IWitness Video Challenge: How our project began

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 3:00pm

This is the first blog in a three-part blog series written by 2016 IWitness Video Challenge student winners.


Middle school can be complicated. As students, we are preparing to go into high school, making new friends, going to our first dances, and unfortunately for too many of us having to deal with constant bullying. While there are those who might be the perpetrators and victims, there are many of us who are the bystanders and it is our duty to stand up against any form of discrimination. I learned through Holocaust survivor testimony that there are many ways to stand up for others.


During eighth grade, I was approached by a girl in school who entrusted me with her personal story about people coming up to her in the hallway, people she'd never even heard of, and saying nasty, despicable things to her. I wanted to help in any way I could. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to either track down the bullies to have a long conversation on how this was wrong. So I did what I knew best. I wrote. I listened to her pain and expressed it as best I could with paper and a pen. 

My friend Caroline had a similar experience with a young girl who had been heckled and harassed at the school dance for simply being different. Caroline's reaction was the same, to show support and console her friend. We both wanted to stand up against these acts of hatred towards our friends and we decided the best way for us to help was to write about it. Our teacher Ms. Bengels witnessed our acts of empathy and helped us create the Poets’ Undercover Guild (PUG), to invite students from our school to write about their own personal experiences as a way to express themselves.

Caroline and I both knew that Ms. Bengels had traveled to Poland in 2014 for USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education Professional Development program: Auschwitz Past is Present. Her experience of visiting Auschwitz and learning how to teach with testimony inspired us to help tell others’ stories. We were also introduced to USC Shoah Foundation and their educational platform, IWitness.

L-R: Our teacher Emily Bengels and me, Allison Vandal, my friends and club membersCaroline Waters and Maya Montell

In IWitness, Caroline and I watched video testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust. We heard about their experiences and how many were able to resist or help rescue others. We were so inspired by the testimony of Aldea Mason who spoke about a letter she had received years after rescuing a boy. This was the testimony that inspired us to create a video displaying the power of poetry for the IWitness Video Challenge – an annual video contest for middle through high school students to show how they create positive impact in their community. Our friend and club member, Maya, joined in on the project to help us create the 2016 winning video.

Now that we have been able to share our story, I hope to see it grow. Although my friends and I are now at the high school, we passed the torch of leadership of the Poets’ Undercover Guild to a current eighth grader. Our IWitness video has also helped us spread the idea beyond our own district and even our own state. It is exciting when people who we don’t even know ask us about our organization and make plans to start something similar in their own school. That’s part of why it was so great to have the opportunity to turn our poetry into film.

Community of Poetry

2016 IWitness Video Challenge winning video "Community of Poetry," by Allison Vandal, Caroline Waters and Maya Montell.

I encourage you to participate in this year’s IWitness Video Challenge.


Allison Vandal