Annual Report 2023

Celebrating 25 Years

OF MAKING DEMOCRACY A VERB

Letter From The CEO

Vernée Green

Are you worried about democracy? Me too. Let’s be honest, these can be unsettling times. Experts across the political spectrum are voicing concern about the levels of polarization in our country, and stability of our democratic institutions. For these reasons, we cannot ignore the urgency of this moment.


At Mikva Challenge, we know that every day young people can – and do – powerfully live out our motto: “Democracy is a Verb!” We know that the 300,000 young people that Mikva served last year left their Mikva experience with an increased sense of their own civic agency, a better understanding of how systems of government work, an increased level of responsibility to make their community stronger and, perhaps most importantly, an increased aptitude and readiness for conversations across lines of difference.

Our Vision

Mikva Challenge envisions a stronger, inclusive democracy that values youth voice.

Our Mission

Our mission at Mikva Challenge is to develop youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society.


Individuals Impacted by Mikva Challenge

Teachers Impacted by Mikva Challenge

Grounded in our founders' vision

We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.

These words, spoken by a Chicago ward committeeman to a young Abner Mikva as he tried to volunteer for the Stevenson/Douglas campaign in 1948, were unknowingly the beginning of Ab’s long career in politics and the genesis of what would become the Mikva Challenge.


Ab and Zoe Mikva knew that young people’s voices are vital to our democracy, and that a single positive experience as a young person can blossom into a lifetime of civic engagement. Mikva Challenge was founded to open up democratic spaces so that all young people know the power and importance of their voice in our democracy.

Imagine a nation full of young leaders that Ab and Zoe sent to be the change-makers of our democracy.

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Ab and Zoe Mikva

Learn more about Ab and Zoe’s remarkable careers of public service, their incredible commitment to empowering young leaders in our democracy, and how their values and vision continue to guide Mikva Challenge’s work.

“Of all the accomplishments in my professional life, what I am most proud of is helping found the Mikva Challenge.“

- Abner Mikva

“Because of the Mikva Challenge, so many of us can dream bigger and reach higher than we thought we could…. That’s all because we can now be somebody who Abner Mikva sent.“

- CHRIS BUTLER, MIKVA CHALLENGE ALUM

FORMER CANDIDATE FOR REPRESENTATIVE OF THE FIRST CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT IN ILLINOIS

- Abner Mikva

Reflection from Ken Adams

A reflection from one of Mikva Challenge's founders and current National Board Member following our first all-staff strategic planning retreat in the fall of 2023.

Sitting in a room filled with a diverse collection of bright, mostly young, enthusiastic people committed to unlocking the potential of today’s youth, in the hope that they will advance the fight for a more equitable, just society and world – I found myself thinking often about Ab and Zoe. How proud they must have felt to see their vision coming to life in the early years of the Mikva Challenge program, and how amazed they would be to see how it has grown and evolved.

So many organizations (and governments) stagnate and decline because their future is dictated by their oldest leaders, who are least in touch with the changing times and with the needs of their constituencies. As long as Mikva Challenge continues to grow and change in response to the changing times and the expressed needs of the students (and teachers) it serves, it will continue to perpetuate the memory and legacy of Ab and Zoe, as we had hoped and intended 25 years ago.


Learning democracy by doing democracy

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From the beginning, Mikva focused on learning democracy by doing democracy. Through hands-on campaign work and interactions with candidates and elected officials, our Elections in Action program empowers young people to become informed about and engaged in elections – even before they are old enough to vote. Our Mikva Summer Fellows program places high school students in local elected officials’ offices, providing students with a first hand experience in local government, while bringing youth voice into local policymaking. Our signature Issues to Action program brings all this hands-on learning directly into the classroom – making this vital democracy education a key component of students’ school experiences reaching over 300,000 students across the country.

90%

of eligible Mikva alumni voted in the last presidential election, compared to 50% of their peers nationally

77%

of Mikva alumni volunteer in their community, more than double the rate of their peers. Additionally, Mikva alumni are running for elected office at a rate more than double their peers

Imagine if all youth had access to hands-on democracy education in their schools and communities?

