Mikva Challenge: A Strong Advocate for Youth Voice
by Roberto Rivera and Yehtzeni Jimenez

Mikva Challenge, a powerhouse in youth voice, has been working for almost 20 years to amplify the voices of youth in the Chicago area. The organization grew from having a couple of programs serving a few dozen youth to currently serving more than 6,000 youth in over 130 schools in and around Chicago.

The organization has also branched out and started a chapter in Southern California.

Mikva’s five program areas focus on issues of juvenile justice, public health, education, civic participation, and youth training. Using a civic action framework, all the programs focus on building social and emotional skills, democratic participation, and youth empowerment. Download a copy of the framework.

We were able to catch up with several of Mikva’s outstanding youth participants earlier this year and learn how their work is going and how their experience with youth voice is affecting their social and emotional competence while also creating social change.

Xiao Lin Mei has been with Mikva Challenge since the beginning of her freshman year in 2013. She started working with Mikva after piloting a youth voice group of her own at her high school. After she served as education outreach coordinator at her school, a friend recommended that she apply to work with Mikva Challenge and amplify her voice and influence in education across the city of Chicago. After her arrival at Mikva, she was appointed to the education committee and has been able to work on several projects. Two of them stand out for her.

The first involved the education committee in creating a proposal based on recommendations for improving school culture and climate from the perspective of youth. The proposal included a process of personal reflection, critical dialogue among peers on the team, surveying students in a variety of schools, and analyzing the data to make recommendations. Xiao Lin helped with every stage of the plan including a public presentation to district leaders once the proposal was completed.

The second project involved Mikva’s partnership with the Mozilla Foundation and Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Students from Mikva were enrolled in a hackathon,” an intensive collaboration in which, through computers and software, they shared their ideas for school improvement and suggested viable solutions to school issues and challenges. The problem Xiao Lin and her colleagues kept hearing about in their research was that both students and parents had trouble navigating the district’s discipline guide. Laden with legal jargon, this dense manual was difficult for lay people to navigate when they needed quick information. Xiao Lin and her group decided to develop "Scoogle," a search platform for the discipline manual. Their idea won the hackathon event, and earlier this year members from her team presented it at a Mozilla gathering in London.

Xiao Lin Mei has developed a passion for working in education and is particularly interested in education policy. She believes youth voice needs to be included in decision-making because it allows youth to apply their creativity to solving basic issues. “It is not enough just to give schools more money,” she says. “We need to ensure they are equitable and able to provide youth with a consistent level of quality education.”

Xiao Lin’s ideas for transforming public education include increasing teacher pay, diversifying schools, creating better supports for recent immigrants, surveying students to understand the environment and culture of schools, and improving school lunches. “If we want students to do well socially and emotionally,” she says, “then we need teachers to understand the experiences that youth, especially immigrant youth, are having.” At sixteen she is just getting started using her voice to create change.

We also talked with Bridgette Hayes and Heaven Johnson. After working on a student judge election, Bridgette learned about internships with Mikva. Heaven Johnson was introduced to Mikva through Mikva projects at her school.

Both were invited to work on Mikva’s citywide health initiative, which most recently is focusing on sex education through youth-run campaigns promoting physical, mental, social, and emotional health. Currently Cook County (Chicago is its biggest city) is ranked among the highest in the nation for sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Bridgette and Heaven helped to launch the “Chicago Uses Condoms” campaign to bring light to the issues of sexual health through a strength-based approach. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of Chicago’s sexually transmitted disease rates and decrease the number of overall cases among adolescents.

Participating on Mikva's health committee, Bridgette and Heaven created a youth-led movement utilizing social media to conduct discussions on sexual health and well-being by hosting weekly chats focusing on different health topics. The health committee presented their proposal and actions to improve sexual health outcomes to the Chicago Department of Health and the health commissioner. They were surprised to find the commissioner not only supportive but also eager to have the team work on ads for two other projects.

The group also hosts an annual health summit each fall in which they train more than 300 students to become change agents in the areas of health and well-being in their home schools and communities. The focus of the most recent summit was equipping youth to become better advocates for nutrition and increased physical activity. Through this experience with Mikva, both Heaven Johnson and Becky Crump, another student activist we interviewed, have developed a passion for creating an impact in the domain of public health.

