Public service is a core commitment of the American Advertising Federation’s Ad 2 chapters across the country. In every Ad 2, young professionals like me ensure the betterment of our communities through passionate volunteerism; we use our expertise, skills, and resources to make a difference for local nonprofit organizations who need a little help to tell their extraordinary stories.
This year’s Ad 2 DC Public Service client is Mikva Challenge DC. Mikva’s tagline “Democracy is a verb” embodies what the organization believes: There’s no better way to learn about democracy than to actively engage in it. Mikva’s team does exactly that by listening to today’s youth and empowering students from area high schools to step up and become civically engaged.
I had the lovely opportunity to chat with Robyn Lingo, Executive Director of Mikva Challenge DC. Robyn helped open this branch of Mikva Challenge in July 2015, and since then she’s ensured that it makes a powerful difference every day.
What made you want to join Mikva Challenge DC?
I worked with youth programs and organizations for 15 years. I heard about Mikva Challenge when an organization I worked for actually used Mikva’s deliverables for a college prep workshop. As soon as I heard [Mikva was] looking for someone to help open a DC office, I jumped right in. And I’ve loved every moment since then.
What’s so unique about Mikva Challenge DC is that today’s youth have a voice that needs to be heard, and this organization does just that in such a big way. Whether [students are] volunteering on elections and campaigns or organizing community action projects to address issues in their schools and communities, Mikva Challenge DC is constantly making sure that these students are being supported in their civic leadership.
What has been your favorite moment or part of Mikva Challenge DC?
I honestly have so many it’s hard to pick just one! But Project Soapbox will always stand out. That’s because students answer such a simple prompt — “What is the biggest issue facing you and your community and what should be done about it?” Time and again, they come up with such powerful and inspiring speeches about these issues and how to address them. Speaking so thoughtfully about big, weighty issues — in front of a panel of adult judges — these students’ voices are listened to and taken seriously. The impact of this is huge.
Project Soapbox alone proves why these students’ voices and experiences matter. It gives adults the chance to really listen to our city’s youth, and a chance for students to be heard. And in turn, this has a lasting effect on the adults.
How does Mikva Challenge DC empower youth?
Through civic engagement programming, learning opportunities, and events like Project Soapbox and our spring Action Civics Fair. [The latter] is set up like a science fair where students showcase their community action projects to address an issue they’re passionate about. [To prepare for] the event, students study an issue, look into the root causes of that problem, conduct research and come up with potential strategies to address that issue. At the fair, they present their work to community leaders and elected officials and get help thinking through next steps for their action project.
Watching over 100 people be taken so seriously is truly amazing. And the findings these students present go beyond just the four walls. For example, students recently gave a presentation to the head of a local school food supplier and advocated for better food options. Although school lunch might sound like a smaller issue, it is really an issue of equity and access for many students in DC’s public schools who rely on school lunches as their sustaining meal of the day. So when one group of students has the potential to change the lives of thousands of others, it’s really [beautiful].
Where do you see Mikva Challenge DC in five years?
I’d love to see it in every single DC public high school, with students actively learning about civics and democracy. A saying we’ve always gone by is that “you learn democracy by doing democracy.” What better way to accomplish this than by working side-by-side with teachers?
The reach of Mikva Challenge DC doesn’t stop there. I would love to see this organization [affect the greater DC area] too.
Describe the transformation you’ve seen in Mikva Challenge DC students, from enrollment to being actively involved.
The real transformation comes from developing or realizing a sense of agency, voice, and power. The impact of every student learning how to make an effective argument and [passionately] present a case about their issues goes beyond Mikva Challenge DC. For these students, building these skills means learning how to organize and galvanize people to listen to them, and how to persuade all different types of people to see important issues [through] their lens.
I can’t even begin to describe how important these are as life skills. From having a job to being in a relationship, the ability to speak clearly and be impassioned about issues that matter sticks with these students for life.
How do events like Project Soapbox and the Action Civics Fair help turn students into active, civic-minded citizens?
There’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes. Students spend hours choosing their issues, doing research, surveying their peers, and interviewing community members. These are all skills that we need to make democracy work.
Project Soapbox and the Action Civics Fair help shift the socio-political narrative. [Instead of] focusing on a few exceptional leaders, [it becomes] a narrative embracing the reality that we’re all powerful. In fact, we all play a very important role in making our community the way we want it to be. That’s what democracy is.
Why should people attend Mikva Challenge DC’s events?
[Everyone ought to] get involved with Mikva Challenge DC because everyone needs to be aware of the reality of other people’s lives. Attending our events automatically turns you into an ally for issues that are important to students.
In order to fully understand and be a part of the DC community, you must understand the experience of the youth that live here.
You know how Mikva Challenge DC gets involved with the community. Now it’s your turn. Show your support for this amazing organization by donating today, and by coming to Ad 2 DC’s April 3 Public Service Campaign Reveal Party/Fundraiser at Busboys and Poets. See you there!
Caroline McLoughlin is a communications professional in the DC metro area. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and Ad 2 DC member, she loves writing her heart out. When she isn’t doing this, Caroline’s either exploring the city or spending quality time with her cat.