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Today Mikva alumni are leading as elected officials, public servants in local government, community advocates and organizers, and election officials securing everyone’s right to vote. Hear from a few alums about the ways their Mikva experience trained and inspired them for their current roles as our democracy’s leaders!

Alumni Impact

Haian Nyugen


US Department of State, within the Bureau of Adminstration,

The Office of Acquisitions Management

Miriam Martinez


Manager of Youth Opportunities, Chicago Housing Authority


Landon Jones


Community Planning & Development Specialist, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development


Giovanna Carillo


Hispanic Outreach Chicago, Board of Election Commissioners


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Quotation Mark

Gratitude knows no bounds as I reflect on the transformative journey sparked by Mikva Challenge's campaign trip in New Hampshire. It ignited a flame of civic duty and propelled me toward the path of public service. Thank you for igniting a passion that continues to drive me to promote democratic values, security, and prosperity as a U.S. diplomat.


- Haian Nyugen, Mikva Challenge Alum


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Miriam Martinez

“I got involved right around the 2000 presidential election,” Mikva Challenge alum Miriam Martinez recalled.


As an International Baccalaureate (IB) student fulfilling community service hours, Miriam attended a Mikva Challenge event at the Thompson Center, recommended by a faculty member. This event, involving youth, Mikva Challenge students, and the Cook County Board of Elections, fundamentally changed Miriam's perspective on her role in democracy.


“Seeing a panel of three other youth who were my age having an in-depth conversation about what had just happened in the election, but providing recommendations for how we could improve the electoral process – that is what really caught my attention,” Miriam said.


“It was clear these people didn’t just want to hear what young people have to say, but that they really cared,” Miriam continued.


For Miriam, who was born in Mexico City, it was motivating to see that she could have a role in shaping the future of her community and country, even if she could not register to vote. It was a revelation in the many ways that people can be civically engaged.

“I remember having conversations with my dad about the corrupt system of politics back home,” Miriam shared. “But Mikva gave me the opportunity to be more connected to politics here, something that I had never even considered or thought I had access to, both because I was a young person and because of my immigration status.”


After that first Mikva Challenge event, Miriam was excited to get involved in elections and to also be a part of a larger group of peers who were as passionate about current events.


“That was basically the hook with Mikva,” Miriam said. “Getting to know other young people and realizing that I wasn't the only young person who cared about these issues, but that there were other young people who also wanted to get involved.”


It was through another Mikva Challenge student that Miriam became connected with an organization dedicated to another issue she was passionate about – immigration reform. The leadership skills she gained through Mikva Challenge were invaluable as she stepped into the role of organizer and activist.


“We became part of a small group of six other young people here in the State of Illinois who led the way for immigration reform,” Miram shared. “We were organizing other young people but also advocating on their behalf so that students do not have to pay astronomical prices for tuition.”


The group's collective effort helped push forward the Acevedo Bill in Illinois. The bill, which passed in May 2003, allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates at Illinois’s public colleges and universities.

For Miriam, the programs, connections, and opportunity to shape democracy alongside other youth, motivated her to stay involved with Mikva Challenge throughout young adulthood. During her time in the program she contributed to campaigns, advocated for youth issues alongside her peers, and even completed internships with elected officials.


In the twenty-three years since her first Mikva Challenge event, Miriam has continued to give back to the organization, first as a staff member and currently as a member of the Illinois Advisory Board. To her, the opportunities and exposure that Mikva Challenge offers are not only unparalleled, but a catalyst that changed her life.


“For me as a young person seeing a US representative who was from a Mexican family, seeing other Latinos hold office, or seeing someone who looked like me in an influential role made me see it was possible for me too,” Miriam reflected.


“I was exposed to people who I didn't know and careers I didn’t think were attainable,“ she continued. “I don’t know where I would be without Mikva Challenge.”


Miriam Martinez, a Mikva Challenge alum, has dedicated 14 years to the organization as a staff member. Presently, she holds the position of Manager of Youth Opportunities at the Chicago Housing Authority. In her role, she oversees programming to provide residents aged zero to 24 with the necessary resources and opportunities needed to attain economic mobility. Miriam remains committed to supporting the mission and impact of Mikva Challenge by serving on its Illinois Advisory Board.

