We live in a world plagued with gun violence, border wars, political polarization and the uncertainty that climate change brings to the existence of our planet.

Fostering peace seems more important, yet more elusive, than ever. Kent State University’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies is well aware of that challenge. 

“The worldwide demand for peace education has risen exponentially over the past few decades because it is recognized as a response to the challenges of social division, polarization, environmental destruction and rising levels of conflict facing specific societies and the international system,” says R. Neil Cooper, PhD, director of the School of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Recently, the school joined forces with the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda to host “Peace Education in an Era of Crisis,” a conference dedicated to giving educators the skills they need to incorporate the teachings of peace into their curriculums, held July 11–13, in Kigali, Rwanda. It was co-sponsored by Kent State’s Gerald H. Read Center for International and Intercultural Education and the Aegis Trust, a nonprofit international organization based in the UK with a large presence in Rwanda.  

Peace education is the best long-term strategy for providing awareness and equipping people with the skills they need to deal with conflict.

The conference, which was held at the Kigali Convention and Exhibition Village, brought together dozens of educators, students and peace activists from across the globe to talk about peace and how to build it through education. Peace education, Cooper says, is the best long-term strategy for providing awareness and equipping people with the skills they need to deal with conflict, whether it is in the workplace, local community or on the international stage.

Rwanda chosen as location 

During the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, approximately 1 million members of the minority Tutsi community were killed by members of the government-backed Hutu militias from April to July 1994. Rwandans slaughtered friends, neighbors and even their own family members in one of the worst genocides in modern history.

In the nearly 30 years since the genocide, Rwanda has worked tirelessly to rebuild its broken nation by sowing the concept of peace within its educational system so that every child learns, from the time they are very young, how to foster peace in their lives.

Holding the conference in Rwanda made the most sense, Cooper says, because of the country’s past and its ongoing recovery, which includes mainstreaming peace education through the national curriculum. “For talking about these issues and thinking about these issues, there’s no better place to go,” he says. The location also capitalized on Kent State’s new and growing relationship with the University of Rwanda.

New Kent State partnership

Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies and the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management were born of each school’s individual experience with violence—for Rwanda, the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi; for Kent State, the May 4, 1970, shootings on the Kent Campus when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on student protesters, killing four and wounding nine others.

Aggee Shyaka Mugabe
Aggée Shyaka Mugabe, associate professor and acting director of the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda

Aggée Shyaka Mugabe, PhD, associate professor and acting director of the Centre for Conflict Management, says the commonalities between the two schools and their roots in past tragedies make for a strong partnership. When Kent State and the University of Rwanda were considering ways to collaborate, joint research was the primary goal, Mugabe says.

“This conference was one of the concrete steps of research between the two universities,” Mugabe says, noting that he expects papers and other research to come from the information shared at the conference. The two schools are also currently developing a master’s dual-degree program.

“Given our history, we offer a very good case study,” Mugabe says. “We also are interested in telling other people, other communities, what we went through and how we’re trying to deal with the consequences of the Genocide Against the Tutsi—how we’re constructing the society, how we’re promoting reconciliation, social cohesion, but also the challenges that we’re faced with.” 

Universities can play an important role in promoting peace and values but the whole society needs to buy in to the process.

Universities, Mugabe says, can play an important role in promoting peace and values but the whole society needs to buy in to the process: “If universities are invested, but industry is not, or civic organizations are not, or religious organizations are not, the impact is going to be very narrow, very small.” 

However, he says universities can lead the way by conducting research that can inform public policy, so that it has a greater chance of being responsive and being implemented. “These are the areas related to sustainable peace,” he says.

Peace is fleeting
Now more than ever, the world needs education in peace and conflict management, Cooper says. That makes the conference even more important and relevant, not only in the United States, where political discourse has escalated resulting in numerous acts of violence, but worldwide, where the number of state-based conflicts has reached levels not seen since before the end of World War II.

Neil Cooper
Neil Cooper, director of Kent State's School of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kent State University

“As the title of our conference says, we are living in an era of crisis,” Cooper says. “We’re living in an era of multiple, overlapping crises—mental health, polarization, environmental destruction, armed violence. We’ve got all these interconnected crises that every society around the world is facing, and I think we’re at a crux point where we need to begin to really address them.

“Many of the metrics on peace and conflict are currently going in the wrong direction,” Cooper says, noting the following eye-opening statistics: 

  • Six out of seven people surveyed worldwide report feeling moderately or very insecure, and in those countries categorized as low or medium human development by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 64% report feeling very insecure. 

