Liz Vogel became Los Angeles Director of Facing History and Ourselves in June 2014. Previously, she held the position of Director of Development, West Coast, working with individuals and institutions in both Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area to increase awareness and support for our programs. Liz joined Facing History in 2001; her expertise includes fundraising, governance and external affairs.
Facing History: Liz, you’ve been with Facing History for 13 years. What drew you to this work?
I was the first woman in my family to go to college. Academic success has shaped the trajectory of my life, and I’m profoundly grateful for the opportunities that education has afforded me. Yet, initially I was drawn to Facing History because of what was missing from my education. Growing up my community had differences – race, class, sexual orientation – but we didn’t learn how to talk about these issues inside or outside the classroom. In middle school, when we learned about World War II and the Holocaust, a group of boys singled me out because I was the only Jewish kid in 8th grade. My family wasn’t religious or culturally observant, but this became the single loudest element of my identity, imposed on me by others. Suddenly, no one wanted to sit with me at lunch. I was chosen last during P.E. The boys were relentless and open in their ridicule. I felt betrayed by the boys who had been my friends, the girls who said nothing, and perhaps most of all by the adults around me who didn’t step in. At other moments, I know that I stood by, and worse, joined in saying or doing hurtful things to others based on difference. When I discovered Facing History, I knew it was exactly the work I wanted to do.
This year Facing History celebrates 20 years of work supporting schools, educators, and students in Los Angeles. As you step into the role of Director, what is your vision for the next five (or 10 or 20!) years?
We currently reach over 200,000 students in over 400 Los Angeles-area schools each year, but I believe that every student – from the most vulnerable to the most privileged – deserves a Facing History education. My dream is to create a pathway through middle and high school, giving students multiple touch-points to link their learning to their lives, and to deeply consider the role they can play in shaping our future. Imagine how powerful it would be for young people across L.A. to truly understand that their everyday choices matter, and to share a vocabulary and framework for asking better questions and making better choices! We could harness the creativity and diversity that characterize our city and realize the full potential of our young people as they become our future business and civic leaders.
We need greater visibility across L.A. to elevate the success stories of our schools, such as Social Justice Humanitas Academy which credits Facing History with helping to drastically reduce suspension and expulsion rates at the school, and to raise the dollars we need to support the work, so that our footprint and our impact can grow. We are assembling an army of Upstanders – teachers, students, community members at large. I want to accelerate that movement.
That’s a bold vision of our future! As the school year begins in Los Angeles, what are you most excited about for Facing History right now?
Right now, and always, I am inspired by our dynamic Facing History educators as they recommit to our young people. I’m excited about growing our work with the Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood, President Obama’s signature education and anti-poverty initiative. We provide training and support to help teachers foster safer, more inclusive school environments. I’m also excited about our Los Angeles Partnership Schools Network, a group of middle and high schools across L.A. that embrace Facing History’s core themes and approach as foundational to their schools’ mission. We convene teachers, students, administrators, and parents from across the Network to tackle common challenges and share best practices. We know this makes a difference, and our goal is to grow (see below for how you can help!)
Through all of this work, we’re expanding what people know about Facing History. Yes, we provide a powerful history curriculum. But we’re also so much more. Our approach is proven to help teachers be more effective, not just around a specific subject matter, but in creating more engaging classrooms and helping students develop critical thinking skills that foster both academic and civic growth. Whole schools and school districts come to Facing History for help tackling their most pressing issues. I believe in Facing History because it doesn’t apply only to a select group of high-achieving students – we activate all students to be engaged in their own learning and to exercise leadership in small but powerful ways.
What is your greatest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me is walking the line between urgency and long-term endeavor. Every day we encounter deeply troubling news of violence, division, hatred, myth, and misinformation. The prejudice and biases that underlie these issues are deep and systemic. Too often, these are issues of life and death. How do we make sense of this for ourselves and for our children? How can we break down notions of "the other" to ultimately build trust and prevent violence? The stakes are incredibly high; these questions feel more urgent than ever. And yet the daily work to instill values and habits of mind takes time. This is the educator’s most crucial task, but it does not happen overnight.
Is there a recent Facing History ‘moment’ that stands out for you?
As much as possible, we share stories of real people to give students a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is always meaningful for young people to hear firsthand from Holocaust survivors, especially as there are fewer living witnesses to tell their story. I recently experienced the power of this experience – as though for the first time – as I traveled to Poland on a study tour with Facing History board members and staff.
We spent two days examining Auschwitz; first the town of Oswiecim, followed by Auschwitz II – Birkenau, and then Auschwitz I. Despite years of study and contemplation, I wasn’t prepared for the scale and immensity of the camps. I had the privilege of walking through the camp with Auschwitz survivor Esther Peterseil, who was part of the Facing History trip (along with her daughter and granddaughter) and shared personal memories throughout the tour. I was, of course, incredibly moved by Esther’s recollections, especially when she paused next to the crematorium where her brother was killed. I was equally moved by the triumph of her survival, the tenacity and endurance of her spirit. To be in that place with Esther, her daughter, her granddaughter, treasured colleagues, and thousands of visitors from around the world, I was overcome with the destruction but also with the humanity that binds us together.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I love spending time with my family, exploring new parts of Los Angeles, bringing my friends together, and practicing yoga. For years, I participated in the CASA program (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) as a mentor to a young woman who grew up in foster care. We’re still in touch and she’s a special part of my life. I also LOVE to travel, though I’m more prone to travel mishaps than anyone else I know.
But the truth is that Facing History is more than my work; it has become my foundation for how I experience the world, especially now as a parent. As one of our most passionate supporters often says, “Facing History is like breathing.”
Next month, you can help us in our effort to dream big by voting for our proposal as part of LA2050, an initiative to create a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles. With your support, we can win one of two $100,000 grants, which will help us reach 500 teachers and 12,000 students as they lead the way in creating safe, engaged schools. So mark your calendar to vote on September 2nd and learn more about our proposal here.