Making Democracy a Verb
In March, Inpoints published a video of Mikva Challenge students working at the Bernie Sanders campaign office in Des Moines, IA. That was only one part of our weekend with Mikva Challenge in Des Moines. Here is the rest of the story.
It is emblazoned on every one of their t-shirts, “Democracy is a verb”. For the past four Presidential elections, Mikva Challenge has been organizing trips to Des Moines, Iowa to make this slogan real for Chicago-area high school students.
At 5 AM on a January morning, over 100 bleary eyed teens gathered outside Mikva Challenge’s downtown offices with suitcases and duffle bags in front of a row of charter buses. While this story is ultimately about the amazing experiences they will have seeing a presidential campaign up close, I can’t help but think about these buses. It’s a logistical feat to do something as simple as take a kid somewhere and bring them home safely.
On this trip there were the hundred or so students from the city of Chicago. Another fifty teens needed to be picked up in the Chicago suburbs and there were yet another hundred students who were flying into Des Moines from California, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Permission slips, hotel rooms, roommate assignments, roll calls, renting a small fleet of minivans, chaperones, pizza, and box lunches make up an intricate performance of logistics, and coordination that can be the difference between a good and bad experience.
Then there was the schedule itself. It was tight and jam-packed. As soon as the bus arrived in Des Moines, the teens would hit the ground running. They went straight to the campaign offices of the candidates they were volunteering for. They would make phone calls, stuff envelopes, and go door knocking. After this, they had to go back to the hotel for a group-wide gathering of ice-breaking activities and election related exercises.
Day one would not end until 11 at night.
The next day, some students woke up early to go to candidate rallies. One group of students went to a Marco Rubio rally, others went to a Chris Christie event. There were some rumors of some being denied entry to a Trump rally. They didn’t have the right “look” was among the popular guess (even though they were legitimately Trump supporters). After the events it was time for more work at the campaign offices, more phone banking, envelope stuffing, and door-to-door canvassing. Before dinner, there was a Clinton rally where the former president himself gave a speech.
The day wasn’t over. The main event was yet to come.
That night Mikva organized a Youth Caucus on the campus of Drake University. At the Youth Caucus all of the young people would hold their own mini-Iowa caucus, but instead of choosing a Presidential candidate they were going to nominate issues that they deemed most important to them. The Drake student center was buzzing with organized chaos as groups of students standing in front of banners for issues like “Environment”. “Education”, “Immigration”, “Criminal Justice” tried to convince other students to join their issue so that they could reach the required threshold. Students gave impassioned speeches, created short videos, and short skits to make their case.
A common refrain was that this trip made politics real. Democracy wasn’t just about issues or having opinions on issues. It was making phone calls and getting hung up on 20 times to only actually speak to 1 person. It was walking out in the freezing cold, block-by-block, door-to-door just to see if someone was even thinking about caucusing. It was going to a random high school gym or local lodge and seeing a candidate in person, getting a sense of them as a person over a whole speech, and feeling the energy in the room. It was making your way through a crowd for the chance to actually shake their hand. It was hanging out with other young people, sharing stories, having spirited debates.
On the bus ride back to Chicago, as all of the adult chaperones had either fallen asleep or were zoned out in their phones, a group of students in the back of the bus were having a spirited discussion. It was a microcosm of our politics straight from the central casting agency. Black, White, Latino, Asian, Male, Female, Northside, Southside, Suburbs. They touched on everything from terrorism to foreign policy to immigration to economics. And as the space on my camera card ran out, the conversation still continued.