Abner & Zoe.

“We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

These words, spoken by a Chicago ward committeeman to a young Ab 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.

The idea that “nobodies” should have a voice in the political process is an old one, but the reality is that – like the young and unknown Ab back then – the people who have the greatest stake in our democracy are often the ones with no connections to back them up.

Mikva Challenge was founded

to open up democratic spaces for youth living in under resourced neighborhoods and politically marginalized communities. The Mikvas knew and understood that a passion for politics begins early — or, often, not at all. A single positive experience as a young person can blossom into a lifetime of civic engagement.

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

Abner Mikva
Abner Mikva standing in a crowd next to Zoe Mikva

Judge Abner Mikva (1926 – 2016)

holds the distinction of having served at a high level in all three branches of the federal government and in state government as well. He was elected in 1956 to the first of five consecutive terms in the Illinois General Assembly where he sponsored fair employment practices legislation, open housing legislation, and labored to overhaul the Criminal Code. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968 and served for five terms as a member of the Judiciary Committee and then the Ways and Means Committee.

After service as a Navigator in the Army Air Corps in World War II, Judge Mikva received his law degree from the University of Chicago, graduating cum laude. He was editor-in-chief of the Law Review. Following graduation he served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Sherman Minton on the Supreme Court. During his time in private practice he represented the West Side Organization, an early community-civil rights organization which tried to break down prejudice in employment, housing, and schools. He argued many cases before the Supreme Court.

Appointed by President Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Abner served for fifteen years, the last four as Chief Judge. In 1994 Judge Mikva resigned from the bench to become White House Counsel to President William J. Clinton.

The Judge received many awards including the Paul H. Douglas Ethics in Government Award from the University of Illinois and the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association. He is also formerly the Senior Director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

abner and zoe

Zoe Mikva (1928 – 2019)

began her career in public service with the Illinois Division of the American Civil Liberties Union. She then lobbied for the Friends Committee on National Legislation and worked on two election campaigns with the CIO Political Action Committee. When daughters Mary, Laurie, and Rachel were youngsters, Zoe taught primary school in Washington, D.C. and in Evanston. Long before the advent of computers, she brought old typewriters into her classroom to encourage her primary students to write stories.

Zoe later wrote and edited public information materials, evaluated state highway safety programs, and developed education programs as a special assistant to the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the early and mid-1980’s, Zoe co-owned and managed The Hill Company, which provided support services for people and organizations who were visiting Washington and wanted to affect public policy. For the next seven years, Zoe was Director of Development of The Advocacy Institute, a Washington organization that counsels public interest and grass roots lobbying groups. After returning to Chicago, she was Director of Special Projects in Education for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

Zoe’s energetic involvement in many volunteer activities spanned four decades. It included PTA Leadership positions in Chicago, the initiation of Chicago schools’ Operation Headstart, the Board of Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, the Board of the Illinois ACLU, elected representative of the District Education Council of the National Education Association, tutoring for the Washington Literacy Council, Board service with Micah House, which shelters previously homeless and addicted women, and involvement in many state and local political campaigns.

Ab and Zoe received the 2005 Public Humanities Award from the Illinois Humanities Council.

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