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Smith Named UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education

Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education and adjunct professor of religion, has established USC as the international leader for comparative genocide research and education.

A theologian by training, Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History, has been named the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. Photo by Kim Fox.
A theologian by training, Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History, has been named the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. Photo by Kim Fox.

Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education and adjunct professor of religion, has been named the inaugural holder of the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

USC worked with UNESCO to establish the chair, which will promote an integrated system of research, training, information and documentation on genocide education. The position will help facilitate collaborations between high-level internationally recognized researchers and educators.

Formed after World War II in 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) strives to build lasting peace among nations on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.

The UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme promotes international inter-university cooperation and networking to enhance institutional capacities. The organization enables chairs to serve as bridge builders between academia, civil society, local communities, research and policy-making.

Working closely with UNESCO, Smith will conduct research that contributes to genocide education and human rights activities at national and international levels. In addition, Smith will develop educator training and support programs that foster a multidisciplinary approach to the pressing ethical questions mass violence engenders.

While continuing to expand the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which contains nearly 52,000 testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Smith will contribute to teaching and publishing shared scholarship. He will organize international conferences to promote cultural diversity, international dialogue and knowledge-sharing.

Elizabeth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, was delighted to have collaborated with UNESCO to create the chair.

“Through his support of innovative technologies and academic initiatives at the USC Shoah Foundation, as well as his dedicated work in Rwanda with students aimed at overcoming prejudice and intolerance, Stephen Smith has emerged as one of the world’s leading educators in the area of human rights advocacy,” Garrett said. “As the inaugural holder of the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education, he will continue to promote UNESCO’s longstanding mission of sustaining peace across nations and cultures.”

Indeed, the creation of a UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute contributes to UNESCO’s core mission to promote peace and human rights and to provide new visibility to the field of Holocaust and genocide studies, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said.

“We anticipate that this new chair, placed under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Smith, will contribute to increased international cooperation on these matters by connecting with UNESCO's network of university chairs and by supporting the activities of the organization on issues pertaining to the history of the Holocaust, genocide and to human rights.”


USC Dornsife's Stephen D. Smith, the new UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education, and Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who gave her testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, in Rwanda. Both met with USC Shoah Foundation's partners at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Photo courtesy of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Smith, a recognized leader in the field of genocide education, is focused on finding strategies to optimize the effectiveness of the Visual History Archive for education, research and advocacy purposes. In 2012, he oversaw the launch of the USC Shoah Foundation IWitness program, an online resource providing secondary school teachers and their students throughout the world with more than 1,000 video testimonies of survivors and other eyewitnesses of the Holocaust to be used in classroom lessons.

Prior to his arrival at USC Dornsife in 2009, Smith co-founded The Aegis Trust, which helped establish the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda in 2004. Under Smith’s leadership at USC, Rwandan genocide witness testimony is being integrated into the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. The testimony is utilized in research and education programs. 

In 2011, Smith brought officials from the archive and education departments of the Kigali center to USC to train. As a result of that professional development, the Rwanda center has built new archival systems and education programs based on the institute’s work.

USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay noted that under Smith’s leadership, the USC Shoah Foundation has continued to distinguish itself as an international center for comparative genocide research and education.

“I can think of no one more deserving of this honor than Stephen, whose qualifications are exceptional, in fact unique, for this position,” Kay said. “At USC Dornsife, he has extended our genocide education to include Rwanda, Armenia and Darfur and has led the USC Shoah Foundation IWitness program, a world-leading educational platform.”

Having joined USC Dornsife after serving as founding director of Britain’s first dedicated Holocaust memorial and education center, The Holocaust Centre, Smith considered it a profound honor to be appointed the first UNESCO Chair of Genocide Education.

“I am a firm believer that education is the bedrock of our efforts to prevent genocide,” he said.  “Through this partnership, USC and UNESCO are joining forces to develop the research networks and education programs essential to understand and limit genocide in future generations.”

In addition to the Holocaust and Rwandan testimony collections in the Visual History Archive, the institute has previously announced agreements with the Armenian Film Foundation and 24 Hours for Darfur (a grassroots video/education campaign) to bring their critical testimony collections to USC that enhance the university’s research resources.

Smith is a founding member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body of 31 nations who determine policy on post-Holocaust matters around education remembrance and research. He has held several committee chair positions, including chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Day.

At USC, Smith’s development of the IWitness program aligns with the USC Shoah Foundation’s focus to make educational use of its Visual History Archive. Housed in USC Dornsife, the archive represents 57 countries in 33 languages and is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Since its launch, IWitness has received a seal of alignment from the International Society for Technology in Education, and in 2012 was the American Association of School Librarians’ top website for teaching and learning. The resource has now been adopted in all 50 states and more than 40 countries.

Smith has also been a crucial member of collaborations among USC faculty. He was joint awardee of USC Dornsife’s 2020 research funding support with Wolf Gruner, Shappell-Guerin Chair of Jewish studies, and professor of history. Over the past three years, the two have examined the theme of resisting the path to genocide, bringing scholars from around the world to USC to examine this comparative genocide research area.

In 2012, Smith also convened the world’s first conference on sexual violence and the Holocaust, examining how gender violence has been used as a method of genocide. He is now spearheading the development of the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Studies.

Smith’s recent publications examine various aspects of post-genocide. Some include: Massacre in Murambi: The Rank and File Killers of Genocide, chapter “Why We Kill: Understanding Violence Across Cultures and Disciplines” (Middlesex University Press, 2009); The Unique and Universal Aspects of Modern Genocide, chapter “The Challenge of Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom” (Continuum, 2012).

Smith earned his Bachelor of Divinity from the University of London, and studied at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies before earning his Ph.D. from the Department of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.