Frequently Asked Questions
What do we mean when we say “youth are experts”?
Young people have unique perspectives on their communities, and know more about the issues in their schools and neighborhoods than many adults. Programs that tap into youth expertise and provide opportunities for young people to share their knowledge with decision-makers empower youth and can deepen and energize public policy debates.
What do we mean by "Action Civics" education?
Students internalize learning more fully when they have relevant hands-on experience in the field. Mikva Challenge’s programs are rooted in the experiential learning process. For the past 14 years, Mikva students have experienced politics in a number of ways: serving as judges in Chicago polling places, volunteering on political campaigns, hosting candidate forums, advocating for student issues with local politicians, developing policy papers for city commissioners, and publicizing their work and ideas with local media. All of these “actions” are coordinated around strong reflection and preparation activities that help students understand the larger issues and democratic processes involved in their work. To learn more about our philosophy of Action Civics, click here or read the Wiki page.
What do we mean by “youth voice”?
Young people rarely get the opportunity to say what they believe in, or give their solutions on issues in their communities. Ironically, they are also often left out of conversations on issues affecting them and their communities. We think young people should be given the opportunity to share what they know, and play an active role in the decision-making around issues that affect them, their peers and communities.
How are we different from other youth organizations?
There are three things that set us apart from other youth political and civic engagement organizations:
High school students vs. college students: Unlike many organizations that get young people to participate in the electoral process, Mikva Challenge stands out because we work with high school students rather than college students. Our electoral process is a lot more than voting, there are many ways to engage high school students in this process, even though they are unable to vote.
Non-partisan vs. partisan agenda: The only political stance that Mikva Challenge maintains is the idea that young people should have a seat at every decision-making table, especially when these decisions will disproportionately affect them, their communities, and their peers. Mikva Challenge is a non-partisan organization. Our students analyze and decide on what issues they will work on, who they will campaign or vote for, and how they will take action on issues affecting young people.
Real, authentic experience vs. simulation: Mikva Challenge offers young people the opportunity to participate in the ‘real world’ of politics. Students volunteer on election campaigns and see elections in action; serve as polling place judges; take action in their schools and communities; intern in the offices of elected officials; advise and lobby city and school officials on policy decisions affecting young people and their communities; interact with the media; participate in youth-led philanthropy; question candidates on tough issues at candidate forums; and work with other community leaders on issues affecting young people, their communities and peers. These and other experiences, not listed here, are all real, authentic experiences, which we think is the best way to engage young people in the political process.
Why do we think citizenship skills in a democracy are the same as professional skills?Here are a few things a good citizen in a democracy and a professional would have in common:
- A good citizen needs to know how policy decisions are made.
- A good citizen needs to know how to collaborate with others.
- A good citizen needs to be able to research and think critically about an issue.
- A good citizen would know how to voice their concerns in a respectful manner.
Written and oral communication, critical thinking and problem-solving, research, collaboration, and conflict resolution are all important citizenship skills, and are equally useful to secure success in the workplace. Students are trained in these and other civic, leadership and professional skills at Mikva Challenge.
How do we measure the impacts of our programs on students?
There are two levels to our evaluation at Mikva Challenge: students’ individual and systemic impacts. First, we measure students’ civic skills, knowledge, and disposition. In all of our eight programs, we seek to develop students’ civic skills and knowledge, and track changes in their attitudes towards politics and civic engagement. Second, we track systemic changes resulting from students’ work with outside stakeholders (i.e. city officials, school administrators, and others).
How do students get involved in our programs?
The vast majority of students become involved through their teachers—they are either part of a class or join an after-school club where a teacher is leading a Mikva Challenge program. A very small number of students join Mikva Challenge on their own, through one of our summer job programs.
How do teachers get involved in our programs?
The majority of programs are run in partnership with Chicago high school teachers. Teachers who participate in Mikva Challenge programs receive a small grant for the work they do outside of school hours, including attending teacher workshops, chaperoning students to events, or meeting after school. Every teacher who participates in Mikva Challenge programs receives training and program materials to support their program implementation. Teachers are responsible for determining the best ways to implement the programs in their school, and are expected to recruit students to participate in the program. Click here to learn how to become a Mikva teacher.
How do we see ourselves as part of a larger education (and civics) reform movement?
