Kent State-Sponsored Peace Conference Opens in Rwanda
Peace Education in an Era of Crisis, a global peace conference dedicated to promoting peace through education, opened on July 11 in Kigali, Rwanda, with delegates from throughout the United States and 14 countries participating.
Kent State University’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies, the Gerald H. Read Center for International and Intercultural Education within Kent State’s College of Education, Health and Human Services, are sponsoring the conference along with the University of Rwanda and its Centre for Conflict Management, and the non-profit Aegis Trust, which works to end genocide.
Rwanda was selected as the location for the conference because of the way the country has managed to recover from its 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, in which more than 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe were murdered at the hands of their Hutu tribe friends and neighbors, over a 100-day span.
Mandy Munro-Stasiuk, Ph.D., dean of Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences, offered a welcome to help open the event, telling attendees the conference is the outcome of the growing relationship between the University of Rwanda and Kent State.
Violence, prejudice, inequality and climate change, she said, are just a few of the wicked problems facing the world, which makes it even more important to bring a variety of people together to look for solutions, which often aren’t easy or clear.
Peace educators, she said, “enable and empower people to address conflict, starting at the personal level and working all the way up to the international level.”
Munro-Stasiuk praised the Rwandan government for embedding peace education into its national curriculum.
Didas Kayihura Muganga, vice chancellor for the University of Rwanda, also gave opening remarks and detailed how the work of peace education has been central to the country’s recovery and healing.
He said peace has been possible due to a government of national unity, which has committed to such atrocities never happening again.
“That’s how we managed to transform ourselves,” he said. “Education has been a key tool for the young and the old. Education can help to heal both personal and national trauma.”
Numerous Kent State students and faculty are attending the conference, including students participating in the Kigali Summer Institute, a three-week education-abroad experience that includes the for-credit course, Rwanda After the Genocide Against the Tutsi, created by Sarah Schmidt, Ph.D., instructor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies and assistant director of global education initiatives at Kent State University at Stark.
Two students from the course, Miles Listerman, a junior business management major from Hartville, Ohio, and Emily Spencer, a senior human development and family studies major originally from Canal Fulton, Ohio, who now lives in North Canton and who studies at the Stark Campus, were among those interviewed by Rwandan television news crews covering the event.
Dr. James Smith, founder of the Aegis Trust and deputy chair of its board of trustees, offered the keynote address.
Aegis is a nonprofit organization that works to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities and has been on the ground in Rwanda since 2008, helping to develop the Kigali Genocide Memorial and offering programming to promote peace building in the communities.
“It’s fitting that Kent State and the University of Rwanda have brought us together to share experiences in peace education here in Kigali,” Smith said. “Few places on this planet could be more challenging than Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide."
Aegis has worked with genocide survivors to preserve the memory of those lost. When the agency’s work began, “Injustice screamed from every corner of life here in Rwanda,” Smith said. “The fabric of society had been torn apart. Those who emerged had broken hearts, crushed dreams and the sense that no one can be trusted.”
The magnitude of the loss, he said, not only defied description but also defied an appropriate response or reaction.
“You could weep all the rivers in Africa, and still not express the depth of sorrow,” he said.
It was against this backdrop that the organization began working with survivors from both sides of the genocide – the victims and the perpetrators – to build sustainable peace.
“Peace education, reconciliation was unthinkable, and yet, here it is, here you are,” Smith said.
Building peace, he said, takes lasting commitment, and continuous education, education that will unite, rather than divide. Without working together with both sides – the perpetrators and their victims and their children – the conflict would have merely festered and risen again.
“Without trust, communities are at risk of returning to violence,” he said. Grassroots peace building at the ground level requires empathy, critical thinking and personal responsibility.
“Peace is not for the weak,” Smith said. “Peace education is not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a vital tool to prevent humanity from destroying itself.”
If peace can be built in Rwanda, he said, it can be built anywhere.
Throughout Tuesday’s conference sessions, Kent State faculty played a key role in facilitating workshops and dialogues.
Ikram Toumi, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Communication Studies, led a workshop on “Peace Building in the Classroom,” focused on helping educators understand cultural differences, identify problematic practices such as ethnocentrism, and learn how to develop intercultural communication to foster peace building.
Davison Mupinga, Ph.D., professor and coordinator for Kent State’s School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, led a workshop on Social Emotional Learning, and how teachers can use it to help students better comprehend their emotions and learn empathy for others. By promoting Social Emotional Learning in the classroom, students become more self-aware and more able to make positive, productive, responsible decisions.
Schmidt was a presenter at the conference speaking about colonialism and how historic messaging that one group is better than another, creates generational prejudice, even when the message often has no basis in fact but merely a story promoted by one side to justify their actions.
Peace Education in an Era of Crisis continues through July 13.
Top image caption: Mandy Munro-Stasiuk, dean of Kent State's College of Arts and Sciences, gives a welcome address at the peace confernece.