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'Democracy is a verb': Action-oriented civics unfolds in the nation's capitol
Mikva Challenge's National Youth Summit convenes 100 students from across the country in D.C.
From Sunday to Tuesday, Mikva Challenge — a Chicago-based nonpartisan organization that provides action-oriented civics education curriculum and empowers young people to advocate for issues they care about — hosted its first ever National Youth Summit in Washington D.C.
The summit convened 100 students from across the country — each of whom attends a school that uses Mikva programs and curricula.
While in D.C., the students met with elected officials including Illinois Reps. Lauren Underwood (the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress) and Chuy García, both Democrats, as well as Michigan Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican.
"At Mikva, our curriculum is called Issues to Action, and the National Youth Summit represents that idea coming to life. This is far more than a class trip. This is a diverse group of 100 young adults taking the issues they've studied in their schools and coming to Washington, D.C. to learn from one another and make sure their elected representatives hear from them,” Mikva Challenge CEO, Verneé Green told The Up and Up.
Part of the Mikva Challenge’s programming includes “Project Soapbox,” a public speaking initiative. As part of the D.C. summit, 13 middle and high school students gave a soapbox speech (or a call-to-action speech) on issues that resonated with them ranging from mental health in Kentucky, to racism in Wisconsin, and equality and acceptance in Michigan.
Ahead of their speeches, I spoke with four students about what they were planning to discuss.
Here’s what they had to say:
Isabella Mei, a junior from Detroit, Michigan, spoke about gun rights and gun regulation. She felt compelled to address the issue after four students were killed in the 2021 Oxford High School shooting just 28 miles from where she lives in Michigan. “It didn’t feel real,” Mei told The Up and Up, noting that though she often hears about mass shootings in the news, “it’s usually across the country.” She felt a palpable need for action when the shooting was so close to home. “I want to help toward a solution,” she said.
Ian Evans, a junior from Houghton, Michigan, spoke about bigotry and discrimination against the LGBTQ community in his home community. “My speech starts out with a story of me from when I was walking down the hallway this past fall and out of nowhere someone had cut across my path. One of them decided to call me a slur,” he said. “I had never actually experienced that straight up. It was really shocking.” Evans said his speech is a “call to action.”
“Gen Z as a group, we must, we all have to promote equality and acceptance. We have to be the ones who change this,” he said.
Adrienne Nadine Osmena, a junior from Riverside, California, said her speech about sexual health education was inspired by Queen. She became passionate about the topic and HIV/AIDS prevention after learning about the band’s lead vocalist, Freddie Mercury’s battle with the virus — which ultimately led to his death. After watching the movie ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Osmena said she “felt a need to defend” Mercury and the LGBTQ community given the stigma around the virus. Since then, she’s advocated for more comprehensive sexual health education and LGBTQ inclusion in sex-ed curriculum. “It’s upon the people in power, our parents, adults, and legislators, who hold the ability to give such education to us,” Osmena said. Without LGBTQ history included in education, Osmena said, “When we take that away from a community with such rich history, it hampers the potential for queer youth.”
And Jermaine Smith, who’s 18-years-old and from Washington, D.C., said his speech is about “black on black crime.”
“Being a kid from the inner city, I’ve lost friends from gun violence and things going on around me,” he said. “I really wanted to put emphasis on [creating more] trade opportunity centers.”
While choosing a high school, Smith realized college may not be the best option for him. He now attends Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in D.C., where he specializes in IT.
“We don’t always talk about trades,” Smith said. But, “it set me up with my future.”