In April of 2023 Facing History & Ourselves presented celebrated educator Gene Woods and one of his former students, Chevon Williams, with Upstander Awards. These two recipients demonstrate the fullness of Facing History’s values: they create space for other people and ideas; they approach life with curiosity; they actively listen and learn; and they act with empathy and kindness—they are upstanders. We’re so proud to honor their contributions.
Gene and Chevon recently shared time together to talk about the lessons they learned as teacher and student in a Facing History social studies classroom at Bayonne High School in Bayonne, New Jersey. Beyond this connection point, they also expressed how the mentorship and examples of other upstanders have helped them overcome personal struggles and continue to motivate them as they move through the world.
Gene and Chevon embody the impact individuals can have when we choose to participate.
Here are their reflections.
Gene: Facing History gave me and my former student Chevon a tremendous honor: we were dual recipients of the Facing History Upstander Award. I couldn’t be happier to share this milestone with Chevon.
Chevon: Thanks Mr. Woods, I feel the same. You were truly one of my toughest teachers and yet I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without you and the lessons I learned in your classroom.
When I started at Bayonne High School, I was in many ways a typical teenager, dealing with the common challenges of somehow trying to stay visible while also attempting to be seen as little as possible. But Mr. Woods, you saw me, and through Facing History I saw myself.
Your class, Mr. Woods, ended up being a turning point in my high school career and continues to influence how I live my life today. It was a safe space to engage in learning—learning about who I am, but also opening myself up to the experiences of others.
Gene: Thank you, Chevon. This is truly a full-circle moment for me. Educators rarely have the opportunity to see and hear about the great accomplishments our students achieve once they leave our classroom. Now, I have the honor of talking to you and witnessing the person you are. You are the epitome of an upstander.
I myself was influenced by many teachers along my educational journey. Facing History says that “people make choices, and choices make history.” I had a teacher who made a choice to reach out to me.
That teacher was someone who stood up for me and took thoughtful steps that shifted the direction of my life. His name is Dr. DeFina. From my first day in college and throughout my higher education, I learned lasting lessons from Dr. DeFina. He provided continuous guidance as I pursued my dream of becoming an educator.
One particularly tumultuous day in college, he sat down beside me when I felt my world was crumbling. I told him my story and he sprang into action. He had a choice in my moment of turmoil. He could have just walked by me that day, but he didn’t. He made a choice to reach out—to see me and hear me. And his choice led me to become a history teacher. If it were not for Dr. DeFina my path would have been incredibly different. I hope that I continue to make him proud.
Fast forward, in 2006 I entered the halls of Bayonne High School as a teacher. I now realize that this was the path that I was destined for—a path that allowed me to encourage students, to help adolescents learn to advocate for those in need, to teach the truth, and to challenge the seeds of hate.
Of course, being an upstander and making the right choices is not always easy to do. But the only way that I could think to repay those who made the choice to help me was to carry on their legacy and inspire future upstanders. Everyone can find their inner voice, become empowered to make their own decisions, and participate in our society and our democracy.
Chevon: My journey has certainly developed in the direction of being an upstander since moving on from your high school classroom, Mr. Woods.
In college I spent time learning about democratic movements in our own country and around the world. For me, this journey delving into the meaning of democracy began in Montgomery, Alabama. I traveled there to visit the Legacy Museum. A wing of this museum focused on lynching and a memorial to victims of this crime opened when I was in high school. And so this moment traveling to the South was a journey of understanding my own history.
Recently I traveled out of the United States for the first time to Northern Ireland. And on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement anniversary, I learned about the Troubles and the activists who brought about peace.
Soon I will be graduating from Kean University with a degree in Political Science. From there I plan on pursuing a Masters degree in Public Administration and continuing my work for voting rights.
I’m committed to continuing to be an upstander. And that’s in part due to Facing History. Facing History allows young people and teachers to explore the unsung heroes that make the small, daily choices that ripple into movements.
From Dr. DeFina to Mr. Woods to me, the work of combating bigotry and hate and acting with empathy can start with just one person, and from there anything is possible.