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Director of SMU Debate to Teach Civil Discourse Skills in Rwanda

Dr. Ben Voth is one of five American debate coaches who will travel to Kigali in December to help students learn how debate can effect change in their communities

Rwandan Debate Team, U.S. Tours and SMU

iDebate Rwanda takes a group of Rwandan students on a tour of the U.S. every year, during which they visit dozens of universities including SMU. They share stories of Rwandan history and the lasting tragedy of the 1994 genocide, but also stories of their culture and the strides that have been made in Rwanda since the genocide.

 “After tragedy, people can learn to live together,” says iDebate Rwanda International Coordinator Jean Michel Habineza. “As a generation that came right after the genocide, we have a lot to teach the world, and that is what the tour was created to do.”

 The Rwandan group is expected back at SMU during their fall 2020 tour.

 In the video below, click on the photo to learn more about this international group and hear the Rwandan students talk about their experiences in the U.S. Remarks from Dr. Ben Voth start at 2:52.

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of State, SMU Meadows Associate Professor and Director of SMU Debate Dr. Ben Voth will be in Rwanda December 1–20 to help high school teachers and students learn the finer points of civic debate. He will convene with four additional American debate coaches in the capital city of Kigali for the annual “Dreamers Academy” workshops, where they will train approximately 70 high school teachers and 250 students in critical thinking, argumentation and discourse skills as means to improve civic and political life in Rwanda and Eastern Africa. 

The Dreamers Academy camp is a program of the Kigali-based iDebate Rwanda non-governmental organization, which was founded in 2012 by a group of former debate students who wanted to teach Rwandan and East African students—most of whose families were deeply affected by the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which killed 800,000 people in 100 days—how to think critically, solve problems creatively and affect change in their own communities. To date, the Dreamers Academy has held six annual camps since 2013, training approximately 2,000 students in the areas of leadership, debate, coding, engineering and more.

Debate is relatively new to Rwandan high schools.

“Debate was introduced to our education system in 2000,” said Jean Michel Habineza, international coordinator for iDebate Rwanda and author of the proposal sent to the U.S. Department of State to bring the five American debate coaches to Kigali. “It was established by a coalition of peace-building organizations, namely Never Again Rwanda, who organized a few debate tournaments here emphasizing topics related to peace building.”

The upcoming trip to Rwanda will not be the first time Dr. Voth will have traveled to the African country. In 2017, he helped trained 50 Kigali security force members as part of a project led by Dr. Betty Snyder, director of SMU’s Center for Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management.

“Debate is an ideal learning tool for teaching people how to resolve conflicts nonviolently,” said Voth. “These methods are important to SMU debate because of our Southern Methodist debate hero, James Farmer Jr., who pioneered the use of nonviolence in the Civil Rights movement because of his training in debate as a college student at Wiley College. Debate is a timeless, powerful tool to help human societies manage and reduce conflict.

“Rwanda has made tremendous progress among the nations of Africa and is considered by international organizations such as WHO [World Health Organization] to be a leader on the continent with regard to its positive political policies.”  Voth is working on a book called Rwanda Rising: The Global Power of Debate that articulates these points about debate. The book will help people in the U.S. and worldwide teach young people how and why to debate. Dr. Voth is on a research leave for 2019-20 to complete this work.

Voth’s understanding of civil conflict has been reinforced by research for his three previous books, James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater (Lexington Books, 2017); Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy: The End of the Social Contract (Springer, 2017, with Robert E. Denton Jr.); and The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text (Lexington Books, 2014 and 2016), the latter of which won two awards from the American Forensic Association. Voth has also written articles that have been featured in The Dallas Morning News, Fortune magazine, American Thinker and more. His expertise has been cited in publications such as The Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report. Communication collaborations with national and international institutions include The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Dallas; the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, Plymouth, Vermont; and the government of Rwanda. 


The other four American debate coaches who will join Voth in Kigali include Beth Skinner, former director of debate at Towson University; Chris Baron, founder and former director of programs for the Baltimore Urban Debate League; Ryan Wash, communication professor and director of debate for Weber State University; and Ignacio Evans, current argument scholar and graduate assistant for the Wake Forest University debate team.

The SMU Debate team, often placed in the top ten International Public Debate Association (IPDA) rankings, has hosted a Rwandan debate team on the SMU campus three times in the past five years. 

Read more about Dr. Ben Voth and the iDebate Rwanda NGO. Follow SMU Debate on Twitter and Facebook.

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