get fired up about, that I think can be a huge part of the solution. One is, what we’re doing right now, podcasts. Podcasts are bringing so many new, in-depth, honest and authentic stories to a new audience, and bringing often unlikely bedfellows together into political conversations, and that’s why I decided to start a podcast earlier this year called Meeting in Middle America. And it’s affiliated with Millennial Action Project, as well as the local university and local political media outlet here, called WisPolitics.com. And it’s been an amazing platform to get stories out that cable news and other news outlets might not typically share. And it’s been hugely positive.

And the final thing is, I’m very fired up about, is documentaries. Because documentaries are just being… I feel like they’re getting more popular, but you see them on streaming platforms like Netflix and HBO and Hulu, and documentaries are also allowing important stories to breathe and bringing in new viewership to it. Because we all know that streaming is the future for broadcast, most likely, and on demand. And so I think documentaries are very exciting. But I’ll end with one quick story, which is, I used to do a lot of cable news commentary. I’ve been on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, I’ve done all of that.

And it’s been fun, but I also have seen the political media industrial complex up close, and I’ve had to make some tough decisions about turning down a number of media opportunities where they’ve asked me and other people like me to fit into a box that wasn’t true to who we were. Because I believe in a genuine, empathetic jazz oriented conversation where we’re trying to learn new things, and that’s usually often not what they’re looking for. And yet, there’s so many eyeballs. The amount of visibility we got in Millennial Action Project when I do national hits like that has been huge. The number of people signing up for Millennial Action Project always spikes after I do a CNN hit.

Steven Olikara:

But I think we also have to be true to who we are, and the positive messages we want to put out. And so I’ve been interested in, how do we make a positive message catch fire using the new mediums of communication that we have?

Sue Suh:

I love that. And I think you’re really onto something. Especially now again, where we’re all separated, many of us, because of the pandemic. We’re in our own homes, we’re in our own lanes much more than usual. The podcast is literally the friend in your ear, or the voice in your ear, and you can really roll out a longer form narrative that provides all of the context. And a documentary’s the same. We live in such a sound bite culture, and a culture that, for all of our talk about, we want to know your story, but it has to fit within this number of characters, or this number of words, because I don’t have the attention span to actually think more about that.

And I think I really admire the work you’re doing, and putting Millennial in the title. Because speaking of a term that people love to put in a box, it’s always, “these Millennials.”

Steven Olikara:

That’s so true.

Sue Suh:

And I feel like that does such a disservice to an entire generation that is not only about itself, but about how do we all work together across generations? And I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you see that box coming that they want to put around you and expand it and move it around so that you can play jazz in that moment.

Steven Olikara:

Totally. Well, in politics, we’re thrown and fed so many boxes. And I think the challenge we have, and you mentioned Millennial, and a lot of people have tried to paint us in a box of numerous stereotypes that we’ve had to combat. And I’ll maybe give one example of that. There was this idea of Millennials being really self-obsessed and lazy, but I always remind people, Millennials have the highest service participation rate in the country. Millennials are disproportionately doing AmeriCorps and Teach for America, and Peace Corps. Millennials are on the front lines of being First Responders right now in this COVID-19 pandemic.

And meanwhile, Millennials have had to build up some significant resiliency having had not one but two economic crises that we’ve had to absorb, both the financial crises about a decade ago, and then the one we’re going through right now. I think the power of narratives is so important, and that’s why with Millennial Action Project, we’ve been trying to partner more with storytellers to try and shake these boxes that are out there, both for young people, but really for our whole country. I think we’ll have a better democracy if we do that.

Sue Suh:

That’s right. And the more we realize that boxes actually serve to separate versus bring people together, then I think we’ll start to make some progress.

Steven Olikara:

Absolutely.

Sue Suh:

And I hear you talk, and all of the amazing people in the network that you’ve built who are so mission-driven, and serving the public, and pouring their heart and soul into everything they’re doing right now. That takes a ton of energy. And it’s often the most mission-driven, action-oriented people that put their own self-care last. How do you balance that, both as a leader in yourself and what you’re doing, and to coach the network around you? It’s that metaphor of, as much work there is to do, putting the oxygen mask on first before you’re helping others, is essential to make sure that energy keeps going in the right direction.

