Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023
The Armenian Genocide has always been at the forefront of Armenian consciousness and will continue to be as long as upcoming generations carry the torch of history, demand justice and work to prevent present-day injustices against Armenia and Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh).
Armenia is facing an existential threat just as it did in 1915. The unprovoked attacks on innocent Armenians of Artsakh, the blockade of Artsakh by Azerbaijan, and recently, attacks on the Republic of Armenia, are nothing more than the continuation of the Armenian Genocide over a hundred years ago. The need to educate students everywhere is imperative.
In recent years, some public school districts have recognized the importance of educating students on the topic of genocide, at times as part of their history classes, and in other instances, as a full-semester course on the topic. While a few genocides are well known to the public, the Armenian Genocide has traditionally been marginalized in Michigan. When taught in all public schools, there are vital lessons that can be learned from studying the Armenian Genocide, the first major genocide of the 20th century, while for Armenians, the history and memory of those who perished will be engraved forever.
The First Step
Every April 24, the Armenian community commemorates the Genocide with a remembrance proclamation from the state of Michigan; but in 2002, it was formalized through legislation as “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Days, Act 558 of 2002” signed into law by Governor John Engler.
“Section 435-281 Michigan days of remembrance of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923.”
“The legislature declares that April 24 of each year shall be the Michigan day of remembrance of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923, and that the period beginning on the Sunday before that day through the following Sunday shall be the days of remembrance in this state, in memory of the victims of the genocide, and in honor of the survivors.”
Recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the state of Michigan was cemented into law.
Armenian Genocide Education Becomes Law
In 2014-2015 the Michigan chapter of the Armenian National Committee of American (ANCA) had pursued an aggressive campaign to include the Armenian Genocide in the Genocide and Holocaust Education Bill that was to be proposed in the Michigan House of Representatives. Through countless meetings, knocking on every legislator’s door, letter writing campaigns and phone banks, every legislator was briefed and asked to support the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in the Genocide and Holocaust Education Bill. Although the initial bill never made it to the floor before the Michigan House of Representatives ended its session, a new, identical bill was proposed the following year. The ANCA and other Armenian groups and organizations who were working to the same end joined forces in 2016 as a united front, advocating for Armenian Genocide education with the help of a lobbyist, an energized grassroots effort from the community, and this time, against the powerful Turkish lobby. Despite extreme challenges the second time around, the Armenian and Jewish communities successfully pushed the bill through.
In 2016, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law HB4493, the Michigan Genocide and Holocaust Education Bill. The Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, as the only two genocides recognized by law in the state of Michigan, are named specifically. The new law, MCL 380.1168, requires a minimum of six hours of instruction from the eighth through 12th grade.
With the passing of the law came responsibility. The governor appointed five members from the Armenian community to serve on the Governor’s Council on Genocide and Holocaust Education, along with five members from the Jewish community and five nonaffiliated members, and charged them with the task of providing resources and the necessary tools for educators to teach specifically about the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust.
By this time, representatives from the Michigan ANCA and other community groups and organizations had joined together to form the Armenian Genocide Education Committee (AGEC), a non-profit (501c3) organization. The AGEC, as the community’s representative body, is responsible for securing inclusion and dissemination of all materials related to Armenian Genocide education in Michigan and to fundraise for this purpose. The term of the Michigan Governor’s Council on Genocide and Holocaust Education ended two years later with a resource website for educators, which continues to be a work in progress (mhge.org).
Armenian Genocide in the State Standards
Beginning in 2014, there were several attempts to revise the Michigan social studies standards to become more inclusive. In 2019, after much politicized tensions, the Michigan Board of Education approved the last version of the revised social studies standards. Prior to the final vote, the AGEC actively pursued inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in the appropriate sections by contacting key legislators, directly communicating with the standard writers and public speaking at town hall meetings. Hearing our voices, the writers amended the lapses in the standards, which was included in the final version under World History and Geography, Era 7, (Standard 7.2.6 Case Studies of Genocide and 7.2.1 WWI). It was purely by chance that the social studies standards were being revised and put to vote by the Michigan Board of Education following the end of the Governor’s Council term. This allowed the revised standards to reflect the new law and include the Armenian Genocide as a case study.
Armenian Genocide Teacher Training in Michigan
The task of providing Armenian Genocide teacher-training workshops through Michigan Intermediate School Districts is a daunting task. The AGEC hosted several trainings, provided by The Genocide Education Project, but the pandemic slowed the process. It soon became evident that the work requires assistance from an experienced team of professionals in the field of education. The AGEC soon formed an advisory board, composed of district curriculum directors, superintendents and the CEO of a consulting and administrative services for school districts, to seek counsel on this new endeavor.
It also became evident that the work requires a team of educators and like-minded individuals to carry out the mission of reaching out to the various districts and to help organize teacher trainings throughout the state. Presently, the AGEC is in the process of forming such a team.
This team eventually will recruit and prepare a group of classroom speakers to be on call as available resources for teachers. The AGEC’s agenda includes the future establishment of a separate website exclusively about the Armenian Genocide and specifically designed for Michigan teachers with lesson plans aligned to Michigan’s social studies standards and local resources for teachers.
There is great potential for further engagement with the public to educate them on the Armenian Genocide outside of schools. Utilizing public libraries, civic centers and public events to organize art and photography exhibitions, musical concerts, poetry readings, showing documentary films, essay contests and speaker series expands the audience base beyond the Armenian community and beyond classrooms, too. In turn, this will provide a better understanding of the present situation in Armenia and Artsakh, broadening our advocacy base beyond our small communities. These are some ideas for the future being considered by the AGEC of Michigan. Keeping alive the memory and history of the Armenian Genocide is crucial in understanding today’s reality, and with the lessons learned, it is imperative for securing the future of Armenia and Artsakh.
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