Some Chicago Public School students in grades 6 to 12 have been participating in two-day workshops that are designed to empower and encourage them to have an active civic life, long after they leave school.
Civic Engagement Days were held at UIC through the end of June. One recent session attracted students from the South Shore School of the Arts. The program started out with students being "sworn-in" as U.S. Senators so they could get a first-hand feel for what it is like to be involved in the legislative process. They also attended a variety of lectures to educate and inspire them.
The theme of the event was, "How Can I Become The Next President Obama." But for student Prince Uche, 17, it wasn't about becoming someone else. It was about how to be himself.
“I don’t want to be the next Barack Obama," he said. "I want to have his characteristics and personality, but I don’t want to be Barack Obama, I want to be the next Prince Uche."
Phyllis P. Hayes, Director of Educational Outreach and Public Engagement at UIC, says civics classes are no longer taught in Chicago Public Schools and the conference's overall focus is to engage citizens of Illinois about their civic responsibility.
The goal of the program is to empower and encourage students to learn how government delivers policies, how to make positive changes in their community, how to become conscious of public needs, as well as the importance of becoming a registered voter.
The first day students learned about the legislative process and were put into committees to develop a bill titled, “How to Increase the High School Graduation Rates."
On the second day, students sat through a presentation on public speaking, and then it was back to work in order to get their bill passed.
“The quicker, the earlier you can get these guys involved in the political process, the better it's going to be for all of us all around,” says Michael Fountain, who was helping the students.
Students Lora Weaver, Prince Uche and Markus Gordon say that while working to get their bill passed, they faced challenges when other committee members did not agree.
Weaver says she learned that getting a bill passed can take years, as well as a lot of time and dedication.
Unlike the normal school curriculum, students got the opportunity to be proactive in the learning process and met former Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, Jr.
“You are the director of the movie, "Your Life,'" Jones told the students.
Jones encouraged the students to take control of their lives and explained to students that they are future judges, mayors and presidents.
When asked what was his proudest moment as a senator, Jones says it was when he met Barack Obama during the time Obama was running for a U.S. Senate seat.