Becky is determined to address students’ mental health issues and the need for more school-based mental health support. “Students in the Chicago Public Schools don't have much access to school counselors,” she says. “There needs to be a move to hire more therapists and have them in schools to support youth. A lot is happening with youth socially and emotionally. They need support from school staff, especially during the high school years.”

Heaven is focused on changing the way CPS approaches sex education. “Teachers need to find new ways to engage students around sexual health that don’t involve lecturing all the time,” she says. “For the information to make a lasting difference, students need to talk to each other and do meaningful research.”

When the Chicago Public Schools launched a new Office of Social and Emotional Learning, the district was well on its way to embracing a holistic framework that includes identifying and cultivating students’ social and emotional competence. Led by Karen Van Ausdal, the office provides schools with empirically tested social and emotional learning curricula supported by professional development. The staff want to see SEL integrated schoolwide through practices that include a focus on school climate and discipline.

Chicago’s establishment of an entire office dedicated to promoting social and emotional learning is supported by the state’s 2003 decision to develop social and emotional learning standards for grades K-12.  Today CPS is a catalyst, working closely with several other large school districts, in demonstrating that SEL can be interwoven into the district’s policy, programs, and practices.

Several students we interviewed indicated that their involvement with youth committees has allowed them to grow socially and emotionally, as well as in terms of their career planning. Many indicated that Mikva’s emphasis on public presentations helped to bolster their ability to manage their emotions, set goals, and become more confident as public speakers.

Other students said that having critical conversations with peers and collaborating with diverse team members on viable solutions had been challenging but also deeply rewarding. It helped them to develop positive peer relationships, understand others’ viewpoints, and make responsible decisions, they said.

Several students said their participation in the Mikva program had motivated them to continue working in civic fields as a career. For example, Becky Crump wants to become a judge. “Being a part of Mikva has helped me to really know the whole community,” she said, “and that is going to help me to better serve the community.”

Developing leadership skills was a common theme in our discussions with Mikva’s youth participants. They especially appreciate the importance of co-creating solutions to problems as members of diverse teams that encourage the exchange of differing views. Engaging in critical conversations, they said, helped them to understand others’ viewpoints and arrive at well thought out ideas.

Mikva has also engaged city leaders in including youth voice to address root problems. Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently commissioned Mikva to help him assemble a youth board to provide strategic input on a variety of local issues. The Chicago Public Schools worked with Mikva to develop a student voice committee to provide input on a variety of public education topics.

The impacts of youth involvement with the Mikva Challenge are impressive. Program evaluation data indicate the following:

  • 450 Mikva students actively volunteered for political campaigns in the 2012 presidential elections.
  • 91% of students in Mikva’s Peace and Leadership Council believe that youth have the power to transform their communities, versus just 66% before the program started.
  • 93% of students in Mikva’s Democracy in Action program report that they can work with their peers to solve basic issues, versus only 56% before the program started.
  • 3,950 students participated in the six-step community problem-solving process in 2013-2014

When asked about the importance of youth voice, Becky Crump said there is a real gap that needs to be bridged. She explained it this way: Youth voice is important because youth don't always feel like they can make a change or push for the right thing. The officials who run organizations don't ask our opinion, so there is a gap between what we want and what they think we want. Through youth voice, youth and adults can come together and actually address the real issues with solutions that can make real progress.”

Beyond being impressed with the aspirations these youth have to become judges, policymakers, and community organizers, we applaud their many innovative ideas to create change at a systems level. Mikva youth demonstrate that asserting youth voice in the 21st century equips youth to think critically, act creatively, and work collaboratively.

The Mikva model engages some of the community’s top youth leaders to innovate and give input to fields such as public health, education, juvenile justice, and civic affairs. It is a model we hope will continue to be replicated as leaders increasingly recognize the importance of authentic partnerships with youth—and listening to their voices—as a way to arrive at innovative solutions to important societal problems.

Roberto Rivera is the president of the Good Life Alliance, a doctoral student in educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a CASEL fellow. Yahtzeni Jimenez is a Youth Voice Nation Fellow, an undergraduate in social work at Northeastern University, and a Shriver Foundation scholar.