Community: Mikva Challenge

Posted by Smita Kishore on

“Young people are brilliant and creative and brave, and they are survivors of many of the practices and institutions that adults have put into place. If we open space for young people and allow them to become empowered, and allow them to change our society, our society would be better off for it.” ~ Michelle Morales, CEO Mikva Challenge 

It's about time we highlight the charity that we've been donating 5% of our profits to since we launched Simply Smita: Mikva Challenge! Not only are they doing amazing work with Chicago youth and teachers, their CEO Michelle Morales is truly inspiring and has captivated our hearts. Read on to learn more about this amazing organization and get a sneak peek of our Special Edition Mikva Challenge Lip Balms coming soon!

Who They Are

Mikva Challenge is a non-partisan, not for profit founded on the premise that youth voice and participation in society matter. Their mission is to develop youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who promote a just and equitable society. By inspiring youth to form their own opinions and to recognize the issues they want to support, Mikva envisions a more inclusive democracy and believes that our civic and political life will be stronger when youth participate in the decision-making process of policies that affect them and their communities. 


    Action Civics + Why It Matters 

    Mikva believes to best train youth for their role as citizens and leaders in their communities, we must allow them a true chance to participate in authentic democratic activities, such as advocacy, elections, and public debates. Statistics show that youth who miss out on civic learning opportunities are more likely to be students of color and low-income. The consequence of this inequality is not only that disadvantaged students lack civic skills, but they also suffer academically, as just over half of Chicago public high school students graduate from high school, with less than 10 percent of Chicago public high school students receiving a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25.

    Since only a quarter of young people are “proficient” on the NAEP Civics Assessment—and white, wealthy students are 4-6 times as likely as Hispanic or black students from low-income households to exceed that level—Mikva Challenge aims to equip youth from underserved communities to help shape their own destinies to achieve a more equitable society. 


    Photo Source: Mikva Challenge

    What Makes Them Awesome

    Mikva Challenge has one of the most comprehensive programs for teachers and students that we have seen, ensuring that students are truly equipped with the knowledge, skills, and experience to affect change in their schools and communities. Their programs are so in depth that I could write an individual blog post on each one of them! I've done my best to highlight the key points of each program below, but please visit their individual pages to fully understand their value and to learn more about the impact they truly have on today's youth. 

    Issues to Action: Empowering Youth to Take Action in Their Schools + Communities

    Through their Issues to Action Program, Mikva Challenge takes youth education to the next level, by partnering with teachers to train students to develop functional problem-solving skills, both inside and outside of the classroom. Students learn to identify issues in their communities, and about local government and political processes, through research, analysis, and the creation of action plans to tackle these issues. Teachers are trained in this curriculum and provided with ongoing classroom support to develop students' critical thinking, public speaking, and research skills. City-wide events are also hosted to gather participating students from all schools to showcase their efforts, providing them real-life opportunities to put their knowledge into action. 

    Results Worth Noting!

    • Almost 4,000 students nationwide take part in a 6-step community problem-solving process every year.
    • 86% of participants in this program believe they can make a difference in solving community problems, compared to 41% before the program and only 55% of youth nationwide.
    • 98% of participants who attend the Action Civics Showcase report a belief that the work they have done is valued by the larger community.
    • Mikva’s Action Civics Teacher Institute brings teachers together to share best practices and develop tools and strategies to teach action civics in classrooms. 

    Photo Source: Mikva Challenge

    Mikva Youth Councils: Providing Youth a Seat at the Table with Public Policy Leaders 

    Through the creation of six issue-based youth councils, Mikva strengthens student participation in the formation, implementation, and evaluation of public policy in city government, by providing them a seat at the roundtable with local leaders. Youth in this program are inspired to speak out and take action on issues affecting their schools, advise city and school officials regarding these issues, advocate for change in their communities, and collaborate with youth from a variety of backgrounds. Students on these councils serve as youth policy experts and advocates, helping the Mayor, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, the Cook County Board President, City Commissioners, and other city leaders make public policy decisions that significantly impact their future. To learn more about the work of each council, click on them below!

    Results Worth Noting!

    • 95% of participants can critically analyze and take steps towards solutions for citywide issues (vs. 49% before).
    • The Teen Health Council trains and leads 40 youth wellness teams, who implement grassroots health activism programs in their schools.
    • Mikva’s Juvenile justice Council launched a web app, Expunge.io, to help people get their juvenile records expunged.
    • The Mayoral Youth Commission won Mayor Emanuel’s approval and successfully launched the Free CTA fare initiative to 10 schools with the aim of increasing school attendance rates. How amazing is that?! 

    Elections in Action: Providing Direct Political Participation Experience

    Campaign Program: Students in Mikva's Campaign Program learn to analyze issues, strengthen communication skills, and experience the ins and outs of campaigning via phone banking, door knocking, registering voters, and blogging. Students are given the opportunity to meet with candidates and ask informed questions about top issues facing youth. For many of Mikva's students, this program transforms their attitudes towards the political process and encourages a greater understanding of electoral politics, as well as a lifetime of civic commitment. 

    "I can make a difference. Before it always seemed like I was powerless in government, but canvassing and talking to citizens showed me that I do have power to change things." CPS School Junior

    Student Judge Program: Mikva Challenge teamed up with the Chicago Board of Elections to provide a program for over 2,000 high school juniors and seniors, from over 50 schools, to learn about the voting process and serve as election judges at polling centers across the city on Election Day. Youth in this program are given the opportunity to serve as election judges, campaign for candidates they believe in, and intern in the offices of elected officials. 

      Results Worth Noting!

