During the past seven years, Hannah Okafor has played tackle football, breaking boundaries in a male-dominated sport.
In the past year, at age 13, Okafor has broken even more boundaries by getting elected to her student council and petitioning Rapoport Academy to create a football team for her peers and her to play on, now that she’s about to be too old for her current football program, she said.
Her efforts wouldn’t have been possible had she not attended Baylor University’s iEngage Summer Civics Institute the past four years and worked up the courage to get involved in her school, Okafor said.
The summer camp, which ran Monday through Friday this week, in its fourth year. It’s directed by Brooke Blevins and Karon LeCompte, Baylor School of Education faculty members and iEngage co-founders. The camp teaches children the importance of being well-informed citizens and taking civic action on local issues to change the community for the better.
“Every time I come back, it’s never the same thing over and over again. They always make a point to make sure it’s different and it’s a good experience,” Okafor said.
The camp started after Blevins and LeCompte researched the impact of iCivics, an online gaming website founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and implemented in classrooms at Midway and Waco Independent School Districts. The two wanted to push past the online gaming component and teach students about civic action, they said.
About 100 fifth- through ninth-graders participated in the camp this year. They spent the week meeting with civic leaders and elected officials, learning about the 2016 presidential election and developing their own action plan for civic change.
The campers present their civic action plans to parents and camp counselors at the end of the week.
After she left the camp last year, Okafor realized her school didn’t have a football team. Instead, it only offered basketball, volleyball, track and field, and cross-country. Armed with what she learned at iEngage and a pro-football platform, she ran for student council and was elected to the vice president position.
From there, her vision began to take form, and she was able to speak to her student body and discover peer interest in having a football team. Okafor started a petition to create a Rapoport Academy football program, gathered 100 signatures and took it to the superintendent, she said.
“I don’t think I would’ve even thought of that before coming to iEngage,” Okafor said. “It just would’ve been, ‘I want to do it,’ but I would’ve left it alone after that thought. iEngage kind of helped push me off.”
That kind of motivation and eagerness to change a community through civic action is exactly how the directors know iEngage is making an impact, they said. The camp has served more than 350 students in the past four years, and Okafor is just one example of how young students can make a difference today, even if they’re not old enough to vote, the directors said.
“We’re not so focused on the adult political agendas that have to do with (Donald) Trump and (Hillary) Clinton and all the other political news,” LeCompte, a Baylor associate professor, said. “We really want our campers to: No. 1, learn how to be citizens; No. 2, to learn how to advocate; No. 3, to learn how to build consensus with one another; and No. 4, how to take action on a project or an issue in their community that they care about.”
Eliminating plastic bags
Many of the campers’ chosen issues this year involved homelessness, hunger, poverty or veteran care in Waco and identifying the root causes, but Okafor’s involved littering. Specifically, she and her group advocated for residents to keep plastic bags from floating in the streets, she said.
Called No Plastic, No Problem, Okafor’s group produced a video asking residents to keep the environment cleaner. The group encourages residents to take the initiative to use reusable bags instead or asking grocery stores to stop offering plastic bags.
The group even encourages residents to go to the city council and request a ban on plastic bags, which other Texas cities, including Dallas, have approved in the past year.
Students who become involved at the local level are more apt to be involved at the national level, Blevins said. Teaching advocacy at the local level is just as important as encouraging participation in a national election, she said, adding the hope is to inform young students about what they can do now and make long-lasting impressions later.
“It’s important to know some of the questions we’ve asked our students throughout this year’s iteration of iEngage, because they’re the questions that drive everything we do. We asked them, what does it mean to be a good citizen? We focused on that throughout the whole week. What does it mean to advocate? How do I advocate effectively?” Blevins said Friday.
“Then today, the question was how do I help others understand my issue and take action? Throughout the week, our goal is to help them think about this because these are overarching questions they can ask about anything, not just the issue they care about this week. Hopefully, they’ll take those questions and use them as they go back to their schools and communities.”
Okafor won’t be attending next year’s iEngage camp because she will be past the age limit, and though the results of Okafor’s petition may not pan out, she’s just glad the conversation has started, she said. Rapoport Academy already has a partnership with the Doris Miller YMCA to provide students with exercise and gym facilities, but she and the student council have heard there might be an opportunity for the school to develop a football team with the YMCA in the next couple of years, Okafor said.
“By the time we did the petition, it was toward the end of the school year, so we don’t know what happened,” Okafor said. “Just the fact that they’re thinking about having a high school team at all is a good idea.”