Empowering Youth and Civic Engagement in Chicago

A community spotlight on Lisa Kim and the Mikva Challenge

Mikva Challenge in Chicago, IL in the U.S. was founded on the premise that youth voice and participation matter, and that our civic and political life will be stronger when youth participate and help shape their own destinies. We chatted with Lisa Kim, Youth Commission Director for Mikva Challenge, about the impactful, inspiring work happening in her community.

Here’s what she had to say:

How did Mikva Challenge get its start?

Mikva Challenge was founded by former congressman, judge and White House counsel, Abner J. Mikva and his wife, Zoe Mikva with a mission to engage youth in politics. It began as a small pilot program in 1998 with an all-volunteer staff running an electoral engagement project in four schools. But since then, Mikva has grown this strategy of real-life democracy education into five robust “Action Civics” programs that serve over 7,000 high school students and 145 teachers at 115 schools across Chicago. Our three main program areas — youth electoral participation, youth policy-making, and youth community problem solving — teach young people civic knowledge and leadership skills while transforming their attitudes about political participation. These programs focus on helping young people achieve success in schools, in their careers, and in life.

What is your role with Mikva Challenge?

As the Director of the Mayoral Youth Commission, I facilitate a council of 25 youth leaders from around Chicago who serve as youth advisors to Mayor Rahm Emanuel on issues that impact young people. This year, for instance, the Council worked on developing recommendations for improving police-youth relations and presented it to the Mayor and Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

The Mayoral Youth Commision is one of the six citywide, youth policy-making councils that serve as advisors to elected officials in the issues of education, health, juvenile justice, housing and after-school programming.

Lisa Kim

What are some of the organization’s recent accomplishments?

Currently, I’m most interested in how young people can become true authors in the civic tech space, beyond composing 140 characters to express an opinion. I think building on social media networks are important, but I know young people can drive even bigger changes. Not everyone would self-identify as tech-savvy or even tech-interested, especially given the digital divide in access to tech resources. Knowing this, we’ve made strides in meeting our youth where they are. Young people both care, and are experts on the issues they face in their communities. By showing them how technology can be used as a tool to help them address issues they care about, we are not only creating a generation of civic leaders, but leaders equipped with 21st century skills to meet future challenges in new and innovative ways.

In December of 2015, we hosted a Youth Ideas Hack. Mikva youth, who are issue-experts in the community, brainstormed tech-based solutions to problems they face in the City. They then recruited adult-tech professional to help them create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Young people who varied in their tech-savvy or interest in technology, were the project teams leads. Youth know the problem space, dream of a solution, and adult-tech professionals simply help them refine and realize their product. Resulting projects ranged from school carpooling apps, to an app that helped young people rate and request specific police officers that they trusted.

In Summer 2016, in partnership with Microsoft, all six of our Citywide Youth Councils learned about and created data visualizations using Chicago Open Data resources. Students learned how to analyze open government data, and interpret and present data to support their ongoing research and policy recommendations.

This year, we explored how we might improve youth-police relationships in Chicago. We have some developing work around this issue, so you can visit this site to remain updated.

Last year, our council (Mayoral Youth Commission) focused on addressing the digital divide and connecting youth to tech pathways for learning and employment. We kept a blog about our ongoing work.

Can you share any tips for involving young people in civic action?

I think it would be hard to find a person who is not passionate about an issue they experience in their daily life or community. When people are offered real, substantive outlets to explore and make an impact on an issue that they are connected to, civic action is what follows.

Usually, voting is seen as the penultimate way to be civically engaged, which means we overlook the ways a person under the age of 18 can be involved citizens. Young people become more involved when they are informed on the many ways in which they can define what civic action means for themselves. I think the most crucial piece is to remove obstacles to youth civic action — our democracy, as it currently operates, was not designed to truly involve young people, so part of our work is to partner with institutions and individuals to counteract that.

What is your background with the web? With Mozilla?

I, unlike most people, use the internet nearly every day, making me the expert-est expert on internet learning. I joke, of course, but I’ve had a winding career path ranging throughout art, design, social justice, and education. Previous to coming to Mikva, I have done scientific communications with dinosaurs, taught comics and narrative, and researched how to learn with legos. Throughout all of my pursuits, I’ve always been interested in how multi-media tools can be used to empower communities to make change. Being a partner member of Mozilla’s Hive Chicago has allowed me to collaborate with other youth-serving organizations to explore and innovate on these ideas.

What else should we know about you/your work? How can others get involved?

Mikva Challenge develops youth to be informed, empowered, and active citizens and community leaders. Our values challenge the status quo. Traditional schooling emphasizes adult lectures and students as passive learners so our goal is to open up spaces for authentic democratic experiences so youth can learn democracy by doing democracy.

Youth can get involved through their schools by starting a civics club, or by applying to one of the Citywide Youth Councils during the summer. We also offer trainings, curriculum and support to teachers so they engage their students in what we call action civics. We also work with teachers to engage youth in direct campaigning and elections related work. More information on all this here.

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