With terrorism and hate crimes on the rise worldwide and divisiveness between people of different races and religions at a boiling point even in the U.S., global tensions are high.
But thanks to the success a local teacher and her students recently had in securing an official resolution designating April as Genocide Awareness Month in New Jersey, the state will soon be placing an annual spotlight on the negative impact of bigotry and intolerance throughout history and helping to promote greater peace, harmony and understanding.
As a social studies teacher at Warren Hills High School in Warren County’s Washington Township for the past 15 years, the topic of genocide — defined as the systematic, state-sponsored extermination of a group based on a particular characteristic, such as race, religion, national/political affiliation, etc. — was very personal for Bridgewater resident Debbie Rokosny.
“I grew up with friends who had lost family members in the Holocaust and took many classes on the Holocaust and other acts of genocide,” she explained.
Ten years ago, she began teaching an elective course on genocide at Warren Hills and subsequently launched a Human Rights Club, taking inspiration from her students, whom she found to be as interested in and passionate about supporting human rights and tolerance as she was.
Within the genocide elective she teaches, the curriculum examines human behavior, human rights, the Holocaust and genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries. Guest speakers, including survivors of the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide, are scheduled whenever possible, said Rokosny, whose class meets three to four times per week for a half-year and involves anywhere from 18 to 44 students per session.
Rokosny’s interest in pursuing the official designation of Genocide Awareness Month in New Jersey was piqued by Moving Beyond Witness, a national genocide awareness and prevention campaign designed to help mark April as a month highlighting genocide awareness and action.
“A handful of other states currently recognize Genocide Awareness Month and I wanted New Jersey to be part of the collective effort," Rokosny said.
Her desire led to a two- to three-year drive that involved not only local and state legislators but her students as well.
“My students were on board and wanted to do whatever they could to bring greater awareness to the subject of genocide,” she said of the activities her students engaged in, which included writing letters to their legislators, organizing various awareness projects and fundraisers, and presenting on genocide to students in lower grades.
While getting state bills posted can be challenging based on the infrequency with which the Legislature meets and the many other priorities vying for attention and limited resources, bill/resolution AJR69 enjoyed bi-partisan support from such legislators as state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37th District), Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7th District) and Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23rd district), received unanimous approval by the Assembly and the Senate, and was signed by Gov. Chris Christie on July 13.
As a former student of Rokosny's who just began his freshman year at Montclair State University, 18-year-old Washington resident Jack Zhang said that the experience of bringing the concept of Genocide Awareness Month to an official resolution was unforgettable.
“Genocide Awareness Month was a big goal for Mrs. Rokosny and students within the Warren Hills Human Rights Club and we wanted to make a difference,” he said. “The significance of Genocide Awareness Month to me is that it was driven by a small, local school club in Washington, N.J. It taught me that no matter how small an organization is, with diligence and determination, it can make a huge impact at the state, national or global level.”
Student Anna Osadtsia, an 18-year-old Mansfield resident who is studying Global Politics as a freshman at Centenary University in Hackettstown, agreed that the experience was far-reaching.
Taking part in the project during her senior year of high school, “we conducted numerous presentations for all classes on genocide and its various stages and specifically addressed ninth-graders, acting as teachers and giving them student-designed lessons in their World History classes,” she said, an experience that helped spark a new sense of activism in the school.
“It was truly gratifying to see that all of our hard work created something that can be spread through all parts of New Jersey, not just within the walls of Warren Hills,” she added. “Being of Ukrainian descent, it was also personally significant for me because Genocide Awareness Month recognizes the Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930s, which not a lot of people even know happened. By having it recognized, more people can learn about this event in Ukraine as well as other ‘forgotten’ genocides.'”
The signing of the resolution this summer was also significant to Joan Biondi, who greatly assisted in its passage as a legislative aide to DiMaio.
“Not only was this a huge victory for Debbie’s students, who worked diligently to get this resolution passed, but it’s also a victory for the State of New Jersey, whose residents will now be able to recognize and remember those who have suffered so terribly in the past,” Biondi said.
“Assemblyman DiMaio is pleased that this resolution passed and hopes that each April, genocides and its victims are recognized and honored throughout the state as an important part of history," she added. "Debbie Rokosny’s determination and dedication to this cause are to be commended. She’s a wonderful person and a great humanitarian.”
Upstanders, not bystanders
As Rokosny plans for the first of an annual commemoration of Genocide Awareness Month next April, she hopes that it will unify and focus statewide organizations around a common theme.
“I’m currently developing a social media awareness campaign as well as a roster of speakers, a list of events taking place around the state during April, and information about genocides,” she said.
All of this will be housed on a website that will supplement the Department of Education-run New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education website, the state’s existing and comprehensive site on the topic and guide to Holocaust centers at many of New Jersey’s community colleges.
“It’s horrifying to see what’s happening here and around the world, and this site will be a place for people who want to take steps to make a difference and be upstanders, not bystanders,” said Rokosny, who encourages people to help those in need in their own local community if helping on an international level appears too overwhelming.
With the passage of the resolution, “I hope that New Jersey citizens will be more considerate of each other and grateful that they live in a nation where their freedom, liberty, and rights are guaranteed and where their votes count and actually do matter,” said Zhang of the liberties Americans enjoy relative to such areas as North Korea, Russia, Somalia or Sudan.
Osadtsia hopes that the new resolution will help promote awareness among those who don’t think that genocide can or does happen.
“While some students I presented to really took in the information and applauded that someone was speaking out for the cause, many believed that ‘it happened in the past, so why reteach it?,’ which was the exact thinking that recycled the genocide stages and let history repeat itself in the first place,” Osadtsia said.
“I hope that people can take this as an opportunity to learn the stages of genocide and understand that it’s not just a part of history, but something that we must take seriously so that it doesn’t happen again," she added. "The victims of genocide deserve a voice, and we owe it to them to keep the world hate-free.”
“We have to strongly condemn any kind of violence and hurtful rhetoric that targets a specific group, which can lead to genocide, and speak out against human rights violations,” Rokosny said. “When you see it, you can’t let it go. You have to address it and stop it.”