Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Rwanda, a new generation wrestles with difficult issues through debate

With so much strife in the world it can be alarmingly easy to miss some of the things that people are doing to actually try to make things better. This past week I had a chance to learn about one such effort going on in Rwanda. The name of this new project is IDebate Rwanda, and I learned about it during a small gathering convened by the Boston office of the American Jewish Committee* this past Friday afternoon.

Jean Nganji, Secretary-General of the Rwanda Diaspora Global Network, led the discussion, and I could not help but be moved by the potential impact of this endeavor on a society which has endured so much violence. Mr. Nganji brought along a video presentation which allowed those of us sitting in a conference room in Boston to hear directly from the student activists in Rwanda, to see them put their debating skills to the test and talk about how this organization has changed their lives for the better. Given that there are probably any number of different approaches organizers could have taken to help sure up civil society in Rwanda and to pass along leadership skills to youth, I began to think about why they might have chosen to make debate the centerpiece of their effort.

The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that there are certain things about teaching debate skills that might be particularly well-suited to a society which has survived mass trauma. For one thing, it encourages participants to wrestle with complex issues in a thoughtful way, while providing a wonderful mode of empowerment for young people, helping them to find their own voice, both figuratively and literally. It also creates a safe space in which two people can publicly disagree and passionately argue about difficult issues, an activity which is bound to nurture respect for both the opinions of others and for the right of individuals to have their own firmly-held beliefs and ideas.

Although engaging in debate activity is not in and of itself an end, it’s not hard to see how this effort will  empower future leaders in government, business and NGO's. If this project succeeds it may well help not only Rwandans, but become a model for other places in the world where violence and hostility have too often been seen as the only option for solving problems in society.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

*Full disclosure: I previously served as Assistant Director of the AJC Boston office.

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