Two weeks ago, nearly 200 Chicago middle and high schoolers dedicated their Saturday to proving they are neither apathetic nor unengaged. Undeterred by the early wakeup it required or the cold rain falling outside, these youth turned out to Jones College Prep to participate in Mikva Challenge’s 10th Annual Citywide Project Soapbox – a public speaking competition that invites young people to answer the question: “What is the most pressing issue facing young people today, why is it important, and what should be done to address it?”

In order to advance to participate in this day’s event, each of these students in grades 5 through 12 had already delivered their speech at least once already – to their peers and teachers in classroom competitions that took place throughout the fall in over 40 schools across Chicago. But the larger stage of Citywide, and the opportunity to make their voices heard beyond their classroom, had many of them nervous nonetheless. As they participated in icebreakers and split into ten breakout rooms, they wrung hands, shuffled papers and watched with wide eyes as judges entered their rooms. But one by one, as they took their turn at the podium, they rose to the occasion and shined.

Proud teachers rushed from room to room with hopes of catching as many of their students’ performances as they could – phones in hand and ready to share video snippets and tag their schools’ handles. “Brenda broke it down on racial profiling!” tweeted World Language’s Ruben Morado from one breakout room, as Washington’s Donald Davis weighed in from another with “Youth are our future with their ideas for improving society! Elected officials need to respect THEIR thoughts!” Students’ chosen topics ran the gamut – from sexual assault to immigration to climate change and everything in between – but all speeches included powerful combinations of passion, research and personal stories about themselves and their loved ones. And all speakers valued the chance not just to be heard themselves but to hear each other’s voices as well. As the morning semi-final rounds wrapped up, students thanked each other for sharing their stories, shared what they learned from each other, and encouraged each other to keep speaking out and using their voices. Judges remarked on how inspiring and reinvigorating it was to spend a morning hearing young people raise their voices to create change. As one judge tweeted after the event, these youth “give us hope for the future”.

To see more tweets, pictures and videos from the day, visit our Facebook photo album here or search #soapbox17 on your favorite social media platform!