Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Nathan Hale High School sophomore Mario Falit-Baiamonte is half Jewish, but growing up, he didn’t know much about the Holocaust; it wasn’t really discussed all that often in his family, he says. But that changed in the seventh grade when he took a Holocaust studies class at Licton Springs K–8 School in North Seattle. As part of the class, his history teacher took the students on a field trip to tour the Holocaust Center for Humanity.
“I am having trouble remembering what exactly I knew about the Holocaust before then and what I didn’t, but if I knew anything, it wasn’t much, and I was really interested by the whole thing,” he says.
A couple of weeks after the tour, Falit-Baiamonte learned that the center was starting a student leadership board, and his teacher encouraged him to apply. He was selected to join the inaugural board and remains an active member. Ilana Cone Kennedy, director of education at the Holocaust Center for Humanity, recalls, “Mario was full of passion and eager to ask questions and learn more. He is now in his fourth year on our board, and it has been incredible to see him channel this same passion into social justice issues both in and out of school.”
Falit-Baiamonte’s middle school experience of studying the historical lessons of the Holocaust and tracing its intergenerational impact and relevance to what is going on in the world today is perhaps a rarer exposure to the subject matter than many parents might imagine. Young Americans are disturbingly ignorant about the Holocaust because a majority of schools aren’t teaching them about it. “At my school, there’s no Holocaust education even included in the history department. The only thing is in the language arts department in ninth-grade year, when you read the book ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel. … I guess I do think that I had a bit of a unique experience getting that course, and that’s what got me involved [at the Holocaust Center for Humanity],” says Falit-Baiamonte.
Through its education programs and community events, the Holocaust Center for Humanity is dedicated to its mission to ensure that as many classrooms as possible across the state can receive high-quality Holocaust education. In his capacity as a member of its student leadership board, Falit-Baiamonte is one of about 20 members who operate as youth ambassadors and advisers for the center, helping to plan and support its projects, events and initiatives. The 16-year-old is enthusiastic about getting to play a part in bringing awareness about the realities of the Holocaust to his school and the wider community. He fervently believes that Holocaust education has a potent and essential application in teaching today’s students about the degree to which unchecked bigotry, intolerance and indifference in our schools and communities could potentially escalate. “Obviously, it’s the Holocaust Center, but we also spend a lot of time talking about other genocides and horrible atrocities that go on nowadays,” he says.
Falit-Baiamonte traces his interest in social justice issues and politics back to age 6 when he watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and he has been actively involved in student government since middle school. Last year, he played a key role in organizing his Nathan Hale classmates to join the nationwide student walkout protesting gun violence in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. He had the distinction of introducing Mayor Jenny Durkan at the culminating rally that converged on the University of Washington’s Red Square that day.
Falit-Baiamonte’s avid dedication to school politics prompts me to ask him an annoying-adult question: Do you see a career in politics in your future? He charms me with his answer. “Definitely. I think it’s the best way for me to make a difference, and … I think it is important to get your message out early, even if you can’t win at the beginning.” What does he mean by this? Well, he started a crowdfunding page last year to raise money for his potential campaign in the 2021 Seattle mayoral race — not necessarily with the intention of winning, he says, but “with the intention of getting a good message out and trying to bring some change.”