CivXNow Member Spotlight: Michelle Morales

Chief Executive Officer at Mikva Challenge

Michelle Morales, Chief Executive Officer Mikva Challenge This month’s member Q&A is with Michelle Morales, Chief Executive Officer of Mikva Challenge, a non-partisan, not for profit founded on the premise that youth voice and participation matter, and that our civic and political life will be stronger when youth participate and help shape their own destinies. Mikva Challenge develops youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society. Michelle has 18 years of experience in youth development with nonprofits and community-based organizations that impact communities of color in the Chicago area.

Q: What is Mikva Challenge?

Morales: We started as a program that engaged young people in the Chicago Public Schools in campaigning for elected officials. We still have that program, but we have morphed also into teacher professional development, providing technical support to teachers in the public school system, and running youth councils that are informing civic institutions.

Q: How has Mikva scaled up so far, and how would you like to continue to grow outside of Chicago?

Morales: Four years ago, we expanded beyond Chicago into California and DC. In the past year, we have established a system of seven partner cities. But it is expensive to have offices and staff. We’re trying to figure out what is a more cost-sustainable model of expansion, including having a pool of contracted teachers who do incredible programming already but now can train other teachers.

Q: That is organizational scaling, do you have thoughts, then, on how to scale a movement like CivXNow?

Morales: We often are training young people to become civic actors, but the world often isn’t ready for that, something that creates cynicism amongst our young people. So we have been exploring how to step outside of the school realm and, in addition, also train all of the other players [such as staff at nonprofits and civic institutions] that impact young people in order to create more empowering spaces, more spaces that honor youth voice, more spaces that will allow for youth decision making. We need to look more to the youth and break out of the focus on schools alone and add other players.

Q: One of the ideas that you posed at the CivXNow convening at Facebook was the idea of a civics scorecard, not just for schools but for all civic entities. Could you talk about that?

Morales: My vision and my big pie dream is to get young people to create civic scorecards, not only on candidates and elected officials but also on civic institutions. We need officials and institutions that are willing to engage with young people and who are taking this seriously. So why don’t we start holding them accountable?

In Chicago, we run candidate forums that are led by young people. We joke and laugh about it because the candidates come completely unprepared to engage with them. It’s astonishing to watch them fumble and trip over their words. In some cases, it’s as if they thought they were coming to some Mickey Mouse thing, and when the first question comes on, and it is a super serious question, they are all taken aback. So what does that say about the candidate and what does that say about what they think about young people and young people’s issues? The scorecard could work like the rating system on organizations such as the NRA.

Q: Why is equity important in civic education, and how can we improve it?

Morales: We have to remember all of the subtle cues young people are getting every day. Like if we look at Colin Kaepernick, he got fired for taking a stand. Whether we agree with it or not, the world around us sends very subtle and non-subtle messages particularly to marginalized youth that if you speak up, something may happen to you. We don’t talk about that enough. So if we really want to see equity in the civics landscape and the civics movement, we need more talk around that, more talk around systems of oppression. They exist, and they are there. And if we continue to gloss over them, we won’t ever break the equity issue.

Q: So how do we get a more diverse array of people involved in the leadership of this movement?

Morales: We need the movement to honor different forms of assessment. We often talk about the “Big R” and the “Little R” in research, but there is also the “Big A” and the “Little A” in assessment. We don’t honor enough the research and assessment being done at the community level and by community organizations. And I think that if we as a movement begin to shift the needle to say, “Yes, research institution, we honor what you are doing, but also we are going to honor what we are seeing done by this community organization. And we are going to bring you both into the space as equal players,” then we might see more diversity in the space.

Q: Can you give an example of “Little A” assessment?

Morales: Sure. It’s like asset mapping that the communities do — and a lot of nonprofit organizations do that. There are rubrics that nonprofit organizations have put into place to assess the values of civics, such as the lived experiences by young people. That is still considered the “Little A” in assessment, but it shouldn’t be. It should be elevated higher to be considered comparable to assessments created by assessment publishers and universities.

Share some insights from Michelle on social media:

“(At @ MikvaChallenge) we train young people to become civic actors but the world often isn’t ready for that…We need to look more to the youth and break out of the focus on schools alone and add other players.” @ youth_voice_rox #YouthVoice #CivXNow

“We have to remember all of the subtle cues young people are getting every day… if we really want to see equity in the civics landscape and the civics movement, we need more talk around that, more talk around systems of oppression.” @ youth_voice_rox #CivXNow

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Post originally from Friday, February 15th, 2019 CivXNow Coalition Newsletter.

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