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It was sheer fate that landed college junior Welling Savo Justin – a girl from Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle, Washington – in Facing History and Ourselves’ Brookline headquarters during the summer of 1998.
Savo Justin, who was studying English at Colgate University in New York at the time, had applied for a fellowship through school to fund a summer of learning and place her in an internship at a non-profit organization. She arrived at Facing History, about which she knew little, and soon found herself elbows deep in research about the ways Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe responded to questions of identity, membership, and difference at various times in their shared history. Savo Justin spent that summer as a “right-hand woman” for the Director of Facing History’s Center for Jewish Studies Jan Darsa, who was hard at work on the resource that would go on to be published under the title The Jews of Poland. The work, Savo Justin says, was a perfect fit. “I was deeply interested in engaging as a citizen and connecting with other people – in other peoples’ cultures and in communicating across difference to build bridges,” she says during a recent phone call from her office at The Bezos Family Foundation, which invests in research, programs, and partnerships to help young people achieve their full potential and make a meaningful contribution to society.
Savo Justin’s career path is sprinkled with inspiration from her time at Facing History.
With her summer internship behind her, Savo Justin graduated from Colgate and took a job in book publishing before becoming a writer-reporter at Boston Magazine. Her most memorable experience during her tenure at the magazine was a six-month investigative piece called “The Master Race,” in which she wrote about Massachusetts’ ties to the practice of eugenics, a subject she first encountered at Facing History.
The eugenics movement, explored in the Facing History resource Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement, refers to a time in the early 1900s when many people in the United States believed that some "races," classes, and individuals were superior to others. People holding these beliefs used an emerging branch of scientific inquiry known as eugenics to justify their prejudices and advocate for programs and policies aimed at solving problems by ridding society of "inferior racial traits." This history played out across the U.S., with laws enacted that forced sterilization, segregation, and put restrictions on who people could marry.
Savo Justin’s article came out in 2002, around the time that Virginia became the first state to apologize for state-sponsored sterilization of its citizens during the early part of the 20th century. “It was a life-changing experience for me to expose that story,” Savo Justin says. After writing the piece, Savo Justin realized that she was not as passionate about journalism as she was about using stories to further social justice work worldwide. In her early 20s at the time, Savo Justin and her boyfriend (now husband) quit their jobs, packed up their car, and drove across the country back to Seattle. There, Savo Justin spent six years working at a communications strategy firm serving nonprofits and foundations on projects that advanced healthier community environments, food policy, education reform, and social justice. Today, as the Bezos Family Foundation’s first-ever communications director, she uses her love of strategy and storytelling in her job to elevate the field of education and engage young people around the world in the important work of becoming active citizens in their own local and global communities.
At the Foundation, Savo Justin has helped grow a collaborative program called Students Rebuild, which mobilizes young people to connect, learn, and take action on global issues. Recent projects include the Haiti Challenge, which helped young people raise money to rebuild stronger, permanent schools following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the Paper Cranes for Japan Challenge, which asked youth to make and mail paper cranes to raise money for rebuilding youth centers in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there. In 2012, the Foundation partnered with One Million Bones, CARE, and Global Nomads Group for the One Million Bones Challenge, in which students from around the world built crafted one million handmade bones, which they displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as a visual petition of sorts urging lawmakers and citizens to take a stand against humanitarian crises worldwide. Students Rebuild projects involve a creative call to action that generates matching funds from the Bezos Family Foundation, along with interactive videoconferences that connect young people from around the world with their peers to share stories and ideas for collaboration in action.
“If you make something with your hands, it changes the way you feel, which in turn changes the way you think, which in turn changes the way you act,” Savo Justin says, paraphrasing the Genocide prevention activist Carl Wilkens, who is a featured Facing History speaker. “We do these projects because we have a fundamental belief that young people are co-creators of powerful solutions. If you give them the right tools and get out of the way, amazing things will happen.”
Savo Justin knows from experience that engaging in these issues at a young age is key to leading a life in which we engage with the world around us. It’s a lesson she learned early – as a high school student – and one that again ties her back to Facing History.
“I didn’t know Facing History when I started there as an intern,” she says, “but it turned out that I had already had an experience with the organization before I even had a name for it.” While interning at Facing History, she met Liz Arnie, a staffer who once taught at the Bainbridge Island high school Savo Justin graduated from in 1996. When they made the connection, Arnie let Savo Justin know that her high school did have a course that was grounded in Facing history teaching methods and resources. It turns out the class – called Culture, Power, and Society – had been Savo Justin’s favorite.
“It was absolutely hands down the most powerful and influential course I took in high school,” she says. “It exposed me to ideas about being an uninvolved bystander and explored themes around being an engaged citizen in a democracy and what that means. It felt absolutely radical to get to think about these things as a high school student.”