Citizenship Counts (CC) — a nonprofit founded by author, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein and her granddaughter, Alysa Ullman Cooper — celebrates its 10th anniversary in January. CC’s mission is to educate students about the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
“My grandmother’s vision really was to do something to give back, in some small measure, to this country for all that’s been given to her since she came here at the end of the war,” Cooper said.
Weissmann Klein, a Scottsdale resident, came to the United States after World War II, during which she and her family were deported from the Bielsko ghetto in Poland. Her parents were sent to Auschwitz, but Weissmann Klein was transported to the Gross-Rosen camp system to perform forced labor. Her liberation came after a brutal three-month death march, during which many of her friends died. As she recounts in her autobiography, “All But My Life,” she married her liberator, U.S. intelligence officer Kurt Klein, in Paris in 1946, and the couple then moved to the United States. They spent most of their lives together in Buffalo, N.Y., where they had three children. They moved to Scottsdale for their retirement; Kurt Klein died in 2002.
Throughout her years in the U.S., Weissmann Klein has been active as a Holocaust witness. Her autobiography is frequently used as a primary text by Holocaust educators, and her life was the subject of an Oscar- and Emmy-winning HBO special, “One Survivor Remembers.” Her story is also featured in the film “Testimony,” which is part of the permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The genesis of Citizenship Counts came after one of Weissmann Klein’s many speaking engagements, this one at a naturalization ceremony at Three Rivers Middle School in Ohio in 2004. Klein found the event, and the teacher who organized it, Marney Murphy, very inspiring.
“Of all the events my grandmother had spoken at [in] seven-plus decades — and she’s addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations — this was one that really resonated with her,” Cooper said.
Weissmann Klein told Cooper how powerful it was to see the students react to the naturalization ceremony, which spurred Cooper to develop a civics text. She published “The Path To Citizenship” in 2008, the same year that CC was officially formed.
Now, 10 years later, CC’s curriculum is used by schools across 36 states. Targeting middle and high school students, the curriculum is provided free of charge, and is available online. Since Arizona passed a law requiring all high school students to pass the same civics test administered to immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship, many schools have adopted the CC curriculum as an engaging and effective way to take lessons beyond rote memorization.
“If you rely on just the test, it’s facts we could memorize in a day with the students,” said Katie Hansen, Phoenix Union High School District social studies content specialist, who has taught the curriculum in classroom settings. But that kind of memorization, Hansen noted, doesn’t impact students’ lives. “It’s not going to help their awareness. It’s not going to help them be a better citizen.”
The Citizenship Counts lessons, in contrast, “really hone in on the responsibilities and the values that come with being a citizen. The activities are super engaging. They ask you to put yourself in the shoes of a variety of different immigrants who have come here.”
The organization also helps host naturalization ceremonies in schools and other public venues, both locally and across the country. CC’s first such ceremony was held in March 2009 at the Phoenix Convention Center, where former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor administered the “Oath of Allegiance” to 50 new U.S. citizens from 26 countries.
In 2016, at a Phoenix Suns game at Talking Stick Resort Arena, CC facilitated the first ever naturalization ceremony held during a NBA game, during which 48 new citizens took the same oath.
Carlos Galindo-Elvira, ADL Arizona regional director and former CC board member, believes the organization’s work continues to be vital for promoting an inclusive, respectful community at a time when the debate over immigration has become increasingly acrimonious.
“The good fortune we have of being citizens of this country, and how others really want to be part of the American dream, is extraordinarily beneficial to kids of all backgrounds within Arizona,” Galindo-Elvira said. “The fact that we are a nation of immigrants, and how people journey here to take part in the great American experiment of people of all backgrounds, is as important today as it was when the group started 10 years ago.”
An event to celebrate CC’s 10-year anniversary will be held in January at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. The keynote speaker will be philanthropist Bobby Sager, founder of the Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow and executive producer of the Sundance-winning film “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, will serve as the master of ceremonies. JN