Carrying Legacies and Activism into the Law: A Tribute to Judge Abner J. Mikva

By Samantha Grund-Wickramasekera

It is important as lawyers to remember the unique position we hold in society, regardless of what area we practice. Our profession is historical and it is necessary. In these trying political times, it is easy to feel as if we do not have the voice or the ability to eff ectuate change. It is even harder to feel useful when you are struggling as a law student to keep up with your classes, acquire practical job experience, and plan for the future. Sometimes our own little bubble keeps us comfortably safe from the challenges of the outside world, and sometimes we even prefer it that way.

When I feel despair, both as a student and as a citizen, I think about why I wanted to go to law school in the first place, and the path I took to get here. I owe much of my political, professional, and personal growth experience to the Mikva Challenge.1 The Mikva Challenge is a youth-based organization focused on mobilizing teenagers across this country to get involved in politics at any level, not partisan politics, but politics developed through information, experience, and productive interaction even with those who have different viewpoints than ours.

The Mikva Challenge began in Chicago and it began as a dream for the Former D.C. Circuit Court Judge, Abner J. Mikva, and his wife, Zoe. Judge Mikva passed away on July 4, 2016, a fitting date to end an illustrative career. Judge Mikva served in the executive branch as White House Counsel under President Clinton, as an Illinois House of Representatives member from the Second and Tenth Districts, and as a Judge on the D.C. Circuit, most famously invalidating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in Steffan v. Aspin, 8 F.3d 57 (D.C. Cir. 1993), and serving as both mentor and professor to President Obama.

But despite this amazing career, and despite the political connections and the famous people he rubbed shoulders with, Judge Mikva was your average Joe who believed in hard work and honest politics to bring forth grassroots change. After patriotically serving his country at all levels of representation, Judge Mikva and Zoe decided to invest in the youth of this country, particularly the youth of Chicago, who are often written off by careless politicians as ambivalent to issues like gang violence and poverty that are prevalent across the city.

The program has grown considerably since its inception in 1997. In the beginning, it was all about representation. The program placed high school students on campaigns and in offices across the state to work as interns, campaign volunteers, and organizers. Now, it has expanded to all political platforms, including advisory youth councils to the mayor, focused on health and sex education, gun violence, and empowering underprivileged communities. It currently exists in three different states and continues to expand across the country.

The program enabled me to find my voice and it allowed me to believe  that my opinion and my brain mattered. In a world that continuously disparages millennials on everything ranging from work ethic to job security to debt, I was taught to believe that we had the ability to flip those stereotypes on their heads and make this world our own. I volunteered on campaigns, I phone banked, I travelled to New Hampshire on my first plane ride ever and heard President Obama speak in an old Concord theater only able to hold a maximum of 200 people. I shook Secretary Clinton’s hand, and I even got to touch Mitt Romney’s perfectly coiffed hair! (It’s a long story…) All the while, I experienced conflicting viewpoints, learned how to present an argument but also work through conflicts, and identify intersectional issues that are never fully covered comprehensively by the media.

All these experiences, combined with my political activism in college, pushed me to continue to work towards my dream of going to law school. While I never intended to save the world with my law degree, which I have learned definitely has its limits, I did know that it could be used to provide the necessary assistance to the most vulnerable of our communities. I also knew that my background with the Mikva Challenge enhanced the way I encountered difficult issues, challenging viewpoints, and hostile environments. Because of the organization, I could persevere for myself and for those who relied on me for guidance.

With my 711 license in tow for my final semester of law school, I will be able to represent clients in my school’s housing clinic and help resolve issues that seem so small on the surface but matter so deeply to the average Joe, just as Judge Mikva wanted. I can think of no better way to use this license and my future law degree, than to help provide assistance to our must vulnerable. Judge Mikva believed in the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam or healing the world.  I believe that we heal the world in our own way, and I have chosen to use my knowledge and my degree to continue supporting my everlasting belief that we can cause ripples that become waves. I cannot do it all, but I can do more now than I did before. One day I too will see the waves from my ripples. I think Judge Mikva could see them from the very beginning.

Do not forget your role as advocate, as protector of our most fundamental rights. Law school can be a drag, and it can be tiring, and we can desperately wish to opt out. But our profession depends on us pledging to uphold our country’s ideals and our promises to future generations, beyond the millennials and beyond our time. Do not forget that you too are making ripples and there is probably someone in your life who can already see your waves.

  1. For more information on the Mikva Challenge and how to get involved, please visit

This article first appeared in the WBAI Winter 2017 Newsletter.

 Samantha Grund-Wickramasekera is a third-year law student at DePaul University. Samantha serves as a member on the Appellate Moot Court Society and is earning a certificate in Health Law. She is a Chicago native, a proud Chicago Public Schools graduate, and a Mikva Challenge convert.