Power to the People
Bina Lefkovitz advocates for youth engagement in government
By Jessica Laskey
The URL for Bina Lefkovitz’s campaign to join the Sacramento County Board of Education tells you exactly what you need to know about her: bina4ourkids.com.
Lefkovitz is most certainly “for our kids”—in more ways than one. Working for the city of Sacramento in finance, redevelopment, city management, youth development and, eventually, as the founder of the Summer @ City Hall program, Lefkovitz has made sure that students know how to make their voices heard.
“It’s very simple, really,” Lekovitz says over her favorite chai tea at Peet’s on Alhambra Boulevard. (She and her husband, City Councilmember Jay Schenirer, live nearby in Curtis Park.) “If kids have emotional and physical safety, a connection to caring adults, even if that’s just at school, and if they’re given a sense of agency, there’s no end to how they can impact their community. They just have to learn how.”
The “how” is where Lefkovitz comes in. After leaving the city in the early 1990s, Lefkovitz consulted with Sierra Health Foundation to study youth in the community. In 1999, she founded the nonprofit that eventually became known as Youth Development Network to train hundreds of agencies around the state to support young people in school, at work and in the community.
“Young people are resilient,” says Lefkovitz, who has two sons. “If given the right conditions, they can thrive.”
Over the past two decades, classes in civic education have all but disappeared from local public schools, which Lefkovitz believes is a great detriment to the student body.
“The civic piece is so important,” the Chicago native says. “If you look at the youth voting pattern, it’s staggering: In 2014, only 8.2 percent of young people voted, and only half of those eligible to vote are even registered. That’s very alarming, especially when you consider that there’s a high rate of poverty in public schools and most voters are middle-class white people. Our job is to figure out how to help young people who face a lot of odds feel agency. Civic education is the key.”
In 2010, Lefkovitz started the Summer @ City Hall program, a six-week internship program for high school students that includes classroom learning as well as hands-on work experience with the city and other local organizations.
“The underlying goals of Summer @ City Hall are to connect the city and the school districts as partners in education,” Lefkovitz explains, “as well as to teach young people how their local government works and to get them interested in working there. Municipal government offers good jobs with excellent benefits, but kids don’t even know what ‘working in government’ means—even though it encompasses every job you can think of, from trash collection to engineering.”
Summer @ City Hall has proved immensely effective, so Lefkovitz has expanded the mission to include other cities, providing free online toolkits and other resources for anyone interested in giving kids access to municipal entities.
In addition to presenting at conferences all over the state to encourage participation in the program, Lefkovitz also advocates to get civic education reinstituted in public-school classrooms through her position on the Sacramento County Board of Education. (Last summer, she was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the board.)
She’s working with school districts to help students register to vote. Since the education code allow schools to register students as young as 16 twice a year, Lefkovitz thinks there’s no better time to get young people involved in deciding their own futures.
“We’re doing everything we can to help kids understand the importance of voting and being involved,” Lefkovitz says. That includes hosting mock elections and forums with elected officials at area schools. “We want to equip young people to be problem solvers, to know when to say ‘I need help’ and where to go to get it. To advocate for themselves and see the impact they can have if they use their voice.”
For more information about Bina Lefkovitz, go to bina4ourkids.com.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.