  • The UNDP calculates that on average, across the world, a woman or girl is killed by an intimate partner or family member every 11 minutes. 

  • The Global Peace Index, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reports that the world is less peaceful than at any time since 2008 when the GPI was first published; its measure of violent demonstrations around the world has worsened by 50% since 2008. 

  • In 2020, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program noted a record-high number of state-based armed conflicts in the world—the highest recorded (56) since the end of World War II. 

  • Global military expenditure is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War. 

Education is the key
The aim of the conference, Cooper says, was to bring together stakeholders to share best practices and insights from around the world, to help better equip students and others with the skills they need—such as dialogue, mediation and empathy—to build peaceful communities. 

“Our world, not for the first time, faces multiple crises, across many issue areas,” Cooper says. “This conference represents one element in the development of an effective response to those challenges. It is an important moment in the broader, everyday work involved in building more peaceful and healthy relationships between people, communities and even countries.”

James Smith
James Smith, MD, co-founder of the Aegis Trust, one of the sponsors of the global peace conference in Kigali, Rwanda. The Aegis Trust is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending genocide and other atrocities in the world.

One of the conference co-sponsors, the Aegis Trust, works to prevent genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. James Smith, MD, a co-founder of the Aegis Trust, says the organization was called to Rwanda in 2004 to help establish the Kigali Genocide Memorial. That led to the development and expansion of a peace education program, which the Rwandan government later adopted into the national school curriculum.

Aegis was eager to help sponsor the conference to keep the cause of peace education moving forward, Smith says.

“This is just the start of continuing to improve the understanding and practice of peace education.”

—James Smith, PhD, co-founder of Aegis Trust

“We are very interested to see how peace education can keep improving. Once it was in the curriculum, we knew that’s not the end of the journey. This is just the start of continuing to improve the understanding and practice of peace education,” Smith says. “That’s why we welcomed Kent State University’s initiative to bring researchers and practitioners together with policymakers to generate more partnerships around research in relation to peace education.”

Smith’s family was involved in the creation of the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum in 1995. Aegis, he says, was established as a result of that experience and in reaction to many global incidents, including the genocide in Rwanda, genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo—all in the 1990s. 

The Aegis Trust, which also has offices in the United States, honors the memory of victims of genocide, helps survivors in difficult circumstances rebuild their lives, encourages research about genocide and campaigns for decision-makers to help protect those most at risk.

Fostering peace
Throughout the conference, practitioners discussed how peace can be fostered in ways large and small, beginning with very young school children and simple concepts: Share the cookie, rather than fight over it.

Joanne Caniglia
Joanne Caniglia, PhD, who helps train future math teachers in Kent State’s School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, gave a presentation on how to teach math and peace-building skills at the same time during the global peace conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

Joanne Caniglia, PhD, who helps train future math teachers in Kent State’s School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies at the College of Education, Health and Human Services, partnered with Jean Francois Maniraho, PhD, a professor of mathematics education from the University of Rwanda. Their presentation—“Teaching Future Mathematics Teachers: What Does Peace Have to Do with It?” —reviewed a variety of ways in which peace education can be woven into math education. 

For primary students, Maniraho says lessons in peace can be as simple as setting different learning activities in which learners share classroom materials without arguments and share them equally and peacefully. 

For older students, Caniglia says a variety of topics can serve as both a peace lesson and a math lesson. The Global Peace Index, for example, teaches students the math concept of exponential growth but also offers a lesson in what countries are the most peaceful and which are not.

“The higher the cost [of war], the lower the peace, which is a great example of inverse proportionality.”

—Joanne Caniglia, PhD, professor, School of Teaching Learning and Curriculum Studies

The high cost of war is another topic that can be used to teach ratios and proportions, which can be difficult concepts for students. “The higher the cost, the lower the peace, which is a great example of inverse proportionality,” Caniglia says.

Kristin Prough
Kristin Prough, assistant superintendent and special services director at Ohio’s Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools, attended the peace conference in Kigali, Rwanda with other educators from her district. Photo by Rami Daud

Kristen Prough, BA ’99, MEd ’02, EdS ’04, assistant superintendent and special services director at Ohio’s Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools, was one of four educators from her district who attended the conference. She says there is a lot the United States can learn from Rwanda.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned—and it’s very different culturally in Rwanda versus the United States—is the whole concept of forgiveness and moving forward,” she says. “We met people at the reconciliation village who were standing shoulder to shoulder and hugging the perpetrators who murdered their family members. That’s not something you see in the United States. That’s not something we’ve ever really focused on.”

