Our 2021 Strengthening Democracy Awards winners are …

The 2021 Strengthening Democracy Awards honorees include educators, advocates, students, and everyday Nebraskans who demonstrate exceptional civic leadership and who embody Civic Nebraska’s vision of a collaborative, innovative society.


Civic Nebraska on April 29 will honor Nebraskans of all ages whose efforts ensure a more modern and robust democracy in the Cornhusker State.

The 2021 Strengthening Democracy Awards honorees include educators, advocates, students, and everyday Nebraskans who demonstrate exceptional civic leadership and who embody Civic Nebraska’s vision of a collaborative, innovative society.

 “It takes dedicated citizens of all ages working together to strengthen our state’s civic life, and we are fortunate in Nebraska to see regular examples of this brand of collaboration,” said Adam Morfeld, Civic Nebraska’s executive director. “Often, these everyday acts go unnoticed. That is why Civic Nebraska brings attention to these civic advocates – to celebrate their consistent efforts to build and sustain our democracy.”

Clockwise, from top left: Michelle Clifford; Ja Keen Fox; Erica Kobza; Cory Epler; The Bay (Rabble Mill); Janell Walther.

 Civic Nebraska’s 2021 Strengthening Democracy honorees are:

 > Outstanding Civic Health Partner: Janell Walther, for research excellence in the realm of public and civic engagement and policy. Walther, senior research manager at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, helped build a framework for the 2020 Nebraska Civic Health Index, a comprehensive look at the elements of Nebraska’s civic life. In 2021, Walther also played a key role in What Our Neighbors Said, an in-depth report from Collective Impact Lincoln that delves into issues and solutions in the city’s core neighborhoods.

 > Outstanding Community Partner: The Bay (Rabble Mill), for its distinguished record of community-building. Rabble Mill has engaged with young people across the state, from providing skateboarding classes and equipment to providing unique creative opportunities to building self-esteem and resilience. Rabble Mill is an essential community resource, most recently evidenced earlier this year when The Bay donated space and worked with Civic Nebraska to mobilize youth to package and distribute personal protective equipment to the public. The result was more than free 1,000 COVID-19 protection kits in the hands of local families.

 > Outstanding Educator: Michelle Clifford, for using her civic voice to organize and advocate for student and teacher safety as school returned to in-person instruction amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. An instructor at Lincoln High, Clifford advocated for her beliefs to the school board and other institutions amid vocal opposition. In doing so, she inspired and empowered others to speak up and stand out to ensure a safer, more inclusive educational environment so that students felt safe and included, and did not fall behind in their academic journeys.

 > Outstanding Administration Award: Cory Epler, for his contributions to the educational standards of our state’s public schools, including guidance that Nebraska students should be able to learn about civic participation through questioning, communicating, evaluating, and applying. As the state department of education’s chief academic officer, Epler has a major impact on the quality of our state’s public education system – a system that he works to strengthen every day.

 > Outstanding Youth Engagement Award: Erica Kobza, for her work on access issues involving food insecurity, clothing, and transportation in Fremont. In 2020, Kobza, dean of students at Fremont High School, co-founded Together 4 Fremont, a group of educators who advocate and act around the values of antiracism, inclusivity, equity, and access. As a part of Together 4 Fremont, she has advocated to the school board for a statement to mirror Together 4 Fremont’s values, and has educated through a series of “Together Talk” Facebook Lives in which conversations focus on the group’s core values.

 > Defender of Democracy: Ja Keen Fox, for stepping forward in the fight for racial justice. After the killing of James Scurlock in Omaha in mid-2020, Fox organized protests, trained organizers, facilitated conversations, and consistently used his platform to promote civic engagement. Civic engagement requires us to sometimes be collaborative and sometimes be in conflict – and in the past year, Fox has spent time and energy doing both.

 > Outstanding Student Leaders: Civic Nebraska annually honors students in its Lincoln-based Community Learning Centers for civic leadership and excellence. This year’s Strengthening Democracy Award student honorees are Christopher Gonzalez-Donis of Campbell Elementary School; Neira Brandt of Randolph Elementary School; Armone Dean of Lincoln Northeast High School; and Anna Castro of Lincoln High School.

Civic Nebraska will honor all of the winners during a virtual ceremony at 5 p.m. CDT April 29 on Zoom. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP via Eventbrite.

Eric Liu, the bestselling author and national thought leader on active citizenship in America, will deliver the celebration’s keynote address. Liu is co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Citizen University, which builds a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship in the United States. Liu directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program and is the author of several acclaimed books, including ​Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy (Sasquatch, 2019)​.

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3 years ago

Congratulations Mrs. Erica Kobza on this great award. You make us so proud of you. Good luck in your new adventure next school year. Love you gal…..


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