Extending genocide awareness beyond the classroom

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It is no secret that a humanities education can give students new perspectives into the world and insight into pressing issues such as genocide, however what happens after this education has ended? How are students able to translate their learnings into the real world in order to become anti-genocide advocates? In the first inaugural University of Connecticut Human Rights Symposium, speakers Glenn Mitoma, Stuart Abrams, Erna Alić and Claire Sarnowski discuss how to be an anti-genocide advocate and the importance of genocide courses in education. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How does genocide education differ at the high school and college level? How can students translate what they learn about genocide education into advocacy? In the first inaugural University of Connecticut Human Rights Symposium, speakers Glenn Mitoma, Stuart Abrams, Erna Alić and Claire Sarnowski discuss how to be an anti-genocide advocate and the importance of genocide courses in education.  

“Any genocide education course should be fundamentally an anti-genocide education course, which is to say your obligation and your purpose for teaching the course has to include a commitment to the prevention and redress of genocide as a phenomenon in the world,” Glenn Mitoma, director of Dodd Impact and assistant professor of human rights and education, said. “If it’s just a dry topic that you’re trying to unpack for students, you’re really not getting at the core of what genocide education should be”.  

“Any genocide education course should be fundamentally an anti-genocide education course, which is to say your obligation and your purpose for teaching the course has to include a commitment to the prevention and redress of genocide as a phenomenon in the world”

Glenn Mitoma, director of Dodd Impact and assistant professor of human rights and education

Stuart Abrams, who teaches genocide education at Avon High School, said teaching genocide at the high school level sets the foundation for students to learn more about genocide and human rights advocacy at the college level. A previous student of Abrams and current UConn senior, Bri Dyer, said she was inspired by Abrams’s genocide education class to pursue human rights and global studies at university.  

“I think students pick up on teachers that lack passion,” Abrams said. “That kind of passion is an essential quality, and the other thing is that learning is a contact sport. Teaching and learning about genocide is probably the NFL of learning because it is as difficult as a topic — not so much to understand the concepts all the time, but the emotions that it evokes and the art of teaching is being able to create this climate vibe of safety for students.” 

Claire Sarnowski is a junior high school student from Oregon who became interested in genocide advocacy after talking to a holocaust survivor in fourth grade. After noticing the lack of genocide awareness in Oregon, she decided to work with Oregon state legislators to implement and pass genocide education courses at the high school level. Photo courtesy of Music & Politics.

Claire Sarnowski is a junior high school student from Oregon who became interested in genocide advocacy after talking to a holocaust survivor in fourth grade. As she transitioned to high school, she saw the lack of genocide awareness in Oregon and decided to do something about it. 

 In 2019 she worked with Oregon state legislators to implement and pass genocide education courses at the high school level. In terms of genocide education, Sarnowski said it’s important to learn what happened on the personal level rather than looking at a statistic. People are more likely to take action when stories are more personal, according to Sarnowski.  

“How can we stand against prejudice, how can we be upstanders rather than bystanders in situations of oppression, whether it’s in our school,  political setting or within our workplace and what can we do to do our part?”

Claire Sarnowski, junior high school student from Oregon

“How can we actively combat hatred?” Sarnowski asked. “How can we stand against prejudice, how can we be upstanders rather than bystanders in situations of oppression, whether it’s in our school,  political setting or within our workplace and what can we do to do our part? We don’t have to be genocide education experts or have all this knowledge to stand against genocide; we can be doing this in our daily lives.” 

Erna Alić, an eighth-semester psychological sciences and human rights major, said her parents were survivors of the Srebrenica genocide in 1995. Her parents’ experiences influenced her to pursue advocacy for genocide awareness. Alić added that genocide education is an interdisciplinary area of study. For example, anti-racism courses explain the origins of genocide. According to Alić, discriminatory racial slurs foster hatred and violence which can lead to genocides.  

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Darfur Genocide Interventions. The importance of genocide education is to promote genocide awareness, in order to inform others on situations that are on the brink of genocide, so that others are able to take more preventative measures to stop these events, before they ultimately turn into genocide. Photo courtesy of The Conversation.

“We need to take more preventative measures to stop what has happened and advocate for situations that we may not consider genocide right now, but are at the brinks of genocide/mass atrocities and our activism should include all these other issues that go hand in hand,” Alić said. “I’ve been a really big advocate on genocide awareness and against genocide denial because it is very dangerous. Especially the trauma, stigma and it pursues even more hatred in society and allows essentially genocide to reoccur.” 

Advocacy for genocide education should not just be about passing legislation, according to Mitoma. He said the key is to give funds to create partnerships with universities to do more research about genocides and develop techniques to solve these issues.  

“It’s very different from the idea that you can solve it by simply writing a law saying everybody has to do this and then walking away from it.”

Glenn Mitoma, director of Dodd Impact and assistant professor of human rights and education

“It’s very different from the idea that you can solve it by simply writing a law saying everybody has to do this and then walking away from it,” Mitoma said. “Those kinds of unfunded mandates can, in fact, be counterproductive because then what you get is a lot of people trying to check boxes, saying all right we have to do this. If that teacher doesn’t know where to start, doesn’t feel connected, he’s not going to  really do a good service to his students in presenting the material.” 

Panelists explained that there are many ways to get involved with genocide education and advocacy. Some examples included internships with advocacy organizations, talking at the state and federal levels about the need for genocide awareness. Abrams mentioned study abroad experiences can be a transformative way to learn about genocides and overall emphasized the importance of studying humanities.  

“Are we in education to make the world a better place, if that isn’t what we’re all here for?” Abrams said. “If so, then standardized testing will not achieve that we need to refocus the concept that teaching the humanities is essential and we fight that battle every day. Science, technology, engineering, mathematics is important, but that doesn’t mitigate the power and value of a humanities education.” 

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