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Ghosts of Rwanda Night and its Lessons

Ghosts of Rwanda Night.  Every SEGL graduate remembers it.

Since our first semester, the powerful PBS Frontline documentary has challenged our students with classic leadership dilemmas: What is the right response to mass atrocities?  Should American leaders always prize American interests above all?  Is it ever worth risking American lives to help halt tragedy abroad?  How do we prevent human rights abuses from ever occurring? Ghosts, and our third case study of the semester, poses these questions.

Fall 2019 Ghosts of Rwanda Night happened last Sunday evening.  Students gathered in our Mike Michelson Commons to watch and discuss the documentary.  Their reflections were emotional and thoughtful, and smaller conversations continued into the night.

Over the course of the week we met with two key players represented in the documentary (next month, we’ll meet with a third!) and took a trip to the Rwandan Embassy.

On Monday morning, we video-conferenced with Carl Wilkens, a former Adventist missionary who was the head of his church’s relief mission in Rwanda during the genocide.   He was the only American to stay behind in 1994, and is most well-known for (among other acts) saving an entire orphanage from Interahamwe machetes.  To SEGL graduates, he is a winner of our beloved “Golden Mug” award (2012), which our graduates give to the speaker who has made the biggest difference in their lives.  (Carl is also an honorary SEGL teacher; twice he has co-led a group of our students to Rwanda.  To learn more about our 2018 trip, visit our SEGL in Rwanda page.  We’re planning a return with Wilkens this summer!)

Wilkens joined us from his Washington State home (he hopes to visit DC later this semester).  He is the founder of World Outside My Shoes, a genocide prevention NGO that travels the country speaking to schools, universities, and others.  The students asked him a wide range of personal and political questions, and listened carefully as he addressed each one.  One of the most valuable parts of an SEGL education is the opportunity to connect one’s personal values with one’s leadership decisions; Wilkens was particularly engaging on this topic.

On Wednesday we walked two blocks to the Rwandan Embassy and met with lead officials there who shared information about Rwanda’s reconciliation attempts, the nation’s current challenges, and personal stories.  The visit allowed students to hear from those affected most by the United States’ policy decisions, as well as their own perceptions of the nation’s progress since 1994.

That afternoon, the students took part in a favorite SEGL activity–the Leadership Styles exercise.  With two questions (“Is your first instinct to observe or speak when in a group making a decision?”  “When you make important decisions, do you decide with your head or your heart?”) the students divided themselves up into four classic leadership styles: Driver, Expressive, Analyst, and Supportive. Each group completed the same given task, but ended up with very different results; the ensuing conversation revealed, among other insights, the importance of having each style reflected in any decision making group (or, perhaps, in any decision making leader!).

Then, on Friday, we heard from Ambassador George Moose, who was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the genocide.  Moose (another Golden Mug honoree) helped students appreciate the bureaucratic hurdles that stymied attempts to intervene, as well as the reasons governments might choose against intervening in such conflicts.  His diplomatic approach also provided students a useful contrast with Wilkens’ activist passion.  Our world needs great leaders in both realms!

We rounded out this case study with a Saturday Academy visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where students drew comparisons and distinctions with what many agree is the most notorious genocide in history.

The third Ghosts of Rwanda interviewee we will meet this fall is former UN Ambassador Samantha Power.  Power is the author of A Problem from Hell, a modern-day international relations classic, as well as the brand-new The Education of an Idealist.  She will discuss the latter, as well as her long career inside and outside government, at SEGL’s 10th Anniversary October 18-20.

(Another longtime SEGL guest speaker featured in the film is current UPS Vice President for Global Affairs Laura Lane.  Although Lane no longer speaks publicly about her time in Rwanda, she gave a TED talk in 2015 that is very similar to the story she has told countless SEGL graduates.  You can view that talk here.)

Last week students also participated in the first edition of our Books and Basketball community service project (more on that in a future post), their first student-led School Meeting, and watched the third Democratic Primary Presidential Debate.

Next up: Speech writing with Lissa Muscatine, Hillary Clinton’s longtime top speech writer!

Sep 15, 2019

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