Youth voices on racial justice

An Open letter from the Mikva Challenge National Board of Directors

June 11, 2020

The world is inflamed by the recent grotesque and shameful manifestations of systemic racism against African Americans. At this pivotal moment, more people are bearing witness to racial injustices and disparities across all sectors of our society, from incidents of police killings to COVID-19 deaths. Although such acts are not new and are ever present, at Mikva Challenge we don’t believe that we are powerless. Youth voice is vital to helping us move forward with a new vision. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we are resolved to raise important questions, listen, and ensure that the insights, passion and creativity of youth leaders of color are integral to the discussion. The Mikva Challenge National Board of Directors stands committed more than ever to our mission to develop youth to be informed, empowered, and active citizens and community leaders who will promote a just and equitable society. To advance that aim, we commit to authentic self-assessment and transformation, rededicating ourselves to ensuring antiracist policies and practices in our organization, our cities, and our nation.

Lauren Jones Young, Chair | Jack Marco, Vice Chair | Mark Rosenberg, Treasurer | Peter Barber | Rohan Barrett | Cynthia Canary | Stefanie Cruz | Andrea Jett Fletcher | Randy Kinder | Peter Palandjian | Saul Sarabia | Amy Singh | Cynthia Wong

Youth voices on racial justice



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An Open letter from the Mikva Challenge

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other black people have been killed at the hands of the police and white citizens – in the past few months and throughout the history of this country. This violence is rooted in America’s reluctance to acknowledge and remove the white supremacy and racism from the laws and structures of its institutions and the minds and hearts of its white citizens.  

Mikva Challenge supports the protesters and Black Lives Matter in the struggle to create a new America free of its history of racial oppression. At Mikva, one of our most powerful activities has students creating a Root Cause Tree on a social problem, and we believe this is a moment for all of America to conduct a root cause analysis in order to dig out the roots of systemic racism.  This will not be easy and pain-free work. We have to accept this challenge and rise to meet it.

Despite the open wounds and the pain, the exhaustion, the anger, and the trauma of our black brothers and sisters, at Mikva Challenge, we do see hope for change in this country. The hope comes from the leadership – both young and old – that we see on the streets and in our social media feeds, showing up to protest and demand a new social contract built on dignity, equity, and justice. We see Mikva Challenge alumni leading protests, food drives, reporting the news from the front lines, and educating their peers about structural racism. We also see in our programs young people speaking out on racial justice in their communities, schools, and country. In the coming months, you will hear and see a lot of these voices on Mikva Challenge’s social media feeds, in our e-newsletters, and on our new Mikva racial justice blog. We are committed to shining a bright light on Mikva youth leaders, and we encourage you to listen to their wisdom and inspiration in the coming weeks and months.

We also commit the organization to continue examining our own internal structures for racism and inequity, and having the hard conversations about how to fully live up to our stated mission and values. Mikva will not settle for the status quo, and we will challenge ourselves to live into our mission everyday of centering our work around youth leaders and youth voices from marginalized communities.  

We know that positive change requires reflection, honesty, and strategic action. To that end, we share a few reflections by our staff leadership below and a handful of Soapbox statements on racial justice via Mikva’s Project Soapbox initiative. This is the start of a sharing process that we will continue with students, alumni, and board members in the weeks and months to come.

Verneé Green, Executive Director, Mikva Challenge IL

I’m having a hard time with this, because I don’t have just one story. As a black woman in America, my life and the lives of my family members and those who look like me have decades of stories when it comes to social justice, racial equity and the lack thereof. 

As I’ve processed the events of the past few days on a personal and professional level, I have numerous stories that I could tell about how I or my children have been marginalized, dismissed or harassed by systems, including but not limited to law enforcement and the education system. I have a 6’2’’ black son who “fits the profile” and has been stopped by police for that reason numerous times, even on his college campus. I worry about him so much that when he enrolled at his university, I took him to the campus police office to introduce him to the officers. I wanted to make sure that he would be recognized as someone who belonged on campus; a task that none of my non-black friends had to engage in or even thought about when they dropped their children off for college. 

I have been repeatedly frustrated when, even with overwhelming evidence, the justice system fails black Americans. Cameras on phones and the ability to share videos en masse through social media have highlighted racist occurrences, but oftentimes the offenders end up with what feels like a slap on the wrist (as in the case of Tamir Rice, for example). Each time it happens, it chips away at my faith in justice, makes me fear even more for my son, and reminds me that there’s so much work to do. 

