JC Strzalka-Steil is our alum of the month!
Tell us about your Mikva Challenge experience.
Participating in Mikva Challenge was a life-changing experience. I was interested in politics from a young age, and Mikva provided me with opportunities through the Elections in Action program to build on that interest and get involved in ways where I could make a real difference for candidates I believed in. Those opportunities helped me develop the skills necessary to tackle larger campaign internships later on in high school, primarily at Obama for America in 2012 and John Arena for Alderman in 2014-15. (I actually got the latter internship by signing up at a Candidate Fair that Mikva Challenge hosted ahead of the municipals!)
In January 2013, I went on an amazing trip with a group of fellow Mikva students to witness President Obama’s Second Inauguration! We spent a week visiting important locations in DC, meeting with a local Illinois congressman, and attending the Inaugural festivities. Not only was this an absolute thrill – how many times does a chance like that come along? – as someone who worked really hard to re-elect President Obama, it was doubly gratifying. I also got to spend a week with a great group of people; the students I joined on the trip were just as enthusiastic as me about changing the world through political activism. It is certainly one of my favorite memories from high school, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in Mikva Challenge.
At my high school, Northside Prep, our Mikva chapter was very active in our school and community. Ahead of the 2012 elections, we hosted a Candidate Forum for the 5th Congressional District. Juniors and Seniors heard from all of the major candidates, asked questions, and learned about how they could get involved. Later that school year, we hosted a Gun Control Forum where representatives from several Chicago-area activist groups discussed ways to curb gun violence in our city. For the 2014 Gubernatorial primaries, we put together a wall-spanning poster near the school library about where the candidates in both major parties stood on the issues. This allowed first-time voters to make an informed choice when they stepped into the voting booth.
What are you doing now?
Right now, I’m an undergrad at DePaul University, Class of 2019, majoring in Political Science. I continue to stay active in politics and am currently the Field Director at Jesse Garfinkel for State Rep, a progressive Democratic campaign in Illinois’ 12th state House district (Buena Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Park).
How has your experience as a Mikva Challenge youth informed who you are today?
My years in Mikva Challenge absolutely shaped the activist I have become. Meeting fellow students from across the city and talking to them about issues important to our communities opened my eyes to the challenges that each part of our city faces and strengthened my resolve to do my part to improve society through political action. I realized that there are lots of other young people just like me who know that it is up to us to change the world; if we make our voices heard and put in the hard work, the world of tomorrow will be better than the world of today.
The contacts I made through Mikva and through opportunities provided by Mikva continue to open doors for me that I wouldn’t have even known existed. Politics has taken me across the country – from the Twin Cities suburbs to the streets of Baltimore, the hills of northern Virginia back to my hometown of Chicago – and seemingly everywhere I find myself, I run into another Mikva alum! I recently dropped by my old high school to recruit interns for my current campaign. The Mikva chapter there is bigger than it ever was in my four years at Northside. Seeing that another generation of students is learning to believe in their own ability to create change fills me with hope for the future.