Lessons from Rwanda for America’s Schools

Originally published by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, I find myself reflecting on a journey that started nearly five years ago when filmmaker Adam Mazo and I created an educational documentary about post-genocide Rwanda called Coexist. When I first began drafting a teacher’s guide to accompany the movie, my thoughts focused on how to bring to life for American students Rwanda’s complex colonial history, the various meanings of genocide, and a long list of difficult questions about forgiveness and reconciliation. Over time I broadened my scope to look more carefully at how our society and schools perceive and act on differences.

As we beta-tested the film in middle and high school classrooms, I tried out several of the learning activities for the Coexist Teacher’s Guide; the results of these trial runs gave the curriculum a clearly defined dual purpose: (1) to help educators teach about colonialism and genocide; and (2) to support social emotional learning. And, although the activities were developed for students, it soon became clear that teachers wanted to further develop their own social emotional competencies as they attempt to teach to the whole child (rather than follow the dictums of narrowly defined standardized tests).

As the work progressed, the glue that made it stick together was our focus on othering—that human tendency to group people into “us and them,” to stereotype, and to single out some for mistreatment after branding them as the despised “other.” Without othering, there could not be genocide. Also, without othering, thousands of children in American schools would feel safer, more valued and better able focus on learning.

In the months leading up to the anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, I have visited dozens of social studies, history and language arts classrooms, and led scores of daylong teacher and staff professional development workshops where we explore the connection between genocide and othering. We begin and anchor every workshop by looking at our own beliefs and behaviors. We explicitly state that genocide begins in the human heart and is deeply rooted in the history of the Americas, and we reject the corrosive myth that Africa is a continent of warring tribes poised to destroy one another. By first examining our own experiences with othering, forgiveness, bystanding and upstanding, we aim to establish a foundation from which to study and learn from what happened in Rwanda.

Here are some examples of what we are learning about the impact of our work on teachers and students around the United States:

  • The faculty and staff with whom we have worked are passionately devoted to the wellbeing of their students and want to:
    • Connect the local context to global issues.
    • Cultivate empathy and compassion in their schools.
    • Foster more collaboration across disciplines.
    • Reframe the belief that forgiveness is a sign of weakness.
    • Strengthen their own social emotional competencies.
    • Use Coexist to focus on students’ character development because the film helps students learn to identify and understand emotions.
  • Students tell us they:
    • Appreciate how we encourage them to think about their own experiences of friendship, betrayal and judging others.
    • Are motivated (once they see Coexist) to learn about genocide and are curious about othering in their school.
    • Feel empathy for some of the people they meet in Coexist and want to know more about their lives.
    • Like the idea of forgiveness but have a hard time always practicing it in their own lives.
    • Love Talking Circles because they feel peaceful and more able to participate.
    • Recognize it is difficult to always do what you know is right.

Our team also has some exciting new developments in the works. In the fall of 2013 we began a yearlong pilot at East Hartford High School in Connecticut to test to what degree the Upstander Project could help strengthen the school’s leadership culture. Our first step was to work with faculty and staff, and then recruit students for the Coexist Team. As I write this, 21 students (freshmen, sophomores and juniors) are about to join Coexist to learn about Rwandan colonial history and its contribution to genocide, othering and genocide in U.S. history, bystanding and upstanding, and the impact of stress on the brain’s capacity to feel empathy.

This month a new 53-minute version of Coexist will broadcast on public television and the 2014 edition of the Teacher’s Guide will be released. We look forward to partnering with a new cohort of schools and teachers who want to teach about colonialism and genocide as an entry point for beginning a conversation with students about othering in our culture. Through this work, it is our mission to help cultivate more peaceable and just societies where upstanders outnumber bystanders and where compassion overcomes othering.

Most pubic television stations in the country will broadcast Coexist on Wednesday April 16th at 6pm and 9pm (You can verify the time in your area here on the WORLD channel site. To confirm when you can watch Coexist in your area, visit the Coexist website or click upstanderproject.org/watchnow where you will be asked to enter your ZIP code and the name of your television/cable provider. 

Mishy Lesser is the learning director for the Coexist Learning Project: www.upstanderproject.org. She authored the Coexist Teacher’s Guide and devotes herself to teacher education about genocide and othering.