In November of last year I had the great privilege and honor to volunteer to be a judge in what is called a “Project Soapbox” event organized by The Mikva Challenge (https://mikvachallenge.org/). Held in a 10th grade classroom at the E.L. Haynes public charter school in NW DC, it was an intense and inspiring hour with around 25 African- & Hispanic-American students led by an engaged history/civics teacher at the school. The slogan of the Mikva Challenge is “Democracy is a verb.” In other words, democracy is an activity, not a static concept.
I became involved in the Mikva Challenge via a way back volunteer connection with then Congressman Abner Mikva as a HS student in the suburbs of Chicago during the ‘70s, so I have come full circle. The MC’s mission is to create interpersonal connections between youth and adult leaders and allow them to make civic decisions together. The driving principle is that democracy is strongest when people of all ages come together to make their community better. The organization provides youth with the opportunities they need to participate in civics, and its “Action Civics” youth leadership curriculum provides materials and professional development to teachers. Action Civics is a unique student-focused, project-based, experiential practice that can transform classrooms, schools, and whole communities. It aims to see more youth participating in civics, along with teachers and adults who are better trained to promote it in their institutions. This in turn leads to empowered, informed, and active youth who promote a just and equitable society. It also gives teachers the knowledge and confidence to implement a youth-centered pedagogy and civics curriculum, as well as adults who are more inclined to include youth in civic processes.
Project Soapbox is called “a public speaking competition that calls young people to speak out on issues that affect them and their communities.” The students identify an issue that they are passionate about and create a two-minute speech, which they stand up and deliver to their teacher and peers. The speeches ideally include researched evidence about the issue as well as a call to action for listeners, and the volunteer external judges must score each speech in real time based on how well the students meet these and other content/rhetorical benchmarks. I tried to do my best as a fresh mentor. Most of the subject matter was deeply troubling and indicative of these kids' tough personal lives. E.g. black-on-black gun violence. Online bullying. Over incarceration of people of color for drug convictions. Alienation due to phone dependency. The stigma of having ADHD. Being the single child of a single mother. Etc. In other words, it was a true mirror of the real world in which so many American children live, especially on the border of poverty. But it was also a very inspiring experience. The students are given a chance to express their deepest concerns and at the same time propose things that should happen in this world that they imagine will improve it. They’re literally given a soapbox to stand on and express their greatest fears and dreams for a better society. And they’re given immediate support to take their vision into the world with greater self-respect as more empowered, articulate citizens. It is said that “these powerful speeches have a lasting, transformative impact on classrooms, schools, and communities” -- having heard and judged them first hand, I can’t imagine that they don’t.
Every day, thanks to the Mikva Challenge, all over the country teachers are helping their students learn democracy by doing democracy. I encourage Maryland teachers living and working beyond the DC Metro area to get involved, as well as like-minded volunteer adults to become a youth mentor and/or attend one of the Mikva’s events. Visit https://mikvachallenge.org/get-involved/ for more info and to sign up. Remember, democracy is a verb!
Now I'll get off my own two minute soapbox.
Frank X. White
Silver Spring, MD