Anna Lee Lecture lectures about survivor activism

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 12:00am


“Survivor Activism in the Aftermath of Historical Genocides and Contemporary Mass Shootings”
Anna Lee (USC undergraduate, English major, Spanish and TESOL minor)
2019 Beth and Arthur Lev Student Research Fellow
November 5, 2019

Anna Lee, the 2019 Beth and Arthur Lev Student Research Fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, gave a public lecture about her research on survivor activism as a form of healing in the aftermath of mass executions during genocide and contemporary school mass shootings. During her one-month residency at the Center, Lee conducted comparative research on the topic by examining both survivor testimonies housed in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and accounts of school shootings survivors found in media and other sources.

After reflecting on the unfortunate frequency of school mass shootings in the United States that sparked her interest in the topic, Lee started her presentation with an overview of her research methodology. For the purposes of this project, Lee focused on a limited number of testimonies of those Holocaust and Rwandan genocide survivors who survived a mass execution during these genocides. In addition to searching for and analyzing discussions of the subject of mass execution in these testimonies, Lee also hoped to discover survivors’ accounts of their activism. However, Lee noted that the absence of the term “activism” in the Visual History Archive’s index thesaurus made it challenging to locate these narratives. This challenge led her to rethink and redefine what can be considered as activism. In addition to the Visual History Archive testimonies, Lee researched the digital footprint of individual survivors of school mass shootings, including in interviews with them and their social media. In this case, she focused on individual survivor-activists who lived through the Parkland and Columbine school shootings. 

In the next part of her lecture, Lee presented her case studies, starting with providing brief historical background about the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. For the Holocaust, she focused specifically on the Holocaust in Lithuania, or the so-called “Holocaust by bullets.” She examined the testimony of Max Curtis, who survived a mass execution that took place next to a synagogue in his village in Lithuania. For the Rwandan case, Lee presented the stories of two survivors of mass executions that took place in churches, Emmanuel Mohinda and Daniel Ndamwizeye. Lee then briefly described the Columbine and Parkland school shootings, and presented the stories of two survivors, Sam Granillo and Mei-Ling Ho-Shing. 

After providing details about survivors’ experiences of mass executions and mass shootings, Lee turned to comparing the narratives of genocide survivors and school shootings survivors. She reflected on the differences between oral life history testimonies in the Visual History Archive and interviews for the media given by school shootings survivors, noting that contemporary school shooting survivors are less concentrated on the experience itself and more on their activism. The testimonies are also life history interviews, and the school shooting survivors' interviews are not as broad. While comparing the narratives of genocide survivors and school shooting survivors, Lee also noticed a difference in the level of emotional reactions that accompany their accounts. She discovered that school shooting survivors’ narratives are more emotionally ridden. In addition to these differences, Lee also identified a number of commonalities. She pointed out that most of the survivors were relatively young when they experienced their trauma, which for her raised a question about the relationship between youth and activism. Furthermore, all the mass executions and mass shootings she examined took place in “safe” spaces – churches and schools, and in all cases, the perpetrators were often survivors’ neighbors and peers.

Next, Lee turned to survivor activism itself, which she defined as a “reclamation of the self lost amidst trauma.” Based on her research findings, Lee categorized activism into three types: creative, legal/political, and restorative. According to Lee, creative activism is an act of transforming traumatic experiences into an art form directed towards education. Lee described Sam Granillo’s unfinished documentary "Columbine: Wounded Minds" as an example of creative activism. Next, Lee defined legal/political activism as attempts to reform or change legal policies surrounding gun control, and for this type, she used the example of Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, a Parkland shooting survivor, who advocates for a greater visibility of black communities impacted by the gun violence. Finally, Lee defined restorative activism as an elusive category that captures acts of forgiveness or gratitude, showing examples of individual reconciliation found in the narratives of Max Curtis and Emmanuel Mohinda.

Lee concluded her lecture by reiterating her findings about differences and similarities in narratives of genocide and school shootings survivors, as well as her findings about what constitutes activism. She pointed to another form of activism exemplified in the Visual History Archive: the survivors’ act of telling and sharing their stories. Lee concluded by expressing her hope to expand and continue her research in the future. 

Lee’s lecture was followed by a number of questions from the audience, including about the duration of activism; the challenge of assigning activism to specific narratives she identified; the effect of differences between VHA testimonies and accounts of school shooting survivors on her research; the importance of survivors achieving their goals and the effect on their healing; the future of her research; and the possibility of treating campaigns for genocide recognition, such as the Armenian Genocide recognition, as a form of activism.

Summary by Badema Pitic

Survivor Activism in the Aftermath of Historical Genocides and Contemporary Mass Shootings

In this lecture, 2019 Beth and Arthur Lev Student Research Fellow Anna Lee discusses the commonalities she discovered in narratives that span decades and continents, as survivors talk about the trauma inflicted on them and the intrusion and violation of safe, protected spaces. She examines the diverse forms of activism described by these survivors and the ways they have employed activism to come to terms with and heal from their traumatic experiences.

Badema Pitic