Interview and Article by:
Casey Pallister, MT (MTF 2016)
Thea MacFawn, (Albany, NY; MTF 2013) is Co-Director and Founder of the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights. Thea has had a diverse teaching career, serving as a high school Language Arts teacher, an instructor for NYSUT’s Education and Learning Trust, a facilitator for professional development workshops, and a graduate college professor. In addition to her work with the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights, Thea is a board member for GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network).
What kind of work are you involved in as co-director of Capital Region Institute
for Human Rights?
As founder and co-director of the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights, I
work with fellow director Kelly Wetherbee and a team of educators to develop
human rights focused programming for teens. Through sessions on historical and
contemporary human rights issues, meeting local and international human rights
advocates, and workshops on 21st century skills, like web design, we empower teens
to see themselves as leaders capable of improving their communities and the world.
The Capital Region Institute for Human Rights is a sister program to the Summer Institute of Buffalo, led by fellow MTF, Drew Beiter. His program just celebrated 10 years. The goals of both programs are to provide students with models of individuals who are making a difference, connect them with other teens interested in human rights, and to provide them with training and skills to challenge injustice and advocate for positive change in their communities. At the end of the program, teens present their plans for human rights focused advocacy project.
Drew and I hope to expand on the Summer Institute model and would love to invite any MTF to visit our programs this summer. The Capital Region Institute for Human Rights Teen Summer Symposium is July 9-11 ; the Summer Institute of Buffalo is July 23-27.
How did you first become interested in studying and teaching the Holocaust?
My first year of teaching, my mentor suggested Parallel Journeys to me as a class text. Learning about the Holocaust impacted my students in ways that encouraged them to want to know more about history and how to be actively engaged citizens. After reading Parallel Journeys, students in my class chose to research the ongoing genocide in Darfur and created presentations to share with other students about how they could help raise awareness and call on our government to intervene.
My first class of students taught me that in order to meet the challenge of “Never Again,” there must first be an increased level of awareness of contemporary genocide. Students who have studied the Holocaust are in a position to begin conversations with their peers that can lead to change and action.
Why do you teach about the Holocaust?
I teach the Holocaust because I believe it is a moment in history that we haven’t fully learned from. It it is important for students to be made aware of our shared history and to critically look at the pre-existing conditions in Germany, post World War I, and the entrenched history of antisemitism that contributed to an environment where Jews were first scapegoated, then removed from mainstream society, and ultimately murdered.
Genocide is a process. Any process that results in neighbor turning against neighbor, a government turning against its people, and neighboring countries choosing diplomacy over lives, is one that has a place in my classroom.
Today, there is still a level of indifference to the suffering and needs of others. We close our doors, our eyes, say, “at least it’s not happening here” and look away. It is imperative that young people today recognize the role we each play in one another’s lives and feel an intrinsic need to give aid, voice, and time to issues and causes that involve human rights. Prejudice and intolerance are still part of our society.
I teach about the Holocaust because it helps my students recognize injustice and provides a place to discuss what can be done. Teaching about the Holocaust empowers and challenges my students to think differently about discrimination and prejudice. It provides them with the historical knowledge to approach these topics and suggest change that is rooted in an understanding of hate and what can be done to prevent it.
What have been the pivotal or profound moments in your career as a Holocaust
The most pivotal moments in my career as a Holocaust educator have been when my students take the lead in educating others about the Holocaust. I have had the honor of helping organize Holocaust Remembrance programs for my school community, and each year a few of my students volunteer to plan the ceremony. They take the lead—serving as master of ceremonies, sharing what they have learned in class, introducing survivors, and creating videos and resources to share with public.
Are you excited or worried about the future of Holocaust education?
The number of educators committed to teaching students about the Holocaust and contemporary genocide is growing. States around the country have mandated Holocaust education as part of their learning standards and New York has recently added the Armenian Genocide. I believe these are good signs that the Holocaust will continue to be taught in schools.
Additionally, recent events like Charlottesville have made it essential that teachers discuss with students the roots of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and the presence of active hate groups in the United States. We have a commitment to teach students how to challenge hatred and bigotry.
What rewards and challenges have you found in educating teachers about the
I truly enjoy working with fellow educators. Teachers are eager to teach about the Holocaust, but they are often afraid of “doing it wrong.” I have found the Museum’s guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust and contemporary genocide an invaluable source for teachers new to Holocaust education. Sharing lessons, discussing strategies for building on existing student knowledge, and addressing misconceptions are tools that help to build teacher confidence.