Steven Olikara:

Such a good question. And one that I’ve meditated on a lot. Because especially, we’re in the early days of starting something as an entrepreneur. It truly is all-consuming. And I was looking ahead to this fall season, and I’m thinking to myself, unless I do something to take better care of myself, then this fall season is just not going to work. I started to focus on four elements that I thought could lead to a step change in ability to function and perform at a really high level.

So one is, scheduling. But in my case, I had my assistant take a very close look at the schedule, trying to figure out how my writing time and my thinking time is well organized against all of my meetings, as an example, and speaking engagement. Second thing is, methods of communication. Because we’re just, especially if you’re a leader, running something, you’re just getting bombarded with calls and texts and emails. And that can become very overwhelming too, and I think it’s important. And you add social media things on top of that.

And so I make sure that I turn my phone off for a decent portion of the day, so I can stay focused and not feel like I’m getting hit at from a million different directions. And then the third thing is, your team and your volunteers. Truly, if you can elevate the game of the people around you, it’s going to pay dividends down the road.

The final thing, most important, is mental clarity.

Sue Suh:

Yes.

Steven Olikara:

And I think we can build up mental clarity through a number of different practices. I am a very active meditator, and I meditate every morning, every evening. And then one thing, I wouldn’t just say this lightly, and definitely if you hear this, do some research on it and make sure you’re doing this wisely, but I also have done some fasting as well, controlled fasts in order to further cleanse my mind and body.

Dr. King did it regularly, and I’ve spoken with his family a little bit about them. But I think the biggest thing to take away is just, the metaphor I use is surfing. If you’re in the water, and I have been surfing. One of the greatest things I’ve done in my life.

Sue Suh:

It’s the best. Oh my God.

Steven Olikara:

It’s amazing.

Sue Suh:

It’s amazing.

Steven Olikara:

And so, just imagine yourself paddling out in the water, and the difference between the wave just crashing over you, or surfing the wave. And I think our goal, we’re all busy people, we’re all getting hit with a lot, is to surf the wave and be in control. And I think that has a huge positive impact on our self-care.

Sue Suh:

That’s right. No, I really appreciate that. And I think the surfing analogy is really good too, because that also is about being very present. If your mind is somewhere else, there is no doubt that that wave’s going to get you. And I love those four steps that you mentioned, and like you said, those are really great categories for people. And people can do their research as to what meets them, and what they feel comfortable with, but I love that approach. I think that-

Steven Olikara:

And Sue, actually, believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve ever shared that publicly. So you heard it here first.

Sue Suh:

Oh my gosh. Well I’m honored that you shared it, and I also want to commend you, because when you’re a leader, being vulnerable and talking about this is not always the easiest thing.

Steven Olikara:

That’s right.

Sue Suh:

And I think that I’m so grateful that we’re in a time where it is more and more embraced, and not only embraced as tolerable, but embraced as essential. Really sharing that humanity with others, and how you manage that. So thank you so much for sharing that.

And so if you think back on your Scholars Weekend experience and where you are now, what would you say to yourself if you were both having coffee? If you were both on a Zoom right now, what would you be saying to teenage Steven?

Steven Olikara:

Oh my God, that is one of the greatest questions I’ve ever been asked. That is incredible, wow. Yeah, because my Scholars Weekend was a pivotal moment in my life, to be honest. I think it was the first national Scholarship that I had won. And so that has a pretty big impact on your self-confidence that, hey okay, maybe I’m actually onto something here. So that had a big impact, just in my life. And I think it really gave me a boost going into college, and that has snowballed on itself and ultimately led to a lot of the things I’m doing today.

So I think back at Scholars Weekend, I probably would say a couple of things. One is, it’s okay. Okay, can I share something kind of funny with you?

Sue Suh:

Oh my gosh, please. Please.

Steven Olikara:

So I remember showing up at my Scholars Weekend, and I noticed that a number of the other Scholars already knew each other. And I’m thinking to myself, wait, aren’t we all coming here for the first time? How do you all know each other already? And what I eventually discovered is that a number of them had been involved in the science fair circuit and had won a number of the major science competitions, they’d been finalists and semifinalists, and they had been doing independent research. I guess I would just tell myself that it’s okay that you didn’t do those science fairs in high school. That would be my first thing. It’s okay that you don’t know everyone at Scholars Weekend.