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Quotation Mark

Mikva Challenge is the perfect incubator for youth who will someday enter a workforce where dedication to service and honing empathetic qualities will pave the way for a country that cherishes governance over politics. My experience with Mikva Challenge is one that I will always cherish and continue to credit to my successes as an educator and public servant.


- Landon Jones, Mikva Challenge Alum


Giovanna Carillo

“My first involvement with Mikva Challenge began when I was a senior in AP Government,” shared Giovanna, who attended Chicago Public Schools. “My teacher told us the Mikva Challenge was recruiting student election workers.”


“I just always had an interest in social sciences, but at the time I was planning to study kinesiology when I went off to college in the fall,” Giovanna said. “But I had always liked history and government and politics, so for me this seemed like a great opportunity.”


After her experience serving as a student election judge in the 2016 election, Giovanna developed a burgeoning passion for public service and civic engagement. By the time her senior year was ending, she had already been accepted into Mikva Challenge’s Summer Fellows program, interning in Chicago’s 2nd Ward office.


Giovanna, who was leaving for college in the fall, assumed the internship would be a one-off experience. However, a phone call from a Mikva Challenge staff member resulted in a change of plans.

“I had started my college career, but was looking for a job when a Mikva Challenge staff member reached out to me about an opportunity in the 32nd Ward,” Giovanna recalled. “They were especially interested in someone who spoke Spanish.”


Giovanna was excited to serve Chicago’s Logan Square community alongside Alderman Scott Waguespack, but at the time, she was still envisioning a future in kinesiology. However, during her second internship experience, something clicked.


“I realized I really liked working in local government,” Giovanna said. “You literally see the impact that you have on people’s lives, even when it comes to things that seem so small.”


For Giovanna, one of the most rewarding aspects of her position was seeing how she could apply her language skills to help community members feel valued and accepted.


“Being able to pick up the phone and just talk to someone in Spanish or speak with them when they come in makes it seem a little less intimidating,” Giovanna emphasized. “You could see how relieving it was for them to see there was someone who spoke Spanish, someone who looked like them.”


From acting as a liaison to community members, translating flyers, or offering interpretation during meetings, Giovanna was excited to play a role in helping all members of the 32nd Ward neighborhood feel welcome. When she was offered a part-time position after her internship ended, she was thrilled for the opportunity.

“After the internship, I felt that my real passion was for public service,” Giovanna shared. “So I went back to school my sophomore year and I declared a Political Science and Government major.”


She continued to serve in Alderman Waguespack’s office throughout her university career and upon graduation accepted a full-time position at the Chicago Board of Elections.


Turning Youth Voice into Policymaking

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Knowing that our civic institutions will be stronger when youth voice is included in decision making, Mikva launched our first Citywide Youth Council in 2005, advising Arne Duncan, then CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Mikva Youth Councils have advised school systems, Mayors' offices, juvenile justice systems, and more. The councils have also impacted policy across a variety of issues that affect young people's lives in their schools, communities, and broader society through innovative youth-driven solutions to key issues across Chicago and Washington, DC.


Partnering with city leaders, Mikva convenes and supports a council of youth leaders to conduct research on key issues in their school district and city government, make recommendations to city leaders, and partner on implementation and ongoing evaluation of new youth-driven policy initiatives. Mikva’s Citywide Youth Councils have an impact that ripples across the community. Young leaders have firsthand experience with local policymaking – gaining critical research, problem solving, communication and advocacy skills. Adult leaders learn how to authentically incorporate youth voice into their decision making - thereby creating policies that better serve youth and creating more just and equitable systems for youth across their city.

Imagine if all youth had access to hands-on democracy education in their schools and communities.

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If I was a principal of a middle school or high school, I've got to be listening to my students. Every superintendent needs to have 10-15 young people they meet with on a monthly basis to think things through... I had a student advisory council put together by Mikva Challenge, and all my policy stuff I would run by them. Extraordinarily helpful!


