film production + social action

The Rice Experience

By Michael Pertnoy

As Genocide Prevention Month fades into recent memory and we conclude the Days of Remembrance, our nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust, I can’t help but feel so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to meet so many passionate and inspiring individuals around this country.

A few weeks ago Justin and I had the pleasure of visiting Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs where the teachers and students opened our eyes and touched our hearts in an incredible way. A few weeks ago I wrote about how overwhelming it can be at times to grasp the horror that is genocide — the gravity and enormity of the crime is so incomprehensible with the death figures reaching into the tens of millions in the 20th century alone.  What does a million people look like?  10 million? 50 million?  As these figures grow larger, it becomes tougher to quantify and easier to forget that these are not merely numbers but actual people – real human beings whose lives have been taken away from us.

But when we visited Pine Creek, that indefinable and intangible dimension of genocide was forever changed.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be co-authoring a multi-part blog series in collaboration with some of the incredible students and teachers I met in Colorado Springs. Their commitment to this important cause is unyielding; their determination to fight the injustice, intolerance and hatred we see in the world around us has given me a renewed sense of optimism and purpose; and as we begin to envision a future without genocide and mass atrocities, the Pink Creek community exemplifies the fact that  there is a lot we can learn from one another.

It all began with The Rice Experience and my new friend, Mrs. Rickard.  A teacher by profession and fearless anti-genocide warrior by choice, Mrs. Rickard conceived of The Rice Experience back in 2007.  She was searching for a way to explain to her students the massive number of people who have suffered and perished due to acts of genocide, violence, disease, and torture in the past 100 years.

In Mrs. Rickard’s own words:

I have been teaching about genocide for more than 10 years. I have shared facts, played videos of bodies piled high, read stories of children being gunned down, and then it all changed when Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa shared his story. My world was suddenly shaken of old conceptions I had entertained. This was a young man who had walked through the footage in the films, lived the stories I was reading, and was a living witness to the statistics we recount without thinking.  I have been presenting the numbers for years now in piles of rice, each individual grain representing one life that has been lost to genocide. I believe that understanding what millions truly means is important so that we can begin to realize the influence of one person. As we counted grains in a ¼ cup of rice we soon realized that it would take 24 ten-pound bags of rice just to represent the six million Jews that perished in The Holocaust. To show the atrocities of all the recent genocides, it takes over 600 pounds of rice. Each time I pour the millions of grains out for this lesson I am brought to tears. Our hatred for those we see as different has ended the potential of so many incredible people. How is it that we do not see each other as brothers and sisters, as one human family?

Mrs. Rickard, creator of The Rice Experience

Me, Michael Pertnoy, talking about how important this experience is.

Justin Semahoro talks about his personal experience

I have always visualized the individual g rains as actual people, actual lives, individual hopes and dreams, individual personalities, but now here sat Justin. If no one had stepped in to save his life, if no one had seen him as their brother, his life would have been just one more grain upon the floor. Just hours before, Justin and I had sat on a couch exchanging stories, sharing tears and laughter, and more importantly realizing that even though we had only known each other a few short hours, we were family. We so often focus on the things society has taught are dividing factors, and yet here was someone that laughed at the same things I did, felt pain just as deeply as I did, and loved with all of his heart.

The power of hate for Tutsi had almost taken this man’s life. He had watched others die before his eyes, and now we sat with millions of grains of rice on the floor, and I knew the word survivor had more meaning that any definition can hold. One grain of rice like Hitler can cause The Holocaust, but one grain of rice can also be the person who saves a life, a life like that of Justin. We all have influence; it is just a matter of where we choose to direct our actions minute to minute. There will always be those who will add to the piles of hate, but to honor the survivors who live on, I choose to use my one grain of influence to stand for justice, hope, and reach out to make a difference in the lives of others. How we use our influence matters, let us build a world where we recognize the value and connectedness of this human family.

I have vivid memories of looking around the classroom as Mrs. Rickard and the other teachers continued pouring bags and bags of rice on the floor.  The emotion in the room was palpable. Students were crying, shaking their heads in disbelief.   There was so much rice on that floor. I remember thinking to myself that the worst was behind us – how could this experience get any more emotional.

And then it happened . . .

Mrs. Rickard stood over the piles of rice and said, “And if you still think that genocide doesn’t affect your life…if you still think it’s far away, I want you all to know that one of your fellow classmates here at Pine Creek . . . her family is also in this pile.”

There was a long pause, a moment which seemed to last for an eternity. It’s a moment that I will not soon forget.

“Your fellow Pine Creek classmate, Sahza…her family was killed in the genocide in Bosnia…”

The room went completely silent as everyone processed that the crime of genocide had in fact reached their small town in Colorado  – it was no longer a far away concept, no longer happening only to people thousands of miles away.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this multi-part blog series where Sahza will be sharing some of her experiences.

Each grain of rice represents one person killed in a genocide.

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  1. Gina

    I was there for this experience and having Justin and Michael their to give their testimonies and share there work was a revelation. Thank you, so much, for being a part of this and bringing your words and images and presence.

    May 09, 2011 @ 5:51 pm