But the second thing I would say, on a more future-oriented note, is that some of the people that you meet are going to become lifelong friends. So in my Scholars class was Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, California. Him and I, we could have never believed when we were seniors in high school, when we first met, that we would now, our lives in politics and public service would come intersect in so many profound ways over the years. And a number of other people have been lifelong friends as well.

So I think that would have just been something to pay attention to. And then I think the final thing is, just try and enjoy it as much as possible. It was one of my favorite experiences coming out of high school. And one other piece of advice I would give for my younger self is that one of the most profound insights I’ve ever come across, and it still guides me to this day, comes from my favorite novel, and it’s The Alchemist. Have you read The Alchemist?

Sue Suh:

I have. Oh gosh, ages ago. Oh my gosh.

Steven Olikara:

Yeah. Well, one of the takeaways of the book, and I recommend it to everyone, is that when you walk in your purpose, the universe starts to conspire for your success. And to find that purpose, you usually have to take a big leap of faith into a risky and uncertain place. And it requires a lot of courage to do that.

Sue Suh:

That’s right. And just putting those signals out into the universe. Because the universe is awesome. And like you said, it’ll conspire for you. But it’s first got to know in what direction.

Steven Olikara:

Yes, that’s a good point.

Sue Suh:

So taking that leap of faith, exactly as you said, is such a great step. Because you’re like, okay, I’m going to dip a baby toe into this… and then you just kind of keep going. And then eventually you’re paddling out and you’re starting to surf. There’s this wonderful, the Leadership Development Institute that Scholars Weekend has started to institute over the past several years is wonderful. And there’s this great exercise that they do where they invite Scholars from past years to be counselors and facilitators. And working with the current class.

And there’s this great exercise. Tell me if you did this, but everyone’s getting an index card. Including the facilitators. And you write on an index card, a fear or something that kind of makes you uncomfortable. And then the group collects the index cards. They’re all anonymous. And then someone stands up and reads all the answers.

And whether you’re a facilitator who’s 20 years into their career, or you’re this current high school student, the theme is so similar. And that is either, I worry that I’m not supposed to be here, or, I worry that they’re going to find out that I shouldn’t be here. Right? So I somehow fooled everybody, and here I am, and someone’s going to know. And I worry I’m going to let people down. And that can be hard as a leader. Because you want so much to succeed and drive. See, I could talk to you all day. This is so much fun.

Steven Olikara:

Oh, likewise.

Sue Suh:

There’s a feature that we can move to now called Fast Five.

Steven Olikara:

Oh, I love it.

Sue Suh:

And it’s a little bit of a lightning round. So I’m going to ask you a couple questions. And you just tell me what the first thing is that comes to your mind.

Steven Olikara:

Perfect.

Sue Suh:

Okay, ready? Question number one. What are two apps or websites that you cannot live without?

Steven Olikara:

Oh, man. Well, I would say Twitter and MillennialAction.org.

Sue Suh:

Nice.

Steven Olikara:

Little plug in there for our website. But it’s true, though.

Sue Suh:

Right, of course. Perfect. And if I looked at the music on your iPhone library right now, what would most surprise me?

Steven Olikara:

Oh, boy. You’d be surprised by a lot of things on there. One second you could be listening to some punk rock from the 1990s, and another second you could be listening to Bill Evans and Miles Davis.

Sue Suh:

I know you just talked about The Alchemist. But what’s your favorite book or piece of music or art that has helped or inspired you in life?

Steven Olikara:

I think probably the most profound book I’ve read so far, oh, it’s actually in my bedroom right now. It’s called The Radical King, by Cornel West. And it’s about Dr. King and some of his most important sermons and speeches and reflections. But the thing you take away from that actually comes full circle to what we talked about earlier about bridge building in a democracy.

He believes that the power of radical love is essential to this experiment. And that comes out in this book, and I think it articulates well how Dr. King was both a radical change agent and a political bridge builder. And he believed that it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. And the bridge between those concepts is radical love. It’s radical love for people who are suffering and who are marginalized and who have been oppressed. And it’s radical love for people who have oppressed you as well. The true enemy is not the oppressor, the enemy is oppression itself.

And so what he’s trying to say is that people who are the oppressor are just as much, they’re victims of an evil system, and we need to focus on the system itself.

Sue Suh:

That’s right. Cornel West is extraordinary, and I love the summary of Dr. King’s radical love. And isn’t it something that the pairing of a word like radical, which has its implications, with something as essential to humanity as love, is a really powerful statement, I think. And so the radical act is actually lead with love. Let’s think about that.