“We met people at the reconciliation village who were hugging the perpetrators who murdered their family members.”

—Kristin Prough, assistant superintendent, Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools

Prough says understanding the psychological effects of harboring resentment and anger is something she believes is needed now in the United States as a whole and in her own school district. “Just starting in our little microcosm of school,” she says, “we need to find a better way to move forward in our country.” 

Particularly since the pandemic, she says, students were affected by the time they spent in isolation and would benefit from developing better conflict resolution skills. “We want them to be adults who can get along with other adults, with other children,” Prough says. “As they become adults, they are going to raise the next generation. So, it is critical and important for all our students to have those skills.”

Barbara Wien
Barbara Wien, co-director of Peace Brigades International and senior professional lecturer at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C., was a presenter and session leader at the global peace conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

Barbara Wien, a senior professorial lecturer in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, where she teaches alternatives to war and violence, was a keynote presenter and an active participant in the conference.

Wien says educating young people to embrace the ideals of nonviolence is key to a peaceful future.

“There’s a whole body of literature that shows nonviolent struggle is 56% more likely to succeed than armed conflict. So that’s why we are building up a storehouse of knowledge to graduate tens of thousands of young people, who will challenge oppressive power relationships and forge alternative peace power. They are the other superpower,” Wien says. “If we made children the priority for our security, then the military would have to hold a bake sale to raise their funding, not the schools.”  

“If we made children the priority for our security, then the military would have to hold a bake sale to raise their funding, not the schools.”

—Barbara Wien, senior professional lecturer in the School of International Service at American University

The process, she says, can be difficult because politicians hold a lot of power, and society often glorifies violence.

“Politicians have a lot of power, but teachers hold in their hands the power to shape future generations,” Wien says. “I feel that young people need a moral compass or a moral rudder in the world today. They are getting so many different conflicting messages. The commercial media glorifies violence and praises vast amounts of wealth as what you should aspire to. Schools, community groups and many families are trying to teach a different set of values. 

“It is the height of hypocrisy when our leaders bomb and invade other countries, and then turn around and tell kids, ‘Don’t fight on the playground. Don’t bully,’” Wien adds. “What kind of contradictions do we see there?” 

Wien also spoke of the need for dealing with climate change as a means to world peace.

“We’re in a very fragile time, a very uncertain time. [Looking at the climate crisis], the human race could go one way or the other,” Wien says. “But I’m hopeful because there are huge breakthroughs coming in green technologies. We cannot even imagine the new innovations that are coming, particularly out of Africa, for green jobs, green infrastructure, green energy. We’re on the cusp of a lot of solutions, but they have to be scaled up and they have to come faster. 

“We have to shift all that money going to bloodshed and war, and put it into green energy—healing the planet, healing ourselves.”

For more coverage of the Rwanda Peace Education in an Age of Crisis conference and the Kigali Summer Institute click the links to Kent State Today stories below.

Ohio Educators Heading to Kent State Peace Conference in Rwanda

Peace on the Horizon: Group heads to Rwanda for education-abroad course and university-sponsored peace conference

Visit to Kigali Genocide Memorial Sets Stage for Kent State Peace Conference

Kent State-Sponsored Peace Conference Opens in Rwanda

Kent State Research on Full Display at Peace Conference in Rwanda

Telling the Story: Conversations Become a Powerful Peace Education Tool

National Expert on Peace and Conflict Studies Says Time Was Right for Kent State Peace conference

Kent State-Sponsored Peace Conference Unites Delegates From Across the Globe

Three-Week Kigali Summer Institute

Students Visit Reconciliation Village in Rwanda

Taking in the Sights, Sounds and Tastes of Rwanda

Kigali Summer Institute students reflect on their time in Rwanda:

‘The Trip Changed My Perspective on Life’
Lily Keister, graduate student in higher education administration/student affairs

‘My Heart Feels Softer’
Emily Spencer, senior, human development and family sciences major

‘This Experience Changed Me In More Ways Than I Could Have Imagined’
Jordan Egbert, graduate student in higher education administration/student affairs

‘This Experience Solidified My Love for Documenting Experiences’
Sophia Lucente, senior, journalism major

Becoming a Better Peacemaker
Dana Oleskiewicz, doctoral student in cultural foundations

‘There's Nothing that Can Adequately Prepare You for Such an Extraordinary Experience’
LaKaleb Bowen, senior, criminology and justice studies major

I'm Going to Take a More Ethical Approach to Business Standards
Miles Listerman, junior, busness administration major