Shaquawnna Vinnett is our alum of the month! We sat down with her to talk about her experience being a young person at Mikva Challenge.
Tell us about your Mikva Challenge experience.
Being part of Mikva Challenge was transformative. The whole office was my mentor. My level of self-esteem developed drastically and I became very comfortable with speaking my mind. It was always such a friendly and safe space for me that I could talk about anything with the staff there.
It was at Mikva that I learned to research issues and platforms of issues, as opposed to simply listening to people or paid advertisements, and I think that process was invaluable because it taught me to think critically. It was because of these experiences my life took a different turn. I’m investing myself in being a journalist now who can connect with people on a higher level, explore the ‘why’ part of a situation more that the ‘how’.
What programs were you involved with at Mikva Challenge?
My teacher at Jones College Prep introduced me to Mikva Challenge when I was a sophomore, but I got so involved that I stayed all the way through my high school graduation. I interned at offices for elected officials, including Congressman Bobby Rush. I was heavily involved in campaigning and elections. I remember the time we went to New Hampshire during the primary season and we all stayed in the same hotel as John Kerry. It was so exciting! You won’t believe this but Mikva made me so comfortable with speaking my mind and being confident about my opinions, that I actually in all earnestness asked Al Gore why he ran such a bad campaign! It’s crazy now that I think about it but back when I was at Mikva, that’s how much I embodied youth voice.
What are you doing now?
After graduating from high school and Mikva, I went to Michigan State University for Political Science but I really didn’t like it there, so I decided to take a break and join the U.S. military instead. Mikva had motivated me to run for office, and I thought becoming part of the military would give me a jump-start to that career. I learned three languages and was posted in Iraq for a while. It was a crazy experience and I began to see things from a different light. I realized that my dream was to engage people in civic discourse, and running for office wasn’t the right next step for me. I quit the military and joined DePaul University. I’m on track now to graduate soon with a degree in journalism and marketing. I’m also a member of Black Youth Project and I mentor high school youth through a mentorship organization.
How has your experience as a Mikva Challenge youth informed who you are today?
Before joining Mikva, I had a very limited perspective of how the world works. To be quite honest, it was my father’s perspective. He always thought that the government doesn’t care and we don’t need to be involved, but at Mikva it was the exact opposite. We experienced that democracy is a verb, you know. Participation is what got results, and that’s how I look at it now and that’s completely different from how I looked at it then. Growing up, I was a sidelines kind of a person, and Mikva changed that for me. I developed leadership qualities and critical thinking skills, two things that are absolutely essential and critical to my life now. I really think young people should have Mikva at their school and experience the kind of civic participation that I did, because really, that’s what we desperately need in our country right now. I met youth from different backgrounds and surprisingly different opinions, and I think it shaped me for the better. We really need people to be able to do that more now. I want every young person to know that civic participation is a really big deal and it can drastically change the way our nation works.