Sabrina (left) and Sydney Brandeis (Photo/Emma Hopkins)
Sabrina (left) and Sydney Brandeis (Photo/Emma Hopkins)

East Bay sisters’ anti-hate project wins top USC Shoah prize

“Throughout history, hateful actions have been driven by influential speakers and leaders, so we decided to use the same concept to battle against hate.”

Those words come from a video made by sisters Sabrina and Sydney Brandeis, Danville high-schoolers who in September earned first place in a competition run by the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education.

The Stronger Than Hate Challenge, which asked young people to find a way to address hatred and intolerance close to home, had about 1,600 entries. Sydney, 17, and Sabrina, 15, won $5,000 for their video. In it, they documented their experience organizing a school event to educate students about other cultures, seeking to foster tolerance and understanding.

“I think we see the necessity for events like these in our community,” said Sydney, an 11th-grader at Monte Vista High School. “And that drives us to do it.”

“I want to express how proud I am of Sabrina and Sydney and how much work they put into it,” said Kevin Ahern, Monte Vista’s principal. An additional award of $3,500 goes to the school.

The contest was part of the free Teaching with Testimony curriculum designed by the USC Shoah Foundation, an institute that houses a vast video archive of testimonies from people who have witnessed or survived genocide, and Discovery Education, a digital education company.

The curriculum is designed to help teachers use resources from the USC Shoah archive to help explain the reality of genocide to students.

“This provides a face to that experience,” said Claudia Weideman, USC Shoah director of education.

Most students who enter the contest do so after learning about it in the classroom. But Weideman said there are always some who come to it on their own. That’s what happened with the Brandeis sisters, who learned about the opportunity after watching “Schindler’s List,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg, founder of the Shoah archives.

The contest asks students to watch a testimony and then come up with an idea to try and eliminate hate in their own communities. Contestants also are required to create a video documenting the impact of the testimony on their project.

“We ask them, ‘How has this inspired you to counter hate?’” Weideman said.

The Brandeis sisters decided to host an event last February, inviting 15 students to speak to an audience of their peers. The event was held at the school on a Saturday.

“We singled out some influential people in our school, people who were spreading change already,” Sydney said.

At “Diversity Undivided,” the student speakers shared stories about their cultures and the ways hatred and prejudice affect them.

“For us, what stood out about it was how they engaged the whole community of the school,” Weideman said.

The prize-winning video also secured a grant that goes directly to the school. Principal Ahern said he would let the students choose how to spend that money, too.

The Brandeis sisters have decided that the it fund an art-class project that will let students screen-print their own T-shirts on the theme of combating hate.

“Art can be testimony,” said Sydney. She and her sister are also contributing some of their own winnings to the project (the award can be used either for the teens’ personal educational expenses, or on projects that “implement change in their community”).

The event comes three years after a well-publicized incident at the school when racist graffiti was scrawled in a boys’ bathroom. Sabrina, now a ninth-grader, said the incident affected her family emotionally, even though neither she nor her sister were attending the school yet.

“It showed us that people in our community were this intolerant,” she said.

It had extra resonance at a school where demographics have changed rapidly over the past five years, with more students of color attending, currently 44 percent of the student population, the principal said.

Sydney said her entire family was sobered by the thought of hatred close to home.

“It’s not just in Charlottesville,” Sabrina said. “It’s here where we live.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.