Even though they were surrounded by members of Hollywood elite and New York society, a group of teenagers seemed to steal the spotlight at the Oct. 3 Ambassadors for Humanity gala for USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education.
Holding IPads, the students mingled effortlessly at the gala’s reception room as they demonstrated how testimony from the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive has managed to reach across the generations and make a difference in their own lives.
The students, all members of Liz Bommarito’s senior English classes at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, showed how the institute’s online IWitness student program empowered them to do good work in their own communities. The students all participated in the IWitness Video Challenge, a contest that asks students to find and document their own ways to make the world a better place, as inspired from the voices in the Visual History Archive.
Bommarito – addressing the audience somewhere between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney -- wowed the crowd with her heartfelt talk about how special her students are. She noted that IWitness helped the kids ace parts of the New York State Regents Exams, a challenging test that all students in the state must take.
“One of the toughest exams to pass is global history,” she said. “Last year, our school achieved a 95 percent passing grade, which is huge. I attribute this phenomenal success to the students watching testimonies.”
Just an hour earlier, the students participated in a separate event to showcase one way testimony is being used in the classroom, just a few blocks away at the Computer and Anderson schools, both located at the William O’Shea Complex.
On hand to watch a presentation by the daughter of Holocaust survivors were USC President C. L. Max Nikias, Provost Elizabeth Garrett, and Steve Kay, dean of the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which houses the USC Shoah Foundation. Also attending was chair of the institute’s Board of Councilors Robert Katz.
The event was hosted by USC Shoah Foundation Director of Education Dr. Kori Street, who took questions from the students and introduced Sandy Rubenstein, a Shoah Foundation Master Teacher from Horace Mann School. Rubenstein, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, showed clips of her father’s testimony and talked about how important it is to keep memories like his alive.
Also in attendance were students from schools across New York, including Rodeph Sholom School, De La Salle Academy and George Jackson Academy.
For 16-year-old Midwood student Hope Harris, taking part in the IWitness Video Challenge involved cleaning up her neighborhood and offering tutoring services.
“I always wanted to do community service, but never had time,” Harris said. “But after watching videos, I realized this is the perfect time. It was an inspiration.”
Morsheda Kabir was inspired to help feed the homeless after watching a similar project created by another student.
“Since we live in the big city, there are so many people who don’t have anything to eat,” she said. “IWitness gave me the inspiration to talk to them.”
In her speech, Bommarito said that IWitness was the catalyst that helped her students reach important moral connections between two historical events. Last year, the class learned about the Holocaust and the phrase “never again.” The term came up again this year when they were studying the more-recent genocide in Rwanda.
“What happened to ‘never again?’” one of the students wanted to know.
“The whole class held its breath waiting for an answer,” Bommarito said. “These are the moments as a teacher that you wait for, that you look for. They got it. They understood. Genocide didn’t end with the Holocaust. IWitness is the connector with these kids. And the Shoah Foundation provides this for free. It’s irreplaceable.”