The students were bubbling with energy when they gathered at Ronald Reagan National Airport on their way to Des Moines, Iowa.
“If you had something named after you, what would it be?” 17-year-old Delonta Johnson asked one of his best friends, Michael Blackson.
“I would probably have a school. A school, that’s smart,” Blackson, also 17, replied.
“I would probably have a stadium,” Johnson answered, escalating things.
“I would have a whole universe named after me,” Blackson said, finally ending the debate.
Blackson and Johnson are two students from Washington, DC, who were about to travel to Iowa to make their own mark on the state’s presidential caucus. They are part of a group of 25 students from DC who joined 200 more public and charter school students in Iowa, two weeks before voters there kick off the 2020 presidential primary season.
The trip was hosted by a group called the “Mikva Challenge,” which focuses on outreach to under-resourced communities and schools across the country. In Iowa, the students learned about campaigning for presidential candidates and held their very own youth caucus. Many of the students say being politically active is personal for them; gun violence, education, and healthcare are issues they face every day.
Two students who were shot and killed in DC in 2018 and 2017 attended Thurgood Marshall Academy, where Blackson and Johnson are now seniors along with two other students from the Mikva Challenge.
“Every time we say, ‘Bye,’ we don’t say goodbye, or see you tomorrow. What we say is, ‘Be safe.’ Because we don’t know if we’re going to see them tomorrow,” Sam Clarke, a 17 year-old student at Thurgood Marshall Academy, told CNN.
“There really are a lot of people dying of guns every day and I think they just overlook it, think of it as a problem that can’t really be fixed,” Clark said of politicians’ efforts around gun violence.
For the past four months, the students from DC have met at weekly sessions to discuss everything from the impeachment inquiry and the electoral college to DC statehood and criminal justice reform.
“Too often young people, people of color, people with less means, people from neighborhoods where there aren’t a ton of resources, they don’t always realize their power. They’re not always looked to for answers,” Voncia Monchais, a youth facilitator with the program, told CNN. “Programs like this give that opportunity to students from all walks of life.”
The Mikva Challenge is named for former Illinois congressman, judge and White House counsel Abner Mikva, and his wife, Zoe Mikva, who was a teacher and education activist.
With three chapters in Illinois, California and Washington, DC, the non-partisan program aims to encourage civic engagement among young people across the country.
CNN traveled with the students from DC in Iowa to see the political process through the eyes of these young people eager to find their own paths as activists.
Madison Bryan-Barnes, 17, is part of the group from DC and goes to Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
“Being the president is eventually my like, my 30-year goal I guess,” Bryan-Barnes told CNN.
“I don’t think it’s that ambitious. I actually think it’s, like pretty attainable.”
Seeing candidates up close
In Iowa, they connected with other students hosted by the Mikva Challenge from cities across the country, including Dallas, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Milwaukee and Madison in Wisconsin.
A snowstorm closed many of the campaigns’ field offices on their first day in Des Moines, but on the second day, they spread out to canvass and campaign for former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and businessman Andrew Yang.
Among the DC students, Sanders was a clear favorite, with students also clamoring to campaign for Biden and Yang.
At an event hosted by Iowa Public Television in Ankeny, Johnson sat in the audience as Buttigieg addressed a range of issues, including mental health and gun violence.
Johnson lost his father to gun violence in 2012 and, since then, he has struggled with anxiety, he told CNN.
Mental health has become a big issue for him in the 2020 election.
“The weird thing about mental health and health care, it’s not a DC thing. It’s not a United States thing,” Johnson said. “It’s a universal thing. Everybody in the world, every human being that has touched the face of this planet is going through something in their head.”
Johnson said he was impressed with Buttigieg’s comments, but wished he’d spent more time talking about how low-income communities can access mental health resources.
Jamie Stewart-Aday, 18, who was also in the audience with Johnson, said he’s found himself drawn to younger candidates like Buttigieg.
“When I look at a lot of these older candidates, I know they’re saying the right things and that’s great, but it definitely gives me some pause to know that they’re not going to be here to live with the consequences of a lot of the decisions that they make,” Stewart-Aday told CNN.
Less than 40 miles away, in Indianola, Blackson, Clarke and Bryan-Barnes sat near the front row as Biden talked about the role young people will play in the 2020 election.
“If you vote in the same percentage that the average voter in America votes, there would’ve been 5.2 million more voters last year,” Biden said. “You can own this election.”
A mock caucus
Many of the Mikva Challenge students are looking forward to voting for the first time in 2020, and in Iowa, they were given the chance to participate in their own caucus event.
The event was organized to be similar to Iowa’s own presidential caucus that will happen on February 3.
Of the 15 issues listed, at least 22 students needed to cast their support for a specific issue in order for that issue to become “viable.”
Students gathered in their corners, advocating for issues like gun policy, education, health care, foreign policy, climate change, political corruption, criminal justice, immigration and reproductive health.
On stage, several students took the microphone to try and bring more students over to their group.
“Political corruption is important because it underlies everything,” Stewart-Aday said to cheers. “We can’t fix any of these issues if our system remains politically corrupt.”
As the trip wrapped up, students looked ahead to when they would finally be able to cast their votes on June 2 in DC, one of the last primary votes held in the country.
The ability to advocate is one of the most important skills to have,” Blackson told CNN.
“Be confident in what you say and they will listen. They must listen. We’re the next generation.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the high school Madison Bryan-Barnes attends.
CNN’s Gabe Ramirez contributed to this story.