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North Hills Monthly

LIGHT Founder Educates Students, Public on Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Issues

Dec 31, 2019 11:31AM ● By Kathleen Ganster

The LIGHT Center

Nick Haberman, a Social Studies teacher at Shaler Area Senior High School, was honored when he won the Holocaust Educator of the Year award in 2018, but even more so, he was motivated. Haberman created the Leadership through Innovation in Genocide and Human rights Teaching initiative (LIGHT) to take his educational efforts to a whole new level. 

North Hills Monthly talked with Haberman about this unique project. 

North Hills Monthly (NHM): First things first, why did you become a teacher?

Nick Haberman: I’m a fourth-generation teacher, but education wasn’t always my career path. My mom always told me, “You’re a teacher, get your education degree,” but like many high school students, I resisted my mom’s advice. When I started at Pitt, I was planning to major in computer science or astronomy, but that only lasted one semester before I focused on history and anthropology. As many of us find out sooner or later, my mom was right. After stints at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the British Museum, I ended up back at Pitt for education grad school.

NHM: Why did you create LIGHT? 

Haberman: The creation of LIGHT was inspired by the lack of unified focus on Holocaust, genocide, and human rights issues in schools, and the lack of a space within schools dedicated to research, remembrance, and advocacy. I created it after winning the Holocaust Educator of the Year award in 2018 through the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. With the award came some money, which allowed and inspired me to create something bigger than I had ever attempted, and something sustainable. The idea was inspired by the STEM/STEAM initiative and the failure of Act 70 to truly expand Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education in PA.

The intention is for LIGHT to be the humanities Ying to the math and science Yang of STEM/STEAM. STEAM teaches students how to solve problems, LIGHT gives them real life problems to solve, specifically related to genocide and human rights education and advocacy. LIGHT connects students to projects, organizations, and opportunities where their time and energy are spent making visible improvements to their schools and communities.

NHM: What are some of LIGHT projects that have occurred since you began this initiative?

Haberman: The students and I completed many LIGHT activities, but a major event was the Evening of Holocaust Remembrance and Education in Commemoration of the Tree of Life Synagogue. After the Tree of Light tragedy, we decided to host an evening Holocaust remembrance and education event that would be open to community members of all ages. It was student-driven, with them leading the way by planning, organizing and running the event this past March 28.

We had 120 students in leadership roles for the evening that was part open house, part lecture series and part children’s event. The students worked with local Holocaust organizations including the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and Classrooms Without Borders as well as survivors and other Holocaust historians. We also had age-appropriate experiences for younger children. Over 600 members from the community attended. Our next event will be held April 3, 2020 at Shaler Area High School.

We also created a website that serves as a resource. The artwork and webpage were created by a former student, now professional artist, Nicole Cmar. I wrote all the content. It took us about six months to build the website together. LIGHT is currently local but is quickly becoming national as I forge new relationships with Holocaust teachers across the U.S. and Canada through my 2019-2020 U.S. Holocaust Museum Teacher Fellowship.

The students also participated in a civic engagement project where students identify a problem or need within their community and then reach out to elected officials to make a positive lasting change. This year, students elected to focus on the national movement to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. They made a presentation to the Millvale Borough, resulting in an official proclamation to recognize the day. The Shaler Area school board also formally added the day to the school calendar. 

NHM: Tell us more about the LIGHT Center at the high school. 

Haberman: LIGHT Centers within schools are meant to function just like an activities or athletic office, or STEAM maker space; as a permanent space designated for innovation in genocide and human rights teaching. Though LIGHT began at Shaler Area High School, in my Holocaust and multicultural studies electives, our LIGHT Center is now a shared space able to be ‘signed-out’ by any teacher in the building and utilized before, during or after school. It has already expanded to several schools in the Pittsburgh area, and will soon to be in schools from New Jersey to California.

NHM: How have students reacted?

Haberman: The reaction of the students has been extremely positive. When young people feel empowered and inspired, especially in leadership roles, they put much more energy into their projects, research, and outreach. Anything we do related to the Holocaust, genocide, and/or human rights violations, I try to get the students to create something to be seen or experienced outside the classroom by their peers, parents or community members.

NHM: What other projects are your students working on?

Haberman: They just got approval to create a Butterfly Project Holocaust memorial at the Shaler Area High School in collaboration with our art department. The idea behind the Butterfly Project.org is that one butterfly is created for every child lost in the Holocaust. At our Holocaust event, younger children painted ceramic butterflies. I have trays and trays of these. The students are now creating a memorial to children who were killed in the Holocaust.

Students are also participating in the Waldman International Arts and Writing competition through the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

NHM: What is your hope for LIGHT?

Haberman: My hope is to grow LIGHT not only in the Pittsburgh area, but across the country. Combined with #TogetherWeRemember and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, LIGHT can help make “never again” a reality by transforming remembrance into action, hosting synchronized Genocide Awareness vigils in April 2020 and raising awareness nationwide on social media. LIGHT will serve as the lasting school engagement arm of the movement by establishing LIGHT Centers before, during, and after our April events, and showing teachers and students how to replicate the Shaler Area model.

For more information on the LIGHT Education Initiative visit www.LightInitiative.org.