People have two choices when they don’t like what’s going on around them—do nothing, or make a change.
Matthew Olsen prefers the latter.
Olsen, an Administrative Leadership graduate student, has always been fascinated with politics, specifically how social trends dictate who gets elected. Although he is highly involved in his southwest Oklahoma City community and pours hours and hours into volunteer work, anxiety always kept him from taking the leap into candidacy.
But, when the 2016 presidential elections left him feeling unsettled, he knew he had no choice but to do something about it.
“I was dismayed. I was worried about what kind of changes were going to take place and how these changes would affect the disenfranchised,” he said.
More than anything, he was worried about how he was going to explain the current political climate to his small children.
After mulling it over for a few days, Olsen asked his friends and family members if they thought he had the qualities needed to run for office. The answer was a resounding, “yes."
So, last December, despite being in the middle of a master’s program, working a fulltime job and raising a family, Olsen, 35, took the college mission of active citizenship to heart and declared his candidacy for city council in Oklahoma City’s Ward 3.
“There is so much news coverage depicting how people feel about various issues, but it’s a different beast entirely when you’re sitting in the living room of a single parent who works two jobs and doesn’t know how to get out of their current situation. I saw a lot of this, and it made me want to fight for everyone who didn’t feel like they were being heard politically.”
“I’ve tried to lead by example,” he said. “I decided to throw my hat in the ring and give it a shot.”
Olsen ran a progressive campaign against a longtime incumbent. While he didn’t win the Feb. 14 election, Olsen said he still considers the campaign a success.
“We ran this race with absolutely no budget, aside from the $200 filing fee to declare candidacy,” Olsen said. “The fact that we ran a progressive, grassroots campaign and came within two percent of a runoff against a four-term incumbent in the most conservative ward in the city is something I’m quite proud of.”
Olsen said while visiting with voters, he was surprised by the number of people who felt like they weren’t being represented. The majority were looking for a candidate who would represent them for what they actually believed and wanted rather than someone seeking political gain.
“Some haven’t been represented in a long time, others felt like they’d never been accurately represented,” he said. “I spent a lot of time knocking on doors and getting to know people who just felt very disillusioned by politics in general.
“There is so much news coverage depicting how people feel about various issues, but it’s a different beast entirely when you’re sitting in the living room of a single parent who works two jobs and doesn’t know how to get out of their current situation,” he added. “I saw a lot of this, and it made me want to fight for everyone who didn’t feel like they were being heard politically.”
Olsen said the campaign also taught him a lot about himself.
“I’m a fairly anxious person. I have a lot of social anxiety, but I like to stay busy and figured running for office would be a great way to get over that innate fear, get out of my bubble and meet people,” Olsen said. “I’ve always thought about running for office in some capacity, but I was never sure how to make the leap until 2016.”
He said his biggest takeaway was learning that when an opportunity presents itself, the best thing to do is dive in and grab it.
“I was concerned about how people would respond to me, and during the process I learned very quickly that none of this was about me at all,” he said. “It was about the people I would be representing and how they needed to be heard.”
Olsen credits the PACS program for making it easier to run for city council and stay in school. During the campaign, he was able to do school work during his free time.
“I was able to work on my classes during my downtime,” he said. “I was working a 9 to 5 job and working with our restaurant groups during the weekends. I spent many nights knocking on doors, making phone calls and responding to emails.
“My wife and children were incredibly helpful and supportive,” he added. "They helped reach out to folks in our ward as well."
Without that flexibility, Olsen said he wouldn’t be able to fit school into his busy lifestyle in the first place. He first started a bachelor’s program in 2000 but didn’t earn his degree until he was 34.
“I just wasn’t able to follow through,” he said. “After getting married and wanting to show my children a better example, I re-enrolled when I was 30.”
He went into his master’s program immediately after getting his bachelor’s degree.
“I wanted a degree that I could work toward on-the-go, and the University of Oklahoma has a great reputation,” he said. “Professor Diane Harp was great. She was patient and understanding. You can really tell that she enjoys what she does for a living, and that can make all the difference in the world.”
Olsen said he plans to finish his master’s degree and continue doing advocacy work in the city. Despite the city council loss, Olsen said politics are definitely part of his future.
He plans to run for city council again in 2021, and he has his eye on running for a Democratic National Committee position soon.
He also wants to get more involved in his church and perform more service work.
“Working with the homeless, abused children, disenfranchised minority groups and recovering addicts is my ultimate goal,” he said. “I find these things far more important than running for office. Having a voice on the city council, however, would provide me an opportunity to speak up for these folks.”