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Issues facing Delaware's communities were the focus of a recent forum at the University of Delaware, but the speakers weren't politicians or community leaders — at least not yet.
The orators were nearly 100 middle and high school students representing various schools across New Castle County. They were participating in an event hosted by UD's Department of Political Science and International Relations called Project Soapbox. The event is part of the Mikva Challenge program, which provides students across the country with a platform to speak out about issues that are important to them and their communities, and to suggest solutions.
“We believe that the youth are experts in their lived experiences," said Justine Hipsky, Mikva Institutional Giving Manager. “Our mission is to amplify youth voices."
David Redlawsk, James R. Soles Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations, was excited to bring the event to UD. He sees it as a form of “active civic engagement" or “real-world, on-the-ground, engagement" with bi-partisan interest. “I love hearing what these students' passions are," he said. “By getting engaged with civic and community issues now, they are starting what I hope will be a lifelong commitment to making change."
The Mikva Challenge works directly with school districts and teachers to implement the Project Soapbox program. Students work together with their teachers in the classroom examining their community, looking at both assets and challenges. Then, the students choose a cause that sparks their interest and develop compelling speeches which include a call to action. A Project Soapbox day is then held in each District before students move on to the county event, which was held at UD.
Each of the eight finalists gave a three-minute speech to an audience of their peers and a panel of community leaders which included Delaware state representatives Paul Baumbach and Kevin Hensley. The students advocated for a variety of issues ranging from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHA) and suicide awareness, using personal experiences and statistics to make their point.
For example, one student's speech focused on gun violence. She began her talk by painting a picture of an experience she had while walking home from school with her sister and friend where they encountered an aggravated interaction between two people, one holding a firearm. She depicted the fear racing through her body as she hid by sliding underneath a nearby car with her sister and friend. She interacted with audience members asking how many people had been affected by gun violence. And she concluded with a call to action, asking for state government to review guidelines on gun violence.
Each speech was backed by strong research-based evidence. Students provided statistics illustrating the reality of the topics they spoke about. Another student, for example, spoke about the minimum wage and how rising inflation and prices of basic goods are crippling many Americans. She told a story about a single mother who was forced to work multiple jobs in order to pay bills and take care of her family. Rep. Baumbach was impressed by her speech and said it would resonate with policymakers and legislators.
The event made a deep impression on UD students who attended. “This event was truly inspiring, hearing all of the stories and speeches was a very eye-opening experience," said UD senior Lisa Hubbard, an ambassador for Political Science and International Relations who helped support the event.
The political science department hopes to make this an annual event at UD, according to Redlawsk. “I'm hoping this first event will be the beginning of a long-term relationship," he said. “It's exciting to see the potential in these students. I'm looking forward to many of them becoming future members of the UD community," he added.
According to the Mikva Challenge, these powerful speeches have lasting, transformative impacts on classrooms, schools, and communities. Every year, the program culminates with Soapbox Nation, a showcase of the top speeches from around the country.
Published February 21, 2023
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