To create Facing History and Ourselves, a curriculum that has helped millions of students around the world confront moral dilemmas while learning to reject hatred and bigotry, Margot Stern Strom drew inspiration from her Memphis childhood.
As a Jewish girl in a segregated southern state, she was told to not drink from water fountains marked “colored.” And in her classrooms, everyone seemed to know what could and couldn’t be said.
“There was a powerful silence about race and racism and no mention of antisemitism or the Holocaust,” she once wrote. “ ‘Bad history’ was best forgotten. The Civil War was the War Between the States and we were taught how the South won the major battles. In my Tennessee history class I did not learn who lost the Civil War.”
Ms. Strom cofounded Facing History in Brookline’s schools in 1976 and led the nonprofit for nearly 40 years while it expanded into classrooms in all 50 states and more than 100 countries. She was 81 when she died Tuesday in her Brookline home of pancreatic cancer.
In an era when violent acts of antisemitism and racism are increasing, and some politicians want to ban books and curtail courses that teach about bigotry’s history, Ms. Strom pioneering work is seen by many as more relevant than ever.
“Margot had a drive and a vision to become a leader for teachers and students in a world in which too many people don’t acknowledge that there are patterns of hatred and prejudice that range from the playground to civil war,” said Martha Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School who had served on the governing board of the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves.
Nearly a half century ago, Ms. Strom and a colleague in the Brookline school system first discussed teaching students about the Holocaust, and that conversation led them to launch Facing History and Ourselves.
Throughout the nonprofit’s history, the organization and teachers have faced resistance from some educators and elected officials who want to ignore or barely mention certain disquieting historical subjects for political reasons, or simply because they worry about the impact the subjects will have on children.
“We’ve suggested in this curriculum and with this particular history and with the methods that we’re using that we have to allow for discomfort in the classroom,” Ms. Strom once said.
She believed that by studying how bigotry affected people in the past, and examining how hatred still roils today’s world, students could learn to make ethical and moral choices that will improve their lives.
“It’s scary to walk in someone else’s shoes,” Ms. Strom said in a 2015 interview with Harvard Ed., the alumni magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But you can imagine it if you’re taught about it. There’s a need for truth telling and widening perspectives.”
Born in Chicago on Nov. 10, 1941, Margot Stern was 5 when her family moved to Memphis, where her parents — Lloyd Stern and Fannye Wener Stern, who was known as Fan – ran a furniture store.
“My mother brought priests, poets such as Randall Jarrell, lectures on Shakespeare, and books from college into our home,” Ms. Strom wrote in a history of her nonprofit. “My dad, an author and an artist, clipped and saved articles about people and topics that would inspire his children. He gardened, made scrapbooks about successful women in all professions.”
Fan Stern, who had been a top student at the University of Alabama, was the household’s scholar and guiding light.
Gerald Stern, who was an attorney with the civil rights division of the US Justice Department under then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, said Ms. Strom “was very close to our mother, who led us: This is what you should be doing, this is what you should be reading, this is how you should be feeling.”
The middle child of three siblings, Ms. Strom went to Central High School in Memphis and studied history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, graduating in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree.
While registering for classes with students lined up alphabetically, she met Terry Strom, who was standing next to her. They married in 1964, and he became a renowned researcher in organ transplant immunology.
“To know him was to adore him,” she said for his Globe obituary in 2018.
After college, Ms. Strom initially taught in Skokie, Ill.
“I knew that I did not want to be another link in a conspiracy of silence,” she wrote. “I wanted to honor my students’ potential to confront history in all of its complexity, to cope, and to make a positive difference in their school, community, nation, and the world.”
And in an approach that continued for the rest of her life, “I quickly discovered that although I was officially the teacher, I was learning about adolescents and myself from my students.”
After the Stroms moved to Brookline in 1970, she began teaching eighth-grade language arts and social studies at the Runkle School, and received a master’s from Harvard University in 1977.
In the early 1970s, some Brookline residents asked if the school system taught about the Holocaust.
Troubled by gaps in her own knowledge about the Holocaust, and by memories of how that history wasn’t mentioned when she was young, Ms. Strom and Brookline social studies teacher William Parsons launched Facing History and Ourselves in 1976.
Parsons, who later was chief of staff at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, died in 2016.
For Ms. Strom, “history was not something to be memorized. It was something to be ripped apart and fought with. The complexity was important, and not to be ducked,” said her son, Adam Strom of Brookline.
He worked with his mother for many years at Facing History and is now executive director and cofounder of the Boston nonprofit Re-Imagining Migration, of which Ms. Strom was a founding board member.
As a founder and the guiding force of Facing History for nearly four decades, until stepping down several years ago, Ms. Strom “was both a visionary and an incredible listener,” Adam said. “She got so engaged in everybody’s ideas, whether they were mine or my sister’s or anybody’s at work.”
At work and home with her children and four grandchildren, Ms. Strom “was the most present person in every aspect of what she was doing,” said her daughter, Rachel Fan Stern Strom of Brooklyn.
In addition to her son, daughter, brother, and grandchildren, Ms. Strom leaves her sister, Paula Stern of Washington, D.C., who formerly chaired the US International Trade Commission.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in Temple Israel of Boston.
Working alongside and becoming friends with Ms. Strom “certainly changed the trajectory of my life and my career,” said Minow, who counts herself among those inspired by her friend’s drive, compassion, and ability to guide people of all ages to confront the complex ways bigotry and hatred have been powerful forces in history.
“Margot was always unusual in that she has combined a kind of charm and intellectual curiosity with a kind of nonlinearity,” Minow said. “So she would jump from the most personal to the most historical, and yet you could see the patterns and creativity in her thought.”
Ultimately, Ms. Strom wanted Facing History and Ourselves to spare students far into the future from what she faced as a schoolgirl in Memphis.
“Who influenced my development and readied me to learn and teach about injustices? I will never know the answers to these questions,” she wrote.
“I only know that my teachers did not trust us with the complexities of history — the dogmas were more secure, more comfortable. My classmates and I were betrayed by that silence. We should have been trusted to examine real history and its legacies of prejudice and discrimination and of resilience and courage.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.