Lakeridge sophomore Claire Sarnowski was an instrumental part of passing legislation to mandate that Holocaust and genocide education be part of the Oregon's curriculum. Senate Bill 664 was passed in May, but for Sarnowski, that was just the beginning.
She has since joined STAND, a student-led movement against mass atrocities, lobbied in Washington D.C., and is scheduled to give talks and receive awards nationwide, including from the Anti-Defamation League.
Sarnowski's political activism began with SB 664, which will require school districts across Oregon to provide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide in social studies classes. Sarnowski was inspired to fight for mandated Holocaust education by her dear friend, Alter Wiener, a Holocaust survivor who passed away in December 2018. Sarnowski first heard Wiener's story in fourth grade, and it changed her life. "It was so moving and interesting to me to hear his personal account," she said. "I knew about what happened in the Holocaust, but I didn't truly understand until I got to hear a survivor speak."
Wiener's father was murdered by German invaders when he was only 13 years old. Wiener himself was taken to a forced labor camp at 15, he said. He eventually spent time in five different concentration camps; when his last camp was liberated in 1945, he was 18 years old and weighed just 80 pounds. He was one of only two surviving members of his entire extended family.
Wiener was unfortunately not alive to see SB 664 go into law, but Sarnowski remains steadfast in her commitment to carry on his legacy. Since the passage of the bill, she was recruited to join STAND by another student member who read about Sarnowski in news coverage of SB 664. "The student saw the Washington Post article and then the Review article, and she ended up finding me on Instagram because my name isn't common," said Sarnowski. "She connected with me about their mission and goals."
The mission of STAND "is to empower individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and end genocide...mobilizing campuses and communities across the country to act against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide." STAND has become a far-reaching network, with chapters at over 100 schools across the globe. STAND recruits, trains, organizes and mobilizes students — providing materials, educational information, online resources, policy expertise, leadership training and a network of concerned and active peers.
At only 15 years old, Sarnowski became the youngest member of STAND, and one of only two high school student members (the majority of the members are in college or grad school). "It is definitely something that I'm very proud of. I'm very thankful for the experiences I am getting," she said. "Being 15 and lobbying at the White House was not something I would have believed if you told me last year."
As a member of STAND, Sarnowski flew to Washington D.C. this summer to lobby politicians to do more to address global conflicts, such as those in Sudan, Burma and Yemen. She was also responsible for scheduling other STAND members' meetings. "I set up all of the lobby meetings with senators and representatives from where they are from as well as where they go to college," she said. "It was a big task."
Sarnowski also works on the fundraising committee, "making sure we have the resources that we need."
STAND goes to Washington D.C. twice a year, so Sarnowski will soon become familiar with the nation's capital. "It was a really fun experience and something that I am excited to do again," she said.
Sarnowski will be returning to D.C. before the rest of the STAND members, as she is being honored at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Concert Against Hate Nov. 4. The ceremony takes place at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This is a national honor through the national Anti-Defamation League as a whole, not just a single chapter.
"In honoring you, we wish to recognize your leadership and determination to ensure students learn the lessons of the Holocaust in Oregon for generations to come," read an email to Sarnowski from the ADL. "In recognizing you and sharing the story of your connection to and relationship with Alter Wiener, we want to highlight the impact that young people can have on future generations' understanding of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust's place in human history."
For more information on this event, visit www.adlconcert.org/concert.
Then, less than two weeks later, Sarnowski will head to Phoenix, Arizona and speak to over 600 Arizona students, teachers and community members at the 2019 Diversity Leadership Alliance Conference Nov. 15. "I will be speaking about my experiences on a panel addressing how to be an ally to bring about change," Sarnowski said. More information about the panel can be found at www.diversityleadershipalliance.net.
If that's not enough, Sarnowski will fly to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the Florida Holocaust Museum's annual gala Feb. 8. She will be honored with the museum's Legacy Award at the gala, and will also be speaking to high school students in the area about her experience and involvement with SB 664. The Legacy Award is given each year to honor an individual who, through actions today, uses the lessons of the Holocaust to empower and inspire humanity to create a better tomorrow. More information on the gala can be found at www.flholocaustmuseum.org/support/to-life-annual-benefit/.
Sarnowski said she is honored to receive the awards and opportunities, but is most excited to meet other people doing the same work she is. "I'm excited to be able to connect with people that also want to improve the future based on atrocities of the past," she said. "I don't think there's a better time to instill the messages that have been learned from previous atrocities."
These messages include being kind to everyone and being grateful for what you have, lessons Sarnowski said she learned from Wiener's story. "It's a touching message and way of life that all of us can embody," she said. "I never thought that I would be able to reach so many people, and I'm happy that I now have the platform to do that."
Sarnowski will also be giving a talk locally, as she is honored at the Wholistic Peace Institute's Heart of Gold Luncheon at Nicoletta's Table Oct. 2. Sarnowski's talk, "How Does One Student Build Bridges of Peace?" will describe actions that she is taking toward a more peaceful social fabric where violence is condemned and diminished, and the truth of Holocaust or genocide is revealed and rooted out of our society. For more information and tickets, visit www.wholisticpeaceinstitute.com or register by phone at 503-701-9987.
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