Choosing to Participate | Facing History & Ourselves
Agosin Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love Pg. 76

Choosing to Participate

Learn about people who have taken action to make the world a more just and compassionate place, and consider the ways we can participate as caring citizens of the world.


At a Glance

chapter copy


English — US


  • History


  • The Holocaust


About this Chapter

After studying the history of the Holocaust, people often wonder how they can help bring about a more humane, just, compassionate world and a more democratic society. This chapter provides examples of individuals and groups who have chosen to speak out or take action to help achieve these goals. These stories encourage us to think about the ways we can participate as caring, thoughtful citizens in the world around us.

  • What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a more democratic society?
  • How do we determine the most effective way to make a difference in our neighborhoods, our nations, and the world? Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see?
  • What does democracy need in order to survive? What tools do others use to sustain, maintain, and strengthen democracy?
  • How does learning about history educate us about our responsibilities today?

This chapter is from the Choosing to Participate section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 14 readings
  • Connection Questions

How does learning about the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust educate us about our responsibilities in the world today? Racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry—which were at the root of so much of the inhumanity of the twentieth century—have not gone away. The principles of international law and the institutions that enforce those principles, which were created after World War II in response to the problems of war, genocide, and statelessness, continue to face daunting challenges. The news from around the world can be overwhelming, and people often wonder how they can help with the enormous job of bringing about a more humane, just, compassionate world and a more democratic society. 

This chapter includes stories of individuals and groups who did “choose to participate,” and their stories can help us reflect on the values and actions that will strengthen our communities rather than make them more fragile. But the goal of this final step in the Facing History & Ourselves scope and sequence is not to force or even necessarily encourage students to take action. Instead, its aim is to open their eyes to the different ways of participating that are happening around them and to the tools that others have used to make positive changes in their own communities. Encountering these examples offers an opportunity for students to reflect on who they are, who they want to be, and what kind of world they want to help create. As students explore this chapter’s stories, they should pay close attention to what inspires the individuals who appear in them, to the goals and strategies of those individuals, and to the ways those individuals enlist allies and respond to success and failure. 

We often think about civic participation as a matter of politics, activism, and voting. Many people participate in organized campaigns to elect candidates, change laws, and influence the actions of governments and other institutions in our society, such as corporations and the media. But these are not the only ways of choosing to participate. Scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who studies civic engagement around the world, has noticed a trend toward types of participation that do not rely on the power of government and other institutions to make change. The readings in this chapter provide examples of both types of initiative: individuals choosing to participate through politics, activism, and institutions, and others who are attempting to make change through creative uses of art and technology, the formation of small businesses, and attempts to influence the norms and traditions of communities and cultures. Zuckerman concludes:

If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have—that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, . . . I challenge you to find ways you can make change through code [technology], through markets, through norms [unspoken rules], through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build. 

The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way. 1

Ultimately, Facing History & Ourselves hopes to create a society of thoughtful citizens who think deeply about the way they live—when they are riding the subway to work as much as when they hear about incidents of mass violence that demand a global response. Indeed, at the conclusion of the Facing History & Ourselves journey, we hope that students will believe that their choices do matter and will feel compelled to think carefully about the decisions they make, realizing that their choices will ultimately shape the world. 

  • 1Ethan Zuckerman, “Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust,” . . . My heart's in Accra (blog), entry posted October 19, 2015, accessed October 29, 2015.

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif