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Ghosts of Rwanda Night and the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

One of SEGL’s great traditions is Ghosts of Rwanda Night.  It’s an early and sober turning point each semester.  More important, it provokes some of the term’s most meaningful reflection.

For over a decade, 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 second case study of the semester, poses these questions.

Fall 2020 Ghosts of Rwanda Night happened last Sunday night.  Students gathered in our Mike Michelson Commons and the 228 parlor to watch and then reflect on the film.  Their reactions were emotional and thoughtful, and smaller conversations continued well into the night.

The case study that follows includes meetings with two key players represented in the documentary and a virtual trip to the Rwandan Embassy.

On Monday morning, we met 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; three times he has co-led a group of our students to Rwanda.)

Wilkens joined us by videoconference.  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.  Wilkens is always a student favorite, and a particularly poignant moment in which he spoke with his wife Teresa (who played a key role for their family during the genocide) by phone.

On Wednesday we met with Communications and Education Officer Elodie Shami.  Shami 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.  Rwanda has been in the news lately; perhaps most notably in a strongly worded New York Times article about the arrest of “Hotel Rwanda” protagonist Paul Rusesabagina.

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!).

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) helps 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 is also a useful contrast with Wilkens’ activist passion.  Our world needs great leaders in both realms!  (Moose was accompanied by Megan Chabalowski, who overviewed the United States Institute of Peace, whose Board Moose vice-chairs.)

(Another longtime SEGL guest speaker featured in Ghosts 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 hundreds of SEGL graduates.  You can view that talk here.)

On Friday evening we learned of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing.  The students gathered after chore period and decided to walk to the Supreme Court, where they knew an impromptu memorial would develop.  From a safe distance they watched and reflected as flowers, candles, cards, and tears covered the steps leading up to the Court’s entrance.  There was a very clear sense that this historic event, and its aftermath, will help define our semester together.

Saturday brought a few return trips to the Court building, along with a Saturday Academy trip to the just-opened Eisenhower Memorial several blocks away, a late night monument walk, a birthday, and a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream party (courtesy of the class of Spring 2020!).

Next up: a Monday “teach-in” about the importance of Ginsburg’s passing and the nomination battle to come, and our next case study, on climate change.

 

Sep 20, 2020 9:37 pm