Obama Foundation partners with CPS for civic engagement awards

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Michelle Obama meets with Whitney Young students. The Obama Foundation is launching awards with CPS to support civic engagement. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Civic-minded Chicago Public School students, educators, schools and community organizations could get $2,000 grants thanks to a new partnership between the Obama Foundation and CPS, officials said Wednesday.

Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, said the awards fit with promises laid out in their community commitments and the foundation’s shared vision with CPS to elevate young leaders.

“The Obama Foundation believes that civic engagement is a pathway to empower communities,” Strautmanis said. And so, he added, it is important “to bring it to life through encouraging and inspiring and empowering CPS” students and schools.

“This announcement is one more step as we fulfill that commitment and just kind of demonstrates that we’re invested in the community and we want people to know that; we want that students to know that in particular.”

The foundation and CPS will select two recipients for each category; each will receive a $2,000, foundation-sponsored grant “to support civic projects that will empower young leaders and positively impact communities across the city of Chicago,” the foundation said in a statement announcing the awards.

LaTanya McDade, chief education officer at CPS, said the partnership, as well as the foundation’s mission and vision, “dovetailed nicely with a lot of our civic education work in the project that our students have been doing.”

“We saw this as an opportunity to provide our students and our school community with a platform that one, showcases and recognizes the great work that our students have been doing throughout their communities and throughout the city and also show them that there is a place for their voice in our city that’s recognized beyond CPS and beyond their local school,” McDade said.

Students at 124 of CPS’ 644 schools are already involved in programs, like student voice committees, through the school system’s Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement, McDade said. There’s also the “Participate!” civics curriculum, aimed at strengthening civics education, in 89 CPS schools.

Both programs will support the partnership can grow, McDade said. The awards will be open to all CPS students, schools and educators.

Strautmanis said the foundation, which will help pick the winners, is looking for students “who’ve made an impact through addressing a critical issue in their world, so it could be in their class, it could be in their school, it could be in their community.” They want someone who has researched the issue they’re trying to tackle and engaged the community to craft solutions, he added.

For schools, the foundation wants institutions that help students become “the citizen leaders that we need them to be,” Strautmanis said. That may include bringing students into the decision-making processes within the school or building opportunities to foster civic learning — the criteria for teachers is similar.

Details aren’t set, but applications, criteria and information on eligibility will be available early next year; recipients will be recognized at an event toward the end of the school year.

The partnership will really “showcase the talent and the brilliance that we have existing right here in our neighborhood schools and schools throughout the city,” McDade said.

“It’s also an opportunity for our students to see themselves, their schools and their communities in a way that sometimes is not depicted on an everyday basis,” McDade said. “This is a platform to show students that their voice matters and that being a part of the democratic process matters and that civic life is important to everyone.”

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