Our History.

Mikva Challenge

launched its first program during the 1998-99 school year as a tribute to former White House Counsel, Judge and U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife Zoe, a teacher and lifelong education activist.

We began as a small pilot program with an all-volunteer staff running an electoral engagement project in four schools. Today, with three chapters in California, Illinois, and Washington, DC; and partnership initiatives across the country, Mikva Challenge annually reaches 50,000+ youth with high-quality Action Civics curriculum and programming. We help young people develop civic knowledge, leadership skills, and transform their attitudes about political participation with lifelong impacts on their professional and personal success.

Our Milestones

1995

Ab Mikva retires as White House Counsel, marking the end of his remarkable career at the upper echelons of all three branches of government.

1996

Former Mikva staff member, Ken Adams watches the funeral service for Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Saddened that Jordan did not get the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, Adams begins brainstorming with former Mikva staff members about creating a lasting tribute to the public service careers of Ab and Zoe Mikva before it was too late for them to appreciate it.

1997

Mikva Challenge is incorporated. Founded by Ab and Zoe Mikva, with their friends (Ken and Anita Adams; Dick and Joan Wolff; Dick and Judy Meltzer; Sandy and Joan Horwitt), to mark the Mikvas’ remarkable public service legacy. The goal: inspire Chicago city youth to participate in democracy through real-life electoral experiences.

1998

First Executive Director, Laura O’Grady is hired. 4 teachers in 2 Chicago public high schools pilot the Mikva program. The goal was simple: get students studying the issues and candidates in an election and volunteering on campaigns.

1999

First fundraiser held—a roast of Jack Marco, CEO of the Marco Consulting Group and former Mikva campaign manager/staffer. Almost $200K was raised and a bold trip to the Iowa Caucus was planned.

2000

100 students representing nine schools campaign in the Iowa Primary for President. Executive Director O’Grady brought her 6-week old baby and many board members chaperoned this ambitious trip. Brian Brady is hired as Executive Director and brings a youth development lens to Mikva programs.

2001

Mikva launches the Summer Government and Leadership Institute (now Summer Fellows), placing rising seniors in internships with public officials at the city, county, state, and federal level.

2002

Student Voices program brings classroom activism and electoral participation to 30 new high schools. Mikva students advocate for election reform in wake of Florida recount.

2003

Mikva moves into its own office space. Mikva receives a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to start the Youth Innovation Fund (YIF), a youth philanthropy group that funds youth civic engagement and activism in Chicago.

2004

Campaign trips to the New Hampshire Primary and Iowa Caucuses during presidential election years transform how student participants see their role as citizens and future voters. Every candidate clamors for photo ops with the “Mikva kids.” McCormick Foundation supports Mikva in expanding its Student Election Judges program—partnering with the Chicago Board of Elections to recruit and train teens to serve as polling place judges, eventually becoming a national model. Mikva receives a 3-year $500,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation to implement “Student Voices” project, now the Issues to Action program. Youth take action on the issues they care about, sharing them at the annual Action Civics Showcase.

2005

Mikva wins Service Learning Agency of the Year award. Mikva’s annual operating budget surpasses $1M. Mikva receives grants from the Kellogg Foundation and Surdna Foundation to launch Citywide Youth Councils to provide city institutions with youth voice and expertise – the inaugural council advises Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools and provide youth innovation grants to student activism projects.

2006

Mikva students travel to Springfield to advocate for improved school funding and help host a rally for thousands of students.

2007

Peace & Leadership Councils are launched at 3 schools in high-violence communities, bringing Mikva’s program model to anti-violence issues.

2008

Mikva youth travel to Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Indiana, and Wisconsin to campaign during the 2008 Presidential Election season. Mikva Student Elections Judges number 2,539, comprising nearly 20% of all election judges in the City of Chicago. First expansion outside of Chicago happens at Barrington High School, creating a model for school district partnerships.

2009

Mikva youth attend the Inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Mikva celebrates its 10th anniversary with a gala fundraiser. Project Soapbox program is launched to help youth develop their public speaking skills, the foundation of becoming strong public advocates on their issues.

2010

Mikva launches the Center for Action Civics to provide professional development and curriculum to educators in Chicago and eventually nationwide. Ron Huberman, CEO of CPS, funds the Student Advisory Council’s recommendation to pilot Student Voice Committees in 5 CPS Schools. Citywide Youth Councils expand— now focusing on Health, Juvenile Justice, Education, and policies of Chicago Mayor.

2011

Mikva hosts the 9th Annual Civics Fair. Over 120 students present their action projects on issues facing Chicago communities. Mikva hosts the Youth Voices Mayoral Candidate Forum with 250 students on Chigago Tonight.

2012

Mayor Rahm Emanuel approves the Mayoral Youth Commission’s recommendation to pilot the CTA Free Fare program for low-income students in 5 schools.

2013

Mikva hosts the first ever Youth Solutions Congress. Over 400 youth gather to discuss and vote on the top 15 solutions to improve health, education, employment, safety and recreation in the city of Chicago. Mikva launches the Juvenile Justice Council to provide youth input on policies and programs involving young people and the criminal justice system.

2014

The New Civics Convening is held in Chicago with nearly 200 teachers from across the country – raising Mikva’s profile and gaining the attention of national funders. The Emerging Leaders Board is founded.

2015

Action Civics LA and Mikva Challenge DC are launched to serve teens with Issues to Action and Project Soapbox programs. Michelle Morales is hired in Chicago, becoming Mikva’s first female and Latina ED. Abner and Zoe Mikva Legacy Campaign is announced to raise support for the founding program, Elections in Action.

2016

Judge Abner J. Mikva passes away on July 4, 2016. He is memorialized by hundreds of friends, colleagues, and Mikva Challenge alumni that August. Speakers include his mentee, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

2017

Youth Safety Advisory Council is formed to advise the Superintendent of Chicago Police on issues concerning youth safety.

2018

Soapbox Nation brings Mikva’s signature public speaking competition across the country with over 25 school districts participating from Hawaii to New York.

2019

Mikva Challenge celebrates 20 years of empowering youth with the skills and opportunities to be active and informed leaders. Mikva continues to grow its partnerships with schools nationwide.

I was very apathetic to politics before because I just didn’t care. I didn’t think my voice mattered. Through Mikva, I learned that one person can make a difference.

Kevin Ng, Mikva Alum

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Whether you are a teacher, a school administrator, or a young person, we want to help you connect to our Action Civics work and programs.

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