August 2017, Charlottesville, VA. A car plows into counter protesters at a white nationalist rally, killing one person.
Stephen Smith: As those crowds gathered in Charlottesville and we saw the Tiki torches and people walking down the street, you know, virtually in real time on our TVs…
Stephen Smith is the executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
Stephen Smith: … and this public display of hatred, I have to say, I was extremely disappointed.
Smith is a theologian by training, and for years, he’s been studying genocide and the Nazi Holocaust.
Stephen Smith: I was frightened for our country, but disappointed that we could be, you know, 75 years on from the Nazi period and then see that display in our own streets.
Smith sees teachers as the frontline in the effort to tackle hate. That’s how the Stronger than Hate initiative came about. The foundation put together lesson plans based on digital archives and testimonies from genocide survivors.
Stephen Smith: What we’re interested in is when you listen to these stories, how can it help to change lives –– to listen to each other more deeply, understand each other more, um, and respect each other’s identities.
The importance of the foundation’s work with educators was tragically brought home in 2018.
Stephen Smith: There was a terrible shooting in Parkland at Stoneman Douglas High School. And one of the educators, education team, at the Shoah Foundation came into the corridor and she said, we have 800 students registered on the Shoah Foundation’s eyewitness site at that school.
The eyewitness site is where teachers can introduce their students to first-person narratives and visual archives. It turns out that Ivy Schamis at Stoneman Douglas High School had been teaching a lesson on the 1936 Olympics held during the Nazi regime.
Ivy Schamis: The shooter came in, we had no time to be ready or prepare for our classroom to be ambushed.
AMBI: chaotic sound from scene
Ivy Schamis: We were all crouched down to the ground. I could see the handle of the door and the shooter was shooting into the glass panel and the door.
One of those bullets was fired into a computer screen, forever stuck on a Holocaust image.
Ivy Schamis: It just seemed a little bizarre that that was the class that was being shot into.
Two of Schamis’ students were killed. The student survivors became advocates of gun control legislation, and organizers for March for Our Lives.
Stephen Smith: I said to her, are you surprised that your students are, um, you know, being so vocal and being so active in society?
Ivy Schamis: I have no surprise the students at Stoneman Douglas really made a big difference in the world. They really did. I still think that if the shooter at Stoneman Douglas had taken my class, maybe he might’ve felt a little bit different. I don’t know.
Another notable part of the program is what Smith calls a charter of trust.
Stephen Smith: We’re going to trust. We are going to trust them with the most painful memories, we’re going to trust them with the stories that they could manipulate and take out of context.
Even as the USC Shoah Foundation is training educators around the world, it has its eye on the USC campus.
Amid a racial reckoning, the USC Shoah Foundation has stepped in to support USC students as they grapple with conversations about race, religion and identity.
If you’re not familiar with the USC Shoah Foundation, you can visit them at sfi.usc.edu