For Matthew Sackel, who manages the education team at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, the most important aspect of his job is that young visitors come away with the message that one person can make a difference in the world.
"I think a lot of people might have the idea that the Holocaust Museum might be sad and somber, but it's actually a very uplifting experience to come here and realize that so many people fight for change, and you can be a part of that too," he said.
Sackel, who is gay, has worked for the museum since 2008, when it was a storefront operation in downtown Skokie. He came on board as librarian to prepare nearly 10,000 volumes of material for moving into the museum's current 65,000-square-foot facility. In his current position, he facilitates and schedules over 100 school field trips to the museum each month.
"Our student groups come in from all over the Midwest, but right now we have groups coming in from Florida and Louisiana," he explained. Sackel works with students ranging from third grade up through college undergraduates, coordinating with docents to make sure "that they have the best experience that they can."
Tours are tailored for specific age ranges. Elementary school tours, for example, usually focus on "social and emotional learning, being a part of their community and an 'upstander,' a person who makes change for positive reasons," Sackel explained. "Little kids wonder, 'What can I possibly do?' Everything from recycling, being in an after-school club, picking up an elderly neighbor's mailthose are all changes little kids can make."
Sackel also assists groups who come in for professional development trainings. "I coordinate trainings with Chicago Police Department, Cook County Department of Corrections and the Cook County Sheriff's Office," he said. "They come in and do all-day trainings, learning about communities and interacting with those communities. We talk about the history of policing, and have some great instructors, some of them retired CPD officers."
Several trainings for school teachers are also offered throughout the year, focusing on how classrooms can address difficult subjects, such as human rights crises or contemporary politics. "They're not something teachers normally have a skill-set to talk about, so we're happy to provide [guidance] for them," Sackel said.
The Museum recently opened the Take a Stand Center, a multi-gallery exhibit focusing on social-justice issues. Sackel called it a blend of "storytelling and technology so visitors can expose historical and contemporary up standers."
One of those 'up standers' is lesbian activist Edie Windsor, he noted.
"She passed away while we were setting up the exhibit," he recalled. "We had spoken to her several times from our offices. After she passed away, we had to change the lettering on the signage to reflect the fact that she is now a 'historical person,' not a 'contemporary figure' any more."
The exhibit features seven holographic representations of Holocaust survivors giving testimonials about their experiences.
"What we're basically telling teachers is that this is how the Holocaust curriculum is going to have to be taught moving into the future," Sackell said. "Now we're able to have Holocaust survivors come in and speak, for most of the field trips, in a 40-minute Q-and-A session at the end. Moving forward, probably in the next eight-to-ten years, that population is not going to be here."
Sackel said that the museum attempts to tackle social justice and contemporary political issues by applying lessons learned from the Holocaust.
"It's about trying to reduce the number of 'bystanders' and having more people make a difference," he explained. "It's important to let people know that [the Holocaust] was not a standalone incident. That was not our intent. Our intent is to draw focus to inhumanities and how society has grown from them … by reminding people that we have a lot of things to deal with, but now we have a lot of tools to deal with them."