By Jackie Patterson
High schoolers sitting down with the mayor and knocking on doors are transforming the realm of public health. The Mikva Challenge, a non-partisan Chicago-based organization with satellite chapters across the country, empowers 7,000 young people a year to take action in their communities via civic engagement. Teens serve as electoral judges, intern at elected officials offices, learn how to campaign for candidates they believe in, and participate in enacting real policy changes. The young people of Mikva are even spearheading collaboration with the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Chicago Public Schools Office of Student Health and Wellness on health issues most affecting teens—nutrition, physical activity, healthy relationships, and sexual and mental health.
Mikva shakes up the paradigm of teens as passive students with little autonomy, giving young people a voice and an opportunity to take action. The organization’s goal is three fold—to develop activists who mobilize their communities, social scientists who have a deep understanding of research’s role in policy making, and strategic thinkers who are knowledgeable of the avenues for change, be it sitting down with the mayor or knocking on doors. Students enrolled in the program research, debate, and make policy recommendations, all while learning about the local and national political process. They polish their public speaking skills through Project Soapbox, a tournament throughout the city. In issue-based councils, young people formulate a research question at the beginning of the summer, and after weeks of analysis, write and present a policy paper. Mikva teens also get the opportunity to influence policy in their own neighborhoods. A recent Mikva neighborhood-based council designing, campaigning for, and winning a proposal for how to spend a Rogers Park $1 million infrastructure grant.
These aren’t future leaders—these are today’s leaders.
A fundamental issue in public health is the frequent disconnect between policy makers and the communities and citizens those policies affect. The Mikva Challenge crumbles these barriers and empowers teens to be engaged as engineers of policies affecting their health and communities. Entrusted with leading a task force for Healthy Chicago 2.0 (through the Chicago Department of Public Health), Mikva youth focused on the destigmatization of mental health services, educating teens on their rights and increasing access to and utilization of these mental health services. Phase 2 of the Mikva Challenge’s Chicago Wears Condoms campaign is underway, using social marketing to start a conversation about safe sex through posters on the CTA and handing out free condoms—keep a lookout! Opportunities to get involved with the Mikva Challenge abound, and those interested are encouraged to check out their website and email Chief Special Projects Officer, Josh Prudowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org. The organization continues to show that democracy is a verb, and the youth it empowers take action each day to reshape not only public health but also myriad policies affecting teens across Chicago and across the country.
Jackie is a Neuroscience PhD student investigating movement rehabilitation in stroke patients with a keen passion for translational research, conveying insights from the lab to the clinic. She earned her B.S. in Biology from Penn State University and is a professional at eating snacks.
A special thanks to Josh Prudowsky for speaking with us and providing photos!