WARREN, NJ - Watchung Hills Regional High School recent graduates and teachers were presented with Upstander Awards at the Facing History and Ourselves 21st Anniversary New York Benefit Dinner, Thursday, Nov. 6, at Cipriani’s on Wall Street, in New York City.
According to its mission statement, Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) is an international educational and professional development organization that engages students of diverse backgrounds in examining racism, prejudice and anti-semitism to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizens. FHAO supports more than 90,000 teachers in 150 countries.
Peter Nelson, director of the New York Office of FHAO, said the organization had inaugurated the Upstanding Awards last year to recognize people who have made a difference in the world and who have spoken up in the face of injustice.
Last year’s recipients were: Temitayo Fagbenle for her piece on WNYC’s Radio Rookies, titled “Sexual Cyberbullying: The Modern Day Letter A;” and Benjamin Ferenz, chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremburg War Crime Trials where he tried 22 defendants of the Nazi extermination units and convicted them all of murder.
This year, FHAO decided to recognize Watchung Hills, in particular two teachers and four recent graduates, who have become champions in the anti-bullying movement.
Addressing the dinner’s 800 assembled guests were Social Studies teachers and Diversity Club advisors Jamie Lott-Jones and Mary Sok, and graduates, now college students, Engy Gadelmawla and Catherine Higgins of Watchung, and Sarah Decker and Monica Mahal of Warren Township.
Also attending the event from Watchung Hills were Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett, Principal George Alexis, Assistant Principal Terry MacConnell, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Ellen Phelan, as well as retired Superintendent Frances Stromsland and retired Principal Thomas DiGanci.
“I was so proud to hear Facing History and Ourselves speaking so highly of the graduates and teachers at Watchung Hills,” said Jewett. The Watchung Hills graduates and teachers were recognized for creating in 2013 a district-wide effort to raise awareness of bullying and to promote tolerance. As part of that process, the graduates, along with many other current students and recent graduates, staged “White Outs” at the high school. They also were guests at municipal government meetings in the towns that send their high school students to the Watchung Hills: Warren Township, Long Hill Township, Watchung and Green Brook Township. Subsequent efforts have included having high school students broadening their scope to bring the message to students in the middle schools of the sending districts.
It is an effort that is ongoing still at Watchung Hills.
The students were also recognized for giving leadership to an effort to have the word “upstander’ included in the dictionary.
As part of her remarks, Mahal, who is now studying government at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., gave the definition of Upstander: “A person who chooses to take positive action in the face of injustice in society or in situations where individuals need assistance.” She pointed out that the words “twerk” and “selfie” were added to the dictionary in 2013. To date, the effort has accumulated hundreds of signatures, some from as far away as India and China, on a petition to include upstander in the dictionary. To participate in the online petition, go to “change.org,” and searching “upstander,” Mahal said.
“Imagine what would happen to bullying if bystanders became upstanders instead,” said Nelson. “Indeed, that’s just want the students at Watchung did. Led by teachers Jamie Lott-Jones and Mary Sok, Watchung Hills Regional High School has become a model for Facing History and Ourselves partnerships. In a school of 2,200 students, Jamie and Mary's classrooms have become incubators for creating upstanders. Watchung Hills students have led the effort to get the word upstander in the dictionary and in 2013 created ‘White Out,’ a district-wide effort to raise awareness of bullying and promote tolerance.”
At the dinner, Lott-Jones said she first attended a FHAO benefit dinner 11 years ago, when the keynote speaker was current United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers.
“I was blown away by her speech and by the way she encapsulated the ethos of Facing History,” Lott-Jones said. “The very next day, I went to my supervisor and pleaded to get involved in the program. My supervisor made the right choice. I did the intensive teacher training and that led to more seminars and online courses. I took advantage of everything Facing History had to offer and Facing History changed how I approached everything I teach.”
Lott-Jones introduced Gadelmawla, who is now a student at Drew University, Madison, studying international relations and sociology. Gadelmawla explained that she had come to the United States from Cairo, Egypt, not long after 9/11.
“As a Muslim child in a place where there were only a handful of other Muslim Children, I felt isolated and alone,” she said. “I was taunted. I had to hide who I was. I had to be a bystander, silently watching my own marginalization.”
She said that Lott-Jones and Sok took her under their wing, began to turn her around, and helped her become an upstander.
Gadelmawla introduced Higgins, who is now a student at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa. Higgins said that she did not have the easiest middle school experience. “Face it. Students that age can be cruel,” Higgins said. “That’s why it was important to us that White Out reach middle school students. We eventually created a conference for middle schoolers taught by high schoolers. Our goal was to empower students and get them to promote a culture of kindness.”
Higgins next introduced Decker, who is a Sophomore at Bucknell. Decker said she had to admit, in retrospect, that she had probably been one of the middle school students who gave students like Gadelmawla and Higgins a hard time in middle school. “Like many kids my age, I was not kind. But I had a friend who was. Her name is Janet Zilinski,” said Decker.
Zilinski was an 11-year-old cheerleader who died at cheerleader practice of sudden cardiac arrest.
“I have vivid memories of Janet saying, ‘No, this isn’t right,’ when someone was being picked on,” said Decker. “It wasn’t until I got to high school, until I met Ms. Sok and Ms. Lott-Jones, that I found a word to describe Janet, and what she taught me. She was an upstander. And she inspired me to be one as well.”
In the community, Zilinski also inspired her family and friends to become community upstanders, leading to Janet’s Law, which requires AED (Automated External Defibrillators) in all schools in New Jersey. The Janet Zilinski Fund has encouraged broad use, training and awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest and the use of AEDs.
“It is not just a noun, it’s a verb,” Decker said of upstander. “It is a call to action.”
Decker said she and Mahal started the drive to codify upstander in a dictionary, because when they would do a search online of the word, it would show up with a red squiggly line. “To us, that red squiggle sends an underlying message that this idea is not that important because it’s not a real word,” Decker said.
“If we succeed, and I believe we will,” said Mahal, “we will have taken one small step toward spreading the very valuable idea that we all have the power to change things for ourselves and for others.”
Sok thanked Lott-Jones for encouraging her to become involved.
“Thank you Facing History for enabling us to be better teachers,” Sok said. “Facing History changed the way I teach history and beyond the training and mentoring, I rely on Facing History for thought-provoking content and curriculum every single day.”
Sok said that the curriculum makes history come alive, but also has the potential to create more involved citizens, empathetic humans and people poised to make intelligent choices.
For more information about FHAO, go to www.facinghistory,org.