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Soapbox challenge

Marquette County students get & give civics lessons

Negaunee Middle School eighth grader Anthony Gleason delivers a two minute speech entitled “Why our Education System is Broken” during the Mikva Project Soapbox speech-writing competition semi-finals at the Vista Theater in Negaunee on Nov. 1. Over 600 students from Westwood High School, Negaunee Middle School and Marquette Senior High School participated in the nationwide competition. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

Oftentimes adults assume that youth are apathetic or don’t have anything to say about real issues in today’s society. This was a chance to prove them wrong …”

— Tiffany Nicholas, Eighth-grade teacher Negaunee Middle School

NEGAUNEE — What is the greatest issue facing your generation today? Why does it matter? And what should we do about it?

Over 600 middle school and high school students across Marquette County recently had the opportunity to tackle those questions during a Mikva Challenge Project Soapbox speech-writing competition.

The challenge culminated in 11 students from Westwood High School, Marquette Senior High School and Negaunee Middle School competing in the second annual Tom Baldini Soapbox Showcase at Kaufman Auditorium on Tuesday.

The challenge gave each student two minutes to “get up on their soapbox” and talk about what the biggest issue in their community is and why it is important.

But prior to that event, 12 Negaunee Middle School finalists had the “real world” opportunity to present their speeches to hundreds of their peers and members of the community on Nov. 1.

Tiffany Nicholas, an eighth-grade teacher and coordinator of Project Soapbox at NMS, said a school auditorium would not have given the same feeling as an off-campus venue like the Vista Theater afforded in downtown Negaunee.

“I felt like it was important to get out into the community for this next level of speeches, so that students had an authentic audience and so that they felt their powerful voices were being heard outside of (the) school walls,” Nicholas said.

Students spoke passionately about topics like racism, whaling, gender inequality, water pollution, vaping and why the American education system is broken.

She said the speaking events not only allow students a forum to air their concerns about societal problems, but give them an opportunity to connect with the community on another level.

“On top of talking about problematic issues in our society today, we also talked about assets in our community,” Nicholas said. “I thought this was a great opportunity for them and for us to form a partnership with this great community asset.”

Anthony Gleason and Maddy Liquia were the eighth-graders that moved on from the NMS competition to the Tom Baldini Soapbox Showcase, Nicholas said.

The participants from Marquette County joined thousands of other students across the country in the competition, which culminates in winners presenting their speeches in Washington, D.C.

The event, along with the heady topics it features, is one of several sponsored by the Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit group that encourages youth to “be empowered, informed and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society,” according to the Mikva website.

And the program works, the website states. About 91% of Mikva youth participants reported an “improved ability to analyze political issues and candidate stances.” Moreover, 97% of teachers in Mikva programs reported that the curricula led to students increasing their civic knowledge, and 86% of students in Mikva’s Issues to Action program “believe it is their responsibility to get involved to make things better,” the website states.

Nicholas said she was inspired by a teachers’ seminar sponsored by Mikva in Chicago last summer.

“Everyone I have talked to about doing this said it is one of the best ways to get students engaged,” Nicholas said. “Students crave connections to the ‘real world’ and this awesome speaking opportunity does just that. Oftentimes adults assume that youth are apathetic or don’t have anything to say about real issues in today’s society. This was a chance to prove them wrong and show how youth can truly be engaged, active citizens. They just have to be invited to the table.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.