students in action

The Mikva Challenge: Students and Democracy
by Brian Brady

With our nation and democracy being challenged, schools are placing increased emphasis on teaching citizenship. However, quality civics education is more than teaching the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights. The actions of regular citizens are what give the democratic process energy and purpose.

The Mikva Challenge was founded to assist teachers in their efforts to engage students in hands-on civics lessons. The nonpartisan organization was launched six years ago in honor of former White House Counsel, Congressman, and Appellate Judge Abner Mikva and his wife, Zoe, a lifelong activist. The organization is built on the premise that young people learn democracy best by practicing it, as reflected in the unofficial staff motto of "democracy is a verb."

When John Kerry won the New Hampshire Primary, 58 Chicago high school students were present to witness the event. Students had spent five long days in New Hampshire campaigning for the presidential candidate of their choice. They attended campaign strategy workshops at St. Anselm College in Manchester and were exposed to the political and media circus of a New Hampshire primary. Every student had an opportunity to meet his or her candidate, and all the students met John Kerry who actually stayed on the same floor of the hotel as many of them. For Alberto Trujillo of Chicago’s West Side, the trip was also a chance to experience a new environment. "I never used to pay attention to politics before, but now I love it," he said. "I also like that I don’t have to watch my back out here."

Besides the trip to New Hampshire, Mikva Challenge involved over 150 students in the U.S. Senate primary campaign in Illinois. Students asked candidates questions at a student-run candidates’ forum televised on public television, and students chose to volunteer for one of the ten Republican or Democratic campaigns. Many students experienced the joy of election victory, while other students felt the sting of their first political defeat. The losses did not dampen their enthusiasm, however. Carneil Griffin of Steinmetz High School worked passionately for Howard Dean's candidacy, but when Dean was out of the race, Griffin quickly switched his focus to Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama. "Losing with Dean only made me more passionate in my work for Obama," said Griffin.

The Mikva Challenge attempts to make government real for students by connecting them to elected officials in the community and in classroom settings. Over the past two years, Mikva Challenge has expanded the scope of its programs to include public policy advocacy. More than eighty civic action projects have been created during this time by students who wish to make a difference at the school, community, state, or federal level. Students at King College Prep recently won second place at the Student Voices Civics Fair for their work lobbying state and local officials to provide housing for tenants recently displaced by the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes. Students at Austin High School took on a more local concern by successfully lobbying their principal and local school council to change the school's uniform policy and open up more slots in the school's vocational education programs for students. Other schools helped remodel homeless shelters, introduced recycling ordinances in city council, and set up meetings with their police commander to talk about reducing youth violence.

Public policy advocacy efforts of Mikva Challenge are driven by a belief that students are experts on youth-related topics, such as education and youth violence. Recently, a group of students challenged the Chicago Tribune editorial board on what they perceived to be an unfair question concerning drug felonies on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The Tribune eventually ran an editorial endorsing the students' opinion. In April, students went to Springfield, Illinois, to advocate for changes to the school funding formula to reduce reliance on property taxes. They held a press conference in the state capitol and lobbied more than a dozen legislators as well as the Governor's office.

Another Mikva program that directly connects students to the electoral process is the Active Citizen Project. Since 2000, Mikva Challenge has recruited and trained over 700 high school seniors to work in polling places on election day as election judges. Students have been praised by the Board of Elections for their energy and competence, and there is strong evidence that these students have been very influential in bringing out family and friends to vote.

The Mikva Challenge aims its civic education programs at both the minds and the hearts of students. Our goal is to stir their passions and get them to believe in a candidate or an issue. Mikva Challenge believes high school students are ready to experience the ups and downs of American politics, and our organization opens up pathways for Chicago students to become actors—not just spectators—in American democracy.

Read A Teacher's Perspective or check out the Activities.

Brian Brady is executive director of the Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based organization founded in 1997 to encourage young people to learn civics through actively participating in the democratic process.

Student Central | Students in Action
Mikva Challenge Intro | Article | Teacher's Perspective | Activities