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Within a matter of weeks, Jermaine Smith will graduate from Phelps Agriculture, Construction and Engineering High School, the District public school where he discovered a love for information technology (IT) that will take him to the University of the District of Columbia.
Over the past four years, Smith’s interest in the IT field has kept him focused on his studies, even as gun violence claimed his uncle’s life and that of several friends. Amid discussions about public safety, Smith said he wants more young people to pursue a trade, like he’s been able to do.
“The money sounded interesting but then I started studying IT and I found joy in learning how to set up a network. It felt more like a passion than a job. It gives me a future that I want for myself and my family,” said Smith, 18.
“Kids don’t think there’s any choice,” he said. “That’s why they choose the streets. Gun violence is a prominent issue in my community. It happens so much, you become numb to it. I keep on pushing and [study IT] for the loved ones I lost.”
Throughout much of this week, Smith represented D.C. on the national stage as he advocated for the integration of career and technical education in the District’s recreation centers.
On Sunday, he revealed his policy suggestion before an audience of his peers at Soapbox Nation, an event at Ford Theatre that kicked off the Mikva Challenge’s first-ever national youth summit. Over the next couple of days, Smith counted among 100 young people from across the nation who spoke to elected officials and congressional staffers on Capitol HIll about education, gun violence, climate change, mental health, and human rights.
Smith, a Northeast resident, engaged D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in conversation on Monday about career and technical education in District recreation centers. He later tagged along with other young people who engaged a bevy of elected officials and their congressional representatives and their staffers.
In speaking about his encounter with Holmes Norton, Smith expressed disappointment in what he described as her lack of enthusiasm about his idea.
“When it came down to it, it felt like I wasn’t really heard,” said Smith who later spoke to his mother about the meeting. “I took that on the chin. Maybe everyone won’t hear your story and help you make change. I learned to never give up.”
The Informer unsuccessfully attempted to gather comment from Holmes Norton’s office.
Since 1998, Mikva Challenge has executed an education model centered on educating young people about government’s impact on their lives and emboldening them to research and speak confidently about issues affecting them. It’s named after Abner Mikva, a political figure who served in all three branches of the U.S. government.
Mikva Challenge focuses on under-resourced and marginalized neighborhoods where people might feel left out of the political process. It started in Chicago with volunteer staff at four schools. These days, the Mikva Challenge has a presence in 17 states with nearly 2,700 teachers and more than 300,000 young people under its purview.
A key element of the Mikva Challenge is a curriculum titled “Issues to Action” that helps young people identify issues relevant to their lives and develop the courage and background knowledge needed to speak to elected officials about it.
Verneé Green, Mikva Challenge’s CEO, said that “Issues to Action” allows young people from various backgrounds to see the commonalities in their experiences while becoming more civically engaged.
“We’re creating environments for young people where they feel like the government has been a part of their lives,” said Green, a former teacher who’s served as Mikva Challenge’s CEO for two years. “This was their opportunity to learn the importance of advocacy. They were able to walk right into congressional offices. It surprised them how easy it was to access the building.”