Public schools were created in America with the primary purpose of preparing children to participate constructively as adult citizens in our democracy. However, most high school students lack sufficient instruction and opportunities for the development of civic literacy that enables thoughtful and effective civic engagement. Mikva Challenge believes that not only is it important to teach young people about how government functions, it is equally important to give young people the opportunity to practice the skills and habits of effective citizenship and leadership.
Participation in our democracy entails more than voting (although that is a terrific start). Participation also means becoming intelligent consumers of the news, knowing how to advocate for your ideas, being able to map neighborhood problems and assets, communicating assertively and intelligently with public officials, knowing how to utilize the media to promote ideas and discussion, understanding how political campaigns operate, and when necessary, having the confidence and sophistication to protest injustices effectively.
While there has been a growing movement in this country to bring civics back into schools in a more prominent role, Mikva believes that more traditional civics is not enough. American democracy in the 21st Century requires sophisticated thinkers and actors. Action civics—where young people actually have the chance to practice authentic civic skills—is the right path for civic education in the decades to come. Action civics transforms young people’s civic attitudes, strengthens their leadership and civic skills, and provides them with both theoretical and practical knowledge of the political process that is required for youth to develop into thoughtful, active, and ethical citizens.
Our model for civic engagement fits well within this education reform movement. Experiential learning will also address the lack of alternative testing methods. While standardized testing is important to track students’ performance in traditional subject areas, there are other skills that are not being measured—critical thinking, collaboration, research, public speaking and other “soft skills”—all important skills needed to survive in the 21st century workplace, and in college.
What are people saying about us?
In the eleven years we have been training young people in the skills to become strong leaders, activists, and policymakers, Mikva Challenge has developed a strong reputation for providing young people with innovative opportunities to learn and shine. Here is what a few Chicago community, business leaders, Mikva participants, and others have to say about us and our mission:
- "Our democracy is its most powerful when we engage all members of society, including young people, in constructive dialogue." President Barack Obama, Letter to Mikva Challenge Youth Safety Council, 8/10/09
- "I feel like I am more powerful now that I am politically active, because America’s future is practically in the palm of my hands. I’ve never felt like I had a say in politics until now." Current participant in Democracy in Action and Mikva’s Campaign Program
- "The work that Mikva Challenge did in education for democratic citizenship was vital. It had a crucial impact on alumni, teachers, families, and communities. By working with youth in ways that recognize the complex, social, and individual nature of learning, it allowed the youth to transform themselves into civic and political actors, even leaders in their own right. In the process the youth became proof that citizens are made and not born." Lewis & Clark Education Professor, Janet Bixby, in her chapter focusing on Mikva’s programs in Educating Democratic Citizens in Troubled Times: Qualitative Studies of Current Efforts. SUNY Press, 2008.
- "I began working with Mikva Challenge 5 years ago and I am convinced that no other organization has had such an impact on my teaching and my students. Our students often lack hope. That hopelessness has a huge impact on students’ school performance and behavior. Mikva programs have a way of making young people act powerfully and feel powerful, and it transforms how these young people perceive themselves and the world. As a teacher, I value civic participation and community action, but my school of education did not prepare me to train students to actively engage in our democracy. Mikva Challenge has made me a better teacher and created countless opportunities for my students as election judges, campaigners, and activists." Linda Becker, Teacher, Social Justice High School
- "Mikva has taught me the principles of being a leader. They’ve taught me to be the change I want to see." Current participant in Issues to Action and Citywide Education Council
- Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan calls Mikva Challenge “one of Chicago Public Schools’ most important partners and a model for involving young people in civic life."
- "As a parent, I admit that I didn’t know much about Mikva Challenge at first. My son, Marc, became part of the Mikva family in his sophomore year of high school. That year, he volunteered for Sandi Jackson, who was running for 7th Ward Alderman. As time went by, I witnessed a change in my son. Basketball and video games were no longer on his weekend ‘to do’ list. I realized Marc was making a conscious change, and he now understood that the things he says and does can truly make a difference." Serita Ford, mother of Mikva Alumnus, Marc Ford
- Langdon Neal, the Chairman of the Chicago Board of Elections, believes that “the polling places could not function effectively without Mikva young people helping handle the new voting machinery."