Madison Mayoral Candidate Raj Shukla
Future Urban Spaces
Raj Shukla is a first-generation Indian American whose
parents moved to the United States from the subcontinent
of India in the 1960s.
“I grew up in Waukesha County,.” Shukla emphasized. “I think I was the person of color in Waukesha County when I was growing up there. It was a long time ago. I
was the Indian kid, the Chinese kid or Mexican kid, all of the everything. I do believe in always embracing everyone despite differences not just because it feels
right, but because it is a matter of survival growing up in Waukesha County. You better make friends fast with lots of people who are very different than you.”
Shukla first came to Madison when his older sister enrolled at UW-Madison. He and his siblings fell in love with Madison and all attended the UW.
“I majored in political science at UW-Madison,” Shukla said. “My sisters had done that and I just kind of fell into it. I think it’s a large degree at the university. But I
don’t think I thought at the time, ‘Oh, I want to go into policy-related stuff.’ I just wanted to get through school.”
Upon graduation, Shukla signed up for AmeriCorps and headed to Milwaukee to work at Public Allies.
“This program had you working four days per week with an area non-profit in Milwaukee,” Shukla said. “I was working in a foundation trying to drive businesses to
the poorest census tracks in Milwaukee. We helped them employ people and sell products as well. The main thing was for them to employ people. I did that for a few
years and then worked for something that was like a chamber of commerce. It was a civic organization called the Greater Milwaukee Committee where that project
kind of got housed.”
While Shukla started out working on urban economic development issues, he changed direction to focus on the environment, climate change and how it impacted
urban areas. It was the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina that drove him in a new direction.
“I felt compelled to go and do something, watching what was happening there, watching the impact that the storm had devastating the city,” Shukla recalled. “I’m a
music fan. There was so much great music that came out of that place. It has special meaning for me personally. And then I saw people suffering and the government
ignoring it. I hadn’t really thought about climate change much until then. I kept hearing that these storms are getting stronger and this isn’t going to end any time soon,
at least not in my lifetime, so we will have to learn how to manage it. I went down to New Orleans and delivered meals and water to people. I went a few weeks after
the storm. I was there during the second wave of volunteers who were going down to help. It wasn’t immediately afterwards. I came back on a change and feeling
that I needed to devote my life to this issue and issues surrounding climate change. It was less about the environment for me. It was about people and how we were
going to manage together. You have this example of New Orleans where it was felt that we could just ignore some people and others we will make room for and
others we’ll take care of. We’ll just ignore some people. And we can’t live like that. I personally don’t believe in living like that.”
Back in Wisconsin, Shukla and his wife decided to live in Madison because it was between Spring Green where her family lived and New Berlin where his was
from. And they had both graduated from UW-Madison, so they made Madison home.
Shukla had gotten a job with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project where he worked with high school students teaching them about climate change. It was a challenge to
teach the students without their eyes glazing over. They started incorporating video games and Shukla took that concept over to Cool Choices, which had originally
been called Wisconsin Climate Change Action Initiative. The decided to enlist people to take steps to prevent climate change through video games.
“We developed a piece of software,” Shukla said. “I designed it. And I started implementing it in companies across the state and country. The way it worked — we
did this companies all over the city of Madison too — is we went into a company and got employees to join teams and then you get them to play this very simple
game that gave you points for turning off lights when you left a room or adjusting your thermostat or changing your driving habits. You had to submit pictures and
proof of doing it. It was a fun little exercise and people built a community around sustainability. People started talking about it. People started sharing gardening tips.
There were all sorts of stuff going on. ‘Oh, this is the insulation that I put in my house.’ They did it as a part of the game and as a part of the community that grew up
around it. We would ask people to do that. And then they started doing it organically. The trick is like, ‘Okay we wanted to know though was it actually getting people
to change their behavior on climate issues.’ That is what we really cared about. We looked at energy bills and how much energy they were using before they played,
while they played and after they played. For two years afterwards — that is how much data we had — people were saving energy. They were changing the way that
they behaved. And that had an impact on climate change. And when you do that in aggregate across a whole company, that’s a big impact.”
Next issue: Environmentalism and a vision for Madison
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
By Jonathan Gramling
Raj Shukla, candidate for Madison mayor, is a first generation Indian American — his parents are from
the subcontinent of India — who learned early in life that he would have to work hard and actively
influence the environment around him to create a space where he could grow and prosper.
“I’m the son of immigrants,” Shukla said. “They came here in the 1960s from India. I was born in Kansas
and grew up in New Berlin, Wisconsin in Waukesha County. My parents showed me throughout my life,
just growing up — they grew up in poverty in rural India — that through determination and hard work and
building a community around themselves, that you can accomplish anything with those ingredients.”
As he was often the only person of color in classes within a conservative community, Shukla learned
how to create his own community.