- Secretary Arne Duncan at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education.

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Meet Lauryn

Just this year, Mikva’s Washington,

DC chapter launched their second Citywide Youth Council, working directly with the Attorney General on issues of community safety and justice.


Lauryn Renford, an alum of Mikva’s programming in Washington DC now works for the Office of the Attorney General, and serves as a key stakeholder for the new Citywide Youth Council.

“I had a Mikva teacher at my high school, Ms. Karen Lee at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Ward 8,” Lauryn said. “She was all about making sure students had a pathway to local government and civic engagement.”


“I think the most important thing about her government class and her teaching style as a whole was that we actually got to apply the things we learned – she did that through channels like Mikva Challenge.”


After being exposed to Mikva Challenge’s programming through Ms. Lee, Lauryn participated in Mikva’s Elections in Action and Project Soapbox programming, and she had the opportunity to canvas for political candidates.


“Mikva Challenge aligned with my own goals of keeping the government accountable. I really needed a program like Mikva when I was young to reinforce to me that I really did have a seat at the table.”


It was through a Mikva Challenge event that Lauryn connected with then DC Attorney General Karl Racine, an encounter that shaped the future of her career. The following day Attorney General Racine interviewed Lauryn for a summer internship position and the rest is history. Today, Lauryn serves as Community Outreach Specialist with the DC Office of the Attorney General. In her role she works with youth leaders, including Mikva Challenge Summer Fellows and advises the new Mikva Safety and Justice Council.

“I’ve been exposed to so much,” Lauryn shared. “When I was young I didn’t have much trust of government, so it was really monumental for me to work in a place that is trying to do the work to repair that chasm that many people feel in this city.”


In her role on the community engagement team, Lauryn helps repair this chasm by working directly with young people through programs at the DC Attorney General’s office.


“My biggest goal is giving young people a pathway to the Attorney General and making sure he has input from youth where he needs it,” Lauryn explained.


“I have been energized by being able to interact with young people; that is the best part of my job,” Lauryn continued. “They make me most hopeful for the future.”

Citywide Youth Councils

Throughout the years, Mikva’s Citywide Youth Councils have created new programs, policies, and resources that have benefited thousands of their peers by making youth-serving systems more just and equitable places for all youth to thrive. See below for some highlights of our Citywide Youth Council’s work.

Youth Voice Gets a Soapbox

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Project Soapbox at Mikva Challenge

At the center of Mikva Challenge's values is youth voice. Perhaps nothing centers that value more directly than Project Soapbox. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of thousands of students have stepped on their Soapbox to speak out about the most pressing issues affecting their communities and sharing what they think should be done about it.


Nothing illustrates the power of Soapbox better than Melissa’s story. This summer Melissa traveled from her home in Salinas, CA, to Washington, DC, to participate in Mikva Challenge’s Soapbox Nation. In a powerful speech dedicated to her parents, Melissa spoke about the challenges that agricultural workers face. Mikva connected Melissa to her congresswoman, Zoe Lofgren, who was moved by Melissa’s advocacy. Congresswoman Lofgren was so impacted by Melissa's words, she invited Melissa to co-author a bill to designate a National Farmworker Awareness Week. This is the first federal legislation of its kind to recognize the value of the millions of people who work the fields in our country every day.

Imagine if every young person had the chance to get up on their Soapbox and share their call to action?

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As you can see, Project Soapbox is more than a public speaking activity. It is an opportunity for students to find their voice and sense of belonging in their classroom. It acts as a catalyst for students’ civic agency and action. It is a social connector building listening skills, empathy and relationships between students and adults. And it is a call to action for adult leaders bringing about new policies and laws.


Students find their voice and sense of belonging in their classroom – An external evaluation report showed that teachers and school district partners reported positive student engagement, student focus, and witnessing a greater sense of belonging among student participants after participating in Project Soapbox. In particular, teachers and District partners reported that Mikva programming positively impacted students who previously had not actively participated in class activities helping them to feel more confident in the classroom.

Jenna Ryall, Director, Civics for All, NYC Department of Education

A Catalyst for Students’ Civic Agency and Action