OPRF civics club hopes to spark engagement

Youth Action in Civics, founded by students, seeks to raise public awareness, activity

October 11th, 2017 4:54 PM

ACTIVISTS: (Left to right) Ryan Jansen, Max Freeman, and Maciej Dzumala. Co-president Scott Smith is the other member of the team.

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Max Freeman, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and three of his friends were playing ping pong in someone's attic one day during his sophomore year when they decided to channel their growing energy and enthusiasm for local politics into something structured and systematic.

"We had all become more politically aware," Freeman said recently as he recalled the moment that resulted in him, along with OPRF students Scott Smith, Ryan Jansen and Maciej Dzumala, founding the Youth Action in Civics Club (or YAC for short) last August.

"I had noticed that there weren't any civics clubs at the high school," Freeman said. "There was Model UN and speech team, but no club that solely focused on civics and that had a community service aspect."

Since its creation, the club has helped facilitate voter registration drives and it hosted a forum for District 200 school board candidates before the last election. Six days before the presidential election last November, the club hosted a town hall-style discussion on local politics with state Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th).

"Students were pretty interested in hearing Senator Harmon talk, because we didn't really have exposure to something like that," said Freeman, who interned with the Harmon.

"Basically, we're trying to foster greater civic engagement among students at OPRF," he said. "We're trying to get kids more enthusiastic about local politics."

This school year, Freeman added, the club has been focusing on fundraising for victims in areas around the country and world that have been struck by natural disasters.

Jansen said that the club's volunteer opportunities, particular those in the world of politics, have exposed his peers to a range of avenues for bettering their community.

"We hope to foster youth who are aware, engaged and passionate," Jansen said.

The task, Freeman added, is harder than it might seem in a political environment in the country as fraught and charged as the current one. Surprisingly, he said, the initial emotion that marked the days and months following President Donald Trump's election hasn't turned into a galvanizing, sustainable movement among the young people he knows.

"It would seem like more kids would be interested in getting involved in politics and civics because of the election of Trump," Freeman said. "The fervor probably only extended a couple of months after the election, when the majority of students were alarmed. Sadly, though, most students aren't involved other than just being angry."

Freeman said that he hopes YAC will help mobilize young people in the area to get involved by steering them to service projects that offer tangible, immediate results.

"One of the things I'm really looking for are things that I can volunteer with but that actually make a difference and that I can see," he said. "That's one reason why it's hard, especially for students, to get involved. A lot of things being offered are not tangible."