Steven Olikara:

That is the radical act. That’s totally revolutionary, to lead with love. Totally revolutionary.

Sue Suh:

Yes. And let’s start that revolution, or let’s continue that revolution. Let’s find others who want to participate in that revolution.

Steven Olikara:

Absolutely.

Sue Suh:

So the next one is, what quote or motto do you live by?

Steven Olikara:

The best piece of advice I’ve gotten, and it came from a mentor, and it was in the days that I was deciding, as I mentioned earlier with The Alchemist. Do I take the leap of faith in launching this new unproven startup, that it’s not just starting a new organization, it’s going against the grain of the entire political industrial complex that we have? And all of the political incentives we have that really are premised on division and dehumanization.

So do I take this leap of faith? And the mentor said to me once, he said, “If you think someone ought to do something, that person is probably you.” And I think that’s a profound quote, especially in these times that we live in, because it’s a turbulent time, and we sometimes wonder, what is our agency to be part of the solution? And I believe this, whether it’s in my domain or what anyone else is working on. If you see a problem, you can be the solution too.

Sue Suh:

I love that. I think that concept and word of agency is so powerful. And you want to almost… I’m a really visual person. You almost want to pop that word agency up in front of you and grab hold of it, and start going. And just hold on to it and believe in it, and just know that you have that in you. And the last of the Fast Five is, what makes the Coke Scholars program and network unique?

Steven Olikara:

The family aspect of it. It has a big impact on your soul as well, just to feel that from the Coke Scholars staff, and of course that extends to the Scholars Network as well. And think about it, we’re still so plugged into the Coke Scholars Network so many years after we got the Scholarship, and that’s because of how much that this is not only a network, it truly is a family.

And I don’t know if that’s cliché to say or not, but truly, there aren’t that many, I’m a part of a number of different leaders’ networks of different kinds. And the dynamic that the Coke Scholars Network has created is truly unique. And I think it’s not worth taking… we shouldn’t take that for granted.

Sue Suh:

I couldn’t agree more. Do we have time for you to play something?

Steven Olikara:

I’m happy to try and dial something up here. Let’s see here.

Sue Suh:

So for those of you listening, we’re going to create the visual. Steven just got up, picked up, there’s one guitar on his wall. Apparently there was another one behind him, which he just picked up to play. It looks like an acoustic guitar, right, that you’re playing right now?

Steven Olikara:

Yep.

Sue Suh:

Whoo! I love it. Thank you for sharing that part of you with all of us.

Steven Olikara:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, that one is part of a new original song that I’m working on. So for music fans out there, I’m working on a new album. I describe it as Bon Iver meets Nirvana. So, stay tuned for that, and we’ve got a bunch of new songs that, they’re folks songs at their core, but they’ve got a grungy edge to it, and our EP’s going to be called Out of Darkness, because I think we all need something that’s going to feed our soul, to help us lift out of this turbulent time that we’re living in.

Sue Suh:

Wow. Well, I think that is such an inspiring note to close this with. You’ll have to come back when you’re debuting your new EP. But I think Out of Darkness is exactly how I feel this conversation was. Steven, thank you so much for spreading your light to everyone and encouraging them to find their own light, and spread it themselves. I just think it’s… I really look forward to continuing to cheer you on in all of your work, and I’m so grateful to the Coke Scholars Foundation for bringing up together and for allowing all of the Scholars that we have in our network to hear what you’re up to, what gets you up in the morning, your encouragement for everyone else.

So thank you so much, it’s been a total gift to spend this time with you.

Steven Olikara:

It’s been an honor, Sure. And so grateful to be a part of the Coke Scholars Network, and grateful to be in your presence today.

Transitional music

Ericka Jones:

We hope you enjoyed this episode of The SIP, featuring Sue Suh and Steven Olikara. For links to the Millennial Action Project and other things they discussed, check out our show notes, or Coca dash Cola Scholars Foundation dot org.

And if you have an extra minute, we’d love for you to rate this show or leave us a review. Tune in for episode three in two weeks, when 2000 Scholar Kevin Shen will interview fellow 2000 Scholar and Stanford alum Lillian Singh. Lillian coaches teams, organizations and communities on building and owning their power towards economic resilience and social justice. Lillian’s work is important and timely, and we promise you won’t want to miss it. See you next time on The SIP.