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‘Whose voice? Youth voice!’: Crowd gets on ‘soapbox’ to speak on social issues

Students from the Mikva Challenge listen to their peers speak about social issues. About 100 young people gathered in Millennium Park on Friday to address topics such as racism and poverty. | Yvonne Kim/Sun-Times

Students from the Mikva Challenge listen to their peers speak about social issues. About 100 young people gathered in Millennium Park on Friday to address topics such as racism and poverty. | Yvonne Kim/Sun-Times

Standing on a wooden soapbox in front of about 100 other Chicago youth Friday at Millennium Park, Mellony Vasquez spoke into a loudspeaker about what it was like to grow up as a child of a drug addict.

“The life of an addict’s child is witnessing the pain, the toll a drug can take on your parents. It’s witnessing the shooting up,” said Vasquez, a 17-year-old student at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.

“The life of an addict’s child is joining as many after-school activities as possible so you can avoid going home.”

Those listening to Vasquez were other students from the Mikva Challenge –– a non-profit that engages young people from across the Chicago area to research and develop policy initiatives.

Mikva Challenge spokeswoman Lisa Kim said the “Pop-up Soapbox” event is a way to empower young people to speak out and “feel like it’s cool to care about something.”

The group later marched down Michigan Avenue and around Millennium Park, chanting lines like “This is what democracy looks like!”

Kate Ellbogen, 17, detailed personal exposures to sexism. Lily Villa, 17, spoke about growing up in poverty. Amonti Johnson, 17, emphasized the importance of striving for knowledge.

“Knowledge to me is really important because, as a black man in America, it’s a lot of stereotypes and stipulations put on us,” said Johnson, a member of the Chicago Housing Authority Council. “If we don’t have that knowledge, we fit that stereotype and we’re basically proving them true.”

The Phillips Academy High School student said he joined the Mikva Challenge because he wanted to “take charge” of problems he felt he had no power to change.

For Christina Yoon, 17, one of those problems is social and emotional learning within Chicago Public Schools, especially following investigations uncovering rampant sexual assault.

A student at Northside College Preparatory High School, she is working with the Student Advisory Council to provide access to treatment and support for CPS students.

“Being able to listen to other people and reading other people’s experience about it really hits close to heart,” Yoon said. “My first choice (for policy change) would be changing this attitude toward trauma and toward social and emotional learning.”