A Tribute To Abner Mikva: A Giant Among Men

I heard Abner Mikva’s story before I ever met Abner Mikva.

I was a 7th grader on the Westside of Chicago – desperately addicted to Windy City politics, community organizing and the like – when I picked up Milton Rakove’s “We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent”. The title was taken from a story that was related to Rakove about a young University of Chicago student who wanted to get involved with ward politics in order help better his community:

“I came in and said I wanted to help. Dead silence. ‘Who sent you?’ the committeeman said. I said, ‘Nobody.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent.’ Then he said, ‘We ain’t got no jobs.’ I said, ‘I don’t want a job.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody that don’t want a job. Where are you from, anyway?’ I said, ‘University of Chicago.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody from the University of Chicago.’ “

That U Chicago student was Abner Mikva. He would get involved. Very involved. And stay involved for long, long time.

I was engaged by the Mikva Challenge before I ever met Abner Mikva.

In 1997, Ab along with his dynamic wife, Zoe and some of their friends and collogues launched the program in order to get high school students from Chicago actively involved with civics. When I arrived at Whitney Young High School a couple years later, Mikva was already taking root.

My US history teacher invited me to a Mikva Challenge event. She new that I was a political junky and that I was involved with community organizing. I went reluctantly – thinking that there was no way that any adults could possibly facilitate an environment that encouraged authentic student voice. Boy was I wrong. Mikva people respected us. And they facilitated an environment of mutual respect in which I was able to have a back and forth with then schools CEO Arne Duncan on issues that were important to 16 year old me. No script. The Mikva way.

Abner Mikva introduced me to my wife before I ever met Abner Mikva.

Well…sort of anyway. In 2004 (a year after I graduated high school), I was working in the Southside Field Office as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s campaign for the United States Senate. That’s where I met my wife. She was a high school senior. She was a Mikva Challenge student deployed to our office to volunteer…and be coordinated by me.

No Ab Mikva, no Obama Senate Campaign. No Mikva Challenge, no Chris and Aziza.

I met Abner Mikva before I met Abner Mikva.

Over the years, I met and Ab and Zoe a number of times (my wife considers them the Jewish grandparents she never had). They gave us the best gift we got for our wedding. I joined the board of directors for the Mikva Challenge and so on.

But a few months ago, I seriously considered public service. When I called Ab to talk about it, he invited me to lunch. There in the quiet of a mostly empty restaurant, the man manifested. I could tell that his eyes – somewhat dimmed by 90 years of life – were looking into my soul as he encouraged me to know that my organizing work was meaningful, perhaps even more meaningful than elected office. He challenged me to always stick to my values and never to give up no matter what. He pledge to support and coach me and from that day until this he kept his word.

A gifted leader. An unwavering crusader for justice. An uncompromising believer in future generations. Abner Mikva was a giant among men. May he rest in peace.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.