Tell us about your Mikva Challenge experience.

It all started in 2008 when I joined Mikva Challenge’s Elections in Action program in Chicago. At the time, I was a sophomore in high school and one day, a friend mentioned she was going to an info session about Mikva. She invited me to come along, and the rest was history. My interest was immediately peaked. I knew I was serious about reading the news, keeping up with politics, and making sure I was aware of what was going on in the world – but, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I knew my interests weren’t just a hobby, and Mikva opened my eyes to the idea of civic engagement and the ways in which “democracy is a verb.”

After that first info session, I started attending various candidate forums and election judge trainings, and volunteering to phone bank and canvass for a presidential candidate who went by the name of Barack Obama. I campaigned for him in Chicago and travelled with Mikva to Kenosha, Wisconsin and South Bend, Indiana to work there as well. It was thrilling. It was a new experience, and I learned so much about communicating with people and about diverse neighborhoods and voters. I made great friends and felt I was in a support network of amazing young peers like myself who were willing to debate respectfully and engage passionately in elections and politics – even though we weren’t able to vote yet!

Later on, my drive to continue involvement in political campaign work led me to volunteer for local gubernatorial and senatorial candidates before I hopped onto a major campaign – for current mayor Rahm Emanuel. This campaign was an incredibly exciting time in my life. I went full force and volunteered over 500 hours for his team. I would go to his campaign offices right after school, finish homework first at the request of his staff, and then proceed to phone bank and enter data for hours. I had so much fun, and the hard work paid off when I was offered an internship in his press and communications office after the election, allowing me to work in City Hall throughout college. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the Mayor and his staff, all of whom took a chance on me, welcomed me, and opened doors for me when others would not.

It was because of Mikva that I was able to harness my interest in politics to gain leadership and communication skills, campaign and local government experience, and friendships that will last for years to come.

Lilly Athamanah

What are you doing now?

After graduating from Carleton College in 2015 with a degree in American Studies and as a scholar for the Posse Foundation, I moved back to my hometown of Chicago and joined the communications team at the Joyce Foundation. The Joyce Foundation is a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that supports policy solutions for economic and social challenges facing the Great Lakes region. We’re based in Chicago, and focus our grant making primarily on policy and systems reform in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. To achieve these goals, our grant portfolio consists of five programs: Education & Economic Mobility, Environment, Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform, Democracy, and Culture.

In my role at the foundation, I am a Communications Specialist working daily across all programs to manage the strategy and implementation of our digital assets, which includes maintaining our website and promoting content on our social media accounts. I also assist on a range of activities such as prep for our triannual Board of Directors dinner and meeting, conducting issues research, drafting briefing materials, project management, media relations, and internal communications. I am in my third year at Joyce, and it has been a great learning opportunity for me to study policy reforms through the lens of philanthropy and to work alongside some incredibly intelligent individuals who create an energetic, thoughtful, and fun work environment.

How has your experience as a Mikva Challenge youth informed who you are today?

My involvement with Mikva runs full circle, as the Joyce Foundation has in the past supported Mikva programs to promote youth engagement in civic and political life. I am glad Mikva has come back to me, and I am glad to be working at a foundation that values youth. As part of Joyce’s new grant making strategy for 2018-2020, our portfolio will focus on the next generation and look to fund research, policy development, and advocacy for strategies that prepare young people in the Great Lakes region to thrive in education, careers, and community, and to help create greater access to opportunity, especially for children and youth of color.

I would not be the person I am today had I not been a part of Mikva Challenge. Mikva really became a part of my identity for much of my young adult life. It was the reason I grew the confidence to take risks and experiment with something new, which in my case was political campaigning. As a young, female person of color, Mikva gave me the push and enthusiasm I needed to understand that I had a voice and the power to create change by being involved in my neighborhood and in local campaigns. Mikva was the support system I needed to nurture my desire to be an active, informed citizen and to be a part of the next generation of resilient hopeful leaders in my community and beyond.

I remember after returning to Chicago from my first Mikva trip to South Bend, Indiana in 2008, Brian Brady came up and asked me, “Did you have fun?” And it was then that I knew it was only just the beginning…

Thank you, Mikva Challenge!