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Students practice for their television debut as a part of Mikva Challenge’s Election Club.

Too young to vote, old enough to talk politics

by Leor Galil
Jan 28, 2010

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Mikva ChallengeHigh-school election judges help the polls run smoother

About Judge Abner Mikva

Abner Mikva served in the Illinois General Assembly, the U.S. Congress and was appointed by President Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Mikva went on to become White House Counsel to President Clinton in 1994.

Mikva Challenge was founded as a tribute to the work of Abner Mikva and his wife, Zoe.

Rich Feffer sits in a tiny room at the Mikva Challenge headquarters Wednesday evening, dispensing words of advice to seven high school students preparing for their television debut.

Quiet on the set. This is like the real thing. Don’t talk until I press the button.

As the director of campaigns and government internships for Mikva, a nonpartisan, politically focused organization for Chicago teens, Feffer helps run the group’s Elections Club. Founded in 1997 and located at 25 E. Washington St., the non-profit seeks to engage youth in civic leadership by involving them in policy-making councils, electoral campaigns and activism in their schools.

Mikva Challenge created the Elections Club in December to give youth the opportunity to discuss hot button political issues during the election season and share those views with the public on Chicago Access Network Television.

“I think too many times young people are shut out from the political process, and they’re not given a seat at the table,” Feffer says. “Our mission is to get students to be leaders. We want them to be leaders later in life, which is why we like them to be politically active now.”

As the students run through the setup for the show a couple hours before the live telecast at 8 p.m., they discuss how young people can get involved in the political process and the importance of the Feb. 2 primary election. Although most of the students cannot vote, their work in Mikva gives them the opportunity to have their voices heard and get involved in the political process.

“I’ve been working for David Hoffman, who’s running for [the] Senate,” Neha Surender, a Roald Amundsen High School senior, says. “We’ve been campaigning for him just about every weekend for about three hours doing phone banking.”

Other students have been involved in campaign work for four Republicans and nine other Democrats in primary races for Illinois governor, U.S. senator and Cook County Board president.

“It’s really heartening to see kids who want to get involved,” says Karen Nystrom, director of volunteer resources for Hoffman’s campaign in the Democratic primary. “They have been so enthusiastic and well-trained. Any time Rich Feffer tells me kids are coming over, I’m just delighted.”

Aside from campaigning, more than 2,300 students will be serving as election judges Tuesday.

With their TV appearance approaching, some of the students seem more concerned about something other than discussing politics.

“This is our finals week and actually we have more finals tomorrow,” says Northside College Prep senior Lena Tran. “We made a lot of time in our schedules to be here in Elections Club.”

By 8 p.m. the students’ images pop up on CAN TV, their faces focused and worry-free. The teenagers discuss their experiences in politics with one another and eagerly await calls from viewers who want to discuss the election.