      • 50% of alumni continue to volunteer for political campaigns (vs. 2% of 18-29 year-olds nationwide). That's a huge increase! 
      • Mikva’s Elections in Action Curriculum is being used by 700 teachers in 47 states—now that's how you affect change! 

      mikva-challenge-youth-program-chicagoPhoto Source: Mikva Challenge

      Summer Fellows Program: Providing Paid Internships

      The Mikva Summer Fellows Program provides students the opportunity to participate in paid internships in the offices of local, state, and federal elected officials. Participating students attend weekly workshops with Mikva Challenge staff to debrief their internship experiences, develop leadership skills, and learn what elected officials can do for their communities and how to get it done. 

      Results Worth Noting! 

      • 95% of student participants report increased confidence in working and communicating with others in a professional setting.
      • 10 elected officials participated in roundtable discussions with Mikva interns to discuss how to improve communication between Chicago youth and elected officials.

      "This experience has taught me so much more about networking, politics, and being a youth activist. I’ve been responsible and I’m more committed to my neighborhood. We’re ALL leaders in our own way and this is OUR world." Mikva Intern, Summer 2014

      mikva-challenge-youth-groups-communityPhoto Source: Mikva Challenge

      Neighborhood Leadership Initiative: Creating a Youth Voice

      Mikva's Neighborhood Leadership Initiative works to develop a youth voice in local decision-making and an exploration of racial and gender equity issues in Chicago. Youth in this program learn strategies to engage their communities in problem-solving, recognize multiple approaches to address the root cause of violence, successfully collaborate with peers to build a safe and supportive environment, and how to identify an issue, conduct research, build support systems and take action from beginning to end to affect positive change in their neighborhoods. Their focus for this year is:

      • Leadership development, root cause analysis of violence, asset mapping and exploration of identity
      • To participate with local Alderman to create youth-led participatory budgeting projects
      • Leadership Cafes – youth and community stakeholders come together to have dialogue on issues impacting their community

      To learn more about the impact of Mikva's amazing youth and teacher programs, click here

      More to Come!

      With all of these programs in place to successfully empower and equip youth to be active citizens, as well as to train teachers to truly engage and support their students, Mikva Challenge is not stopping there! I had the pleasure of sitting down with Michelle Morales, the Ceo of Mikva Challenge, to get a sneak peek of what's to come, as well as to gain more insight on how we can help engage our youth. Here's what she had to say!  

      S: What’s one thing you wish people knew more about Mikva Challenge?

      M: The robust youth development work that we do with young people. Many people think we are just an elections program or teacher development program. But we are rooted in relationship development. During our youth summit (mid-year), we train them on how to take action: breaking the issue down, root causes, figure out a solution, and how to put it into place. It’s not a Mikva project or program if it stops at the poster board. Implementation process is the key.

      S: What are ways we can encourage our children to be active citizens in our communities?

      M: It's important for adults to listen to their children and help guide what they may be interested in. One of my favorite examples: after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a young girl convinced her family and school to collect water bottles to send them. She wasn't Puerto Rican and she was 10 years old. Both the school and parents could have easily said no, but they encouraged her and supported her in collecting bottles to send. We don’t realize that we as adults tend to shut down ideas or try to control them. It’s important for us to take a back seat and listen and support, instead of shooting it down or controlling it. 

      S: What’s the greatest challenge you face at the moment?

      M: Demand. High, high demand. Either for teacher professional development or entities approaching us for youth development or to facilitate youth councils. We're trying to figure out funding, what’s an opportunity, what’s advantageous. It's not necessarily negative, but I'm trying not to overextend the current staff. It’s the best challenge to have.

      S: How can people get involved and help support?

      M: We host 3 to 4 events a year, where we need volunteers to help judge or just engage with youth. Young people and adults should engage more often so barriers and myths are mystified. 

      S: What exciting things can we expect from Mikva in this coming year?

      M: Next year is a heavy election year (mayor, alderman, governor) and we're in need of volunteers to take students campaigning. We're also beginning a college and career connections program for male Mikva student’s to help them plan post-secondary career and college. We're always looking for mentors for them, particularly of color, so they can relate and have someone to look up to that is like them. 

      We also have an exciting new initiative in September, our Young Women's Leadership Council, for 20 high school-age young women. The aim of this council is to address the gap of women of color in leadership roles, equity issues, as well as inspire them to be leaders in their communities.

      Having worked as a teacher at an alternative high school in Chicago's Humboldt Park community, Michelle saw first hand how disempowerment and marginalization affects many youth of color. She learned how engaging and respecting youth, their ideas and their voices can be transformational, both for the youth involved and their communities. She brings this passion for youth voice and empowerment to Mikva Challenge and firmly believes that once empowered and civically engaged, youth can change the landscape of Chicago and the nation. 

      Special Edition Lip Balm

      We were invited to this year's Action Civics Showcase at Bridgeport Art Center where students showcased the initiatives they've been working on all year. We asked students to describe what democracy means to them in one word. We took their responses and created a canvas for them to paint these words in, as a reminder that democracy is a verb! We also had the opportunity to teach them about the importance of being an educated consumer, knowing the ingredients they feed their skin, and the health benefits of detoxing their underarms and making the switch to a natural deodorant. 

      We converted this painting into a Special Edition Mikva Challenge Lip Balm. 25% of profits from these sales will help support their amazing programs highlighted above. To order your lip balms click here

      Here are some highlights from the event :) 



      Mikva Youth Painting What Democracy Means to Them at Bridgeport Art Center


      Before Removing the Tape


      After 😍 Look at their Creativity!  


      Do you believe in the power of youth? Donate, Volunteer or Become a Mikva Teacher today!

      Love + Light,

      Smita :)

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