In recognition for their longstanding commitment to humanitarian efforts and education, Mellody Hobson and George Lucas were presented December 8 with the Ambassador for Humanity Award by Steven Spielberg, USC trustee and founder of USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education.
Hobson is the president of Ariel Investments. Lucas is one of the world's most distinguished filmmakers.
The husband and wife have long been supporters of the Institute, as well as advocates of children’s education. Hobson is the chairwoman of After School Matters, a nonprofit that provides Chicago teens with high-quality, out-of-school time programs. Lucas founded The George Lucas Educational Foundation in 1991 to foster innovative teaching techniques.
Held at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland, the event drew a crowd of hundreds, including a few well-known faces. In attendance were Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, civil-rights pioneer Jess Jackson and director J.J. Abrams. The evening was produced by June Beallor, a Founding Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation. Beallor established the Ambassadors event for the Institute in 2000 and has produced every year since it’s inception.
The event also marked the Institute’s 10th year at USC, which was represented by President C. L. Max Nikias and his wife, Niki; Provost Michael Quick, USC Dornsife Dean Amber Miller, as well as Director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism Willow Bay, who was accompanied by her husband, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger, who himself is a past recipient of the Ambassador for Humanity Award. (Disney was the event’s presenting sponsor.)
Welcoming the honorees from the stage were actors Harrison Ford and Kerry Washington, and entertainer James Corden. Composer John Williams conducted the the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles in electric performances of the themes from the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. Bing Wang of the Los Angeles Philharmonic played a mournful violin on the theme to Schindler’s List.
Many of the speakers talked about the rise of antisemitism and other forms of hatred around the globe. Speaking about a recent attack on a Muslim woman, Spielberg said it is imperative for people to take a stand.
“Now more than ever there is staggering urgency to education people on the darkness that consumes the world when hate and violence and tribalism are given a free pass,” he said. “So now more than ever we need to teach the next generation to take a stand and speak their conscience when bigotry is happening right in their faces because we are part of the solution, because there can be no more bystanders.”
In introducing the honorees, Spielberg praised their dedication to making the world a better place. His deep affection and playfulness also came through.
Mellody and George possess courage and vision and humanity,” he said. “They are fearless when it comes to pointing out hypocrisy and injustice. They have both led lives of the greatest integrity and the highest accomplishment. And look at them – they are just so cute.”
Guests had the chance to see visit exhibits showcasing the many aspects of USC Shoah Foundation. They interacted with the interactive New Dimensions in Testimony, which allows them to have a “virtual conversation” with Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter. They also visited students from After School Matters in Hobson’s hometown of Chicago.
Nikias spoke of the importance of preserving the 54,000 testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust and other atrocities in the Institute’s Visual History Archive, and he commended Hobson and Lucas for working to keep memories alive.
“Genocide is not only a war on life, but a war on memory,” he said. “These testimonies ensure that a path so charred will never burn beyond recognition. They will always provide the moral oxygen that fuels resolution and resilience. … Melody and George are expanding the boundaries of the kingdom of memory, and in doing so, they are expelling the worst impulses of humankind to the pale of irrelevance.”
Accepting his award first, Lucas talked about his own lackluster performance in school when he was young – he admitted to being a C- student – and how important it is to inspire students by giving teachers the tools they need to do their job right.
“There are great schools, there are great educational practices, but what I discovered is none of them are written down,” he said. “Nobody collects them or archives them or makes them available. So when the group of teachers that are or doing it right. In a few years they dissipate and everybody forgets what happened. That’s what got me started in education.”
Hobson teased her husband by reminding him that she earned A’s growing up. On a more serious note, she talked about how she felt the sting of racism more now than ever before. And she told the audience that they would have to make a decision – whether to see the world as it is or how it should be.
“I have to tell you, hatred makes me physically ill,” she said, recalling the message of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” “And as overt bigotry resurfaces, I feel like there are choices to be made. The question I’m asking myself about me and others is, ‘Will you be a realist or will you be moralist?”
USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith spoke of the ongoing need for the preservation of survivor testimony. He too warned about the rising tide of antisemitism and discrimination.
“Every story is unique,” he said. “But they have a common origin of hate. Hate harmed them, but survivors speak to hope, not hate. They are the living voice of resistance – every word an act of resilience and strength.”
Chicago student Lynette Lucero talked about her own path to understanding and the importance of not being a bystander.
“What I am discovering is that we have a responsibility to do right,” she said. “We can use our words and our stories to unite us. We can help others find their words and tell their stories.”
The Ambassadors for Humanity event is a crucial part of the Institute's efforts helping to forge partnerships that sustain the organization into the future. The gala raises much-needed general funds to support its educational programs including expansion of the Institute's award-winning IWitness website, professional development for educators globally, the Center for Advanced Genocide Research, academic conferences, expanding access to the Visual History Archive and testimony preservation, and others.