One reason that I was excited to join Mikva Challenge Illinois was to have the opportunity to influence systems change. In particular, we run youth councils that interface with Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County criminal justice system, among others. We intentionally recruit young people from across the city to make sure that we hear perspectives of youth that are often silenced. Our young people, most of whom are black and brown, are invited to have “a seat at the table” and make recommendations about policies that impact them directly. Their voices matter in those spaces and I’m proud to be a part of an organization that makes this possible.

Our Mission at Mikva Challenge is to develop youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society and our work is needed now, more than ever. 

Robyn Lingo, Executive Director, Mikva Challenge DC

As a white woman leading Mikva DC, I’d like to start this statement by saying – I don’t have “the” answers. I make mistakes. I’m not the expert. And I pledge to not take up too much space with these thoughts.

But I won’t be silent, and I will act. And I am thinking about how to interrupt white patterns of urgency when the moment calls for thoughtfulness, intentionality, and deep deep listening.   

Like many of us I am struggling with the weight of white supremacy and systemic racism right now. On Friday afternoon, I listened as our Mikva DC students shared the incredible pain, rage, anger, hurt, and fear that comes from living in such a deeply racist society that, in the words of one of our students, “won’t even let us kneel.” 

Listening to them, I was reminded that as an individual and as an organization, we have work to do to more directly confront the institutional racism in our country and to be more forceful in our racial equity work. As an individual and an organization, I think this requires us to look inwards, while we act externally to back & support the power building of young people of color to directly confront structural racism in our schools, our governments, our communities, and our non-profits. 

I think we should do that work by living into our values – that adults make better policy when youth voice is included in decision making. In this moment when our country is confronting and wrestling with the unacknowledged depths of racism in our society, it feels ever more urgent, and ever more hopeful, to be supporting and uplifting youth voices. 

For myself, I am just trying to be in action as much as possible – create space for healing, support black led organizing, talk to my white family, lead my organization in a way where we are always centering the experiences of people of color over whiteness, etc. And always being accountable for my words, my actions and my in-actions.

For the last decade or so, I’ve carried this poster of Audre Lorde with me to every office I have inhabited and I’m missing it these days as we work from home.  As a white queer woman, I have found immense courage and strength in Audre Lorde’s words, and so I will leave them here as my closing.

“When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde 

Brian Brady, President, Mikva Challenge

“The teacher comes when the student is ready” is an old proverb I’ve been thinking about as I absorb the trauma and pain of this period in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and so many others. I am also absorbing the hope that the protest movement inspires, and I feel some pride in seeing Mikva alumni at the front lines helping lead this movement. However, this is a moment of painful reflection that as a white, straight male with great privilege I have been far too blind to injustices and racism experienced by Black Americans and too slow in advancing my education about concepts of structural racism and historical racism. 

I am ashamed to admit that I was slow to accept the term ‘white supremacy’ to describe the current state of America. Today, I realize that the term white supremacy is painfully accurate.  Because of the actions of activists, academics, friends and family, I am fully waking up to the prison, police, military-industrial complex America has embraced, and the connections of racial inequities in our economic, health, education, governmental, and yes, not for profit systems, from 1619 through the last four hundred years of slavery, and post-slavery, white supremacy.  

What to do with that awakening is now a personal challenge for me along with figuring out how I can keep educating myself on issues of systemic and structural racism.  And, of course, in Mikva Challenge fashion, move myself from education to action.  As a busy not for profit leader, I always used the excuse that there are a lot of plates to spin every day to keep the doors open and the operation moving forward, and I didn’t have time to read this or attend that workshop.  My promise today is to ditch that excuse and do the darn work, and ask for other white friends and colleagues to join me.  I will also ask my black and POC friends and colleagues to assist.  Lastly, I will look to make amends with the many POC friends and colleagues who tried to awaken me over these past many years, and I will look to do so through both actions and words.

As Dahleen Glanton in a recent Chicago Tribune story put it so well, “American racism is a creation of white people and we need to look in the mirror to find the culprit.”  I see it as my primary job at Mikva today to address this problem at its roots and work to awaken fellow white Americans to do the same.