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Carl Wilkens Shares Stories at ASM

A self-proclaimed “storyteller,” Carl Wilkens wove pictures and anecdotes into his presentation about his personal experience with the Rwandan genocide and his efforts to rid discrimination during this week’s All-School Meeting. Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, explained his motives for staying in the country, what he learned from his experiences and numerous stories about himself and his Rwandan friends. He also urged students to take action in their communities. Wilkens said,“A lot of people think that it takes governments, it takes soldiers, it takes legislation to end genocide, and I don’t think so. We’ve had governments and soldiers and legislation, and they’re still happening today.” “I want you to look into the faces of some of my friends from Rwanda. I don’t have horror pictures for you this morning, you see those in the documentaries and other places,” continued Wilkens. He began the presentation with a story about a child he met in Rwanda. Wilkens said that he found her imagination profound and that “every single one of us has an incredible gift for imagination.” Before the genocide began, Wilkens lived with his family in the neighborhood of the Hôtel des Mille Collines, the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning movie “Hotel Rwanda.” Wilkens, who had worked on the continent for several years, ran a branch of the Seventh Day Adventist Development and Relief Agency International. Wilkens described his family’s life in pre-genocide Rwanda. He shared with the Andover community stories about his old neighborhood, house, and neighbors, notable landmarks and other places that he used to visit. “Rwanda is, and was, a wonderful place to raise children,” he said. Wilkens distinctly remembered the beginning of the genocide. “There was planned killing, but we trusted in the United Nations. People think America didn’t do anything for the genocide, but we did a lot… to make the genocide successful.” “You see, for 88 nights I was in the hall of my house wondering if the rest of the world gave a rip during the ’94 genocide, and now I’m the rest of the world.” he continued. Wilkens was profoundly impacted by the fact that his neighbors stood up to Hutu rebels who were killing people in his neighborhood and wanted to enter Wilken’s home. Wilkens said, “While most people would hide with their families by the windows, we had neighbors who courageously stepped out and said ‘no’.” “They did this masterful job of re-humanizing us through stories. They weren’