Mikva DC alum Maya Branch gave opening remarks at the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, DC, for a panel hosted by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) on how civic engagement programming for young people can advance equity and opportunity. With Mikva Challenge DC, Maya interned with a local elected official, registered new voters, wrote and performed her powerful Project Soapbox speech and was a key leader in Mikva DC’s after school club organizing to improve conflict resolution training for young people in DC. Maya graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School this June and is now attending Temple University. She plans on majoring in Human Development & Community Engagement.

This is my home. Although I’m currently studying in Philadelphia and briefly lived in Maryland, Washington, DC is for the most part, where I was born and raised. And of course, lots of my friends at Temple University, who are from other states and other countries, have this pretty little  image of DC being not just the seat of government but this proactive and affluent city. They see the White House and the monuments but don’t really know about SE and NE where there isn’t that same degree of comprehensive civic knowledge or where most of the community members have less optimistic views on public policy and their ability to shape it.

But you know, that’s the part of DC I’m from. I mean I grew up hearing gunshots outside my window and seeing how school security guards and Metro police handled certain situations rather poorly. And as I got older of course, I became more cognizant of certain disparities. As I crossed neighborhood and ward lines, I started noticing “oh like it’s kind of weird that I have to travel across town to find a decent grocery store. And not only are there geographical disparities but there are racial ones and oppression rooted in ableism, transphobia, and xenophobia.

And I think this is the point where people get stuck. They notice these flaws and end up fixating on this abstract notions of “the system”. And when you fail to realize that the system is malleable and dependent upon your consent and passivity, you’re in an unfortunate position. Thankfully, I was afforded opportunities like Mikva Challenge, a Smithsonian internship and an unusual citywide course called Real World History. Now with the latter two programs I learned so much about historical events like the Great Migration and Japanese incarceration- topics you don’t typically cover in classrooms because our textbooks are whitewashed. But understanding how minorities have persevered through oppressive norms helped me understand that the people who fought to change such injustices weren’t always from a background of power. In fact, more often than not, they looked like me. And bridging this gap between depictions we see in popular culture of White saviors and the reality of marginalized groups identifying an issue and organizing to change it certainly established a sense of empowerment within me. My classes appeared more relevant.

And when I finally heard about Mikva Challenge, a nonpartisan organization aimed at getting youth civically engaged, I felt competent enough to join. Once did, I got to serve the DC Council’s Committee on Education, participate in Get Out the Vote efforts, and so much more. For once, I was actually working on all these issues that hit so close to home like accessibility issues, gender equity, and truancy. Needless to say, many people don’t have those opportunities. A lot of kids don’t even have a quality government class at their school. But it really does make all the difference, because that awareness of how politics works stays with you for the rest of your life. Because I learned about civic engagement during high school, I know how to go about dismantling processes that are inconsistent with my beliefs on justices. I can have a civil conversation with someone who has a completely different perspective and rally on the one area in which we share common ground. I pay attention to round tables and the way politicians vote on certain bills. What I’d like to highlight, however, is that these skills aren’t just practical but they also require an enhanced appreciation of critical thinking, solidarity and compassion, which I think our world can always use a little bit more.