Read the Review:


Our documentary film Coexist is reviewed in Thursday's New York Times. We invite you to read the review and watch our film on television. You may also read the full review here:

Reconciliation Held Together With Bleeding Stitches

‘Coexist,’ About Rwanda 20 Years Later, on PBS


As Rwanda and the world note the 20th anniversary of the genocide in that country, much of the focus has been on reconciliations between the Hutu killers who slaughtered Tutsis and the victims’ family members and friends. “Coexist,” a documentary by Adam Mazo, at first seems as if it is merely going to be another effort to draw feel-good stories out of an impossibly ugly moment in history. But it ultimately proves itself much smarter than that, exploring whether forgiveness that is mandated by the government can be genuine.

The film, which is being shown this month on some public television stations, including WLIW in New York at 10 p.m. on Thursday, consists mostly of low-key but powerful interviews with participants in the genocide and survivors of it. They relate their experiences from 1994, and some of them sound as if they are buying the maxim that the current government is selling: Forgive, and resume living side by side.

But as the interview subjects open up, cracks in this facade are evident. A man who did some of the killing begins to sound as if he is merely parroting whatever the authorities say, just as he followed the instructions to kill 20 years ago. A woman who experienced unimaginable loss is not at all on board with the forgiveness plan. “If I could afford to, I would leave,” she says, “because I don’t want to see the people who killed my family.”

The film is being promoted as a teaching tool, part of an initiative to show the destructiveness of “othering”: dividing people into us/them categories. And its ultimate lesson is that reconciliation is difficult to manufacture. Better, of course, not to let enmity take root in the first place.

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.



Building the Coexist team at one high school


Today is the final workshop with the 25 faculty and staff members before we bring the students in to join this new team we're forming at East Hartford High School (CT). The educators have spent this school year deepening their understanding of genocide and othering, bystanding and upstanding, retaliation and forgiveness, and practicing new skills (Guided Visualization, Talking Circles, Walk the Wall, Snowball). In the process our Upstander Project team is supporting social emotional learning, cultivating interdisciplinary collaboration among teachers from distinct disciplines, and creating a safe space for learning and discussion that can benefit students. This is all leading up to April 3rd when over twenty students join the Coexist Team. In September 2013 the Upstander Project launched a yearlong pilot project in partnership with EHHS.  The plan: work with the adults in the fall/winter months and invite the students to join us in the spring. The vision: use our documentary film Coexist and the activities in the Teacher's Guide to help the school strengthen its leadership culture with an eye toward making othering socially unacceptable.

What ideas would you like to share that support social emotional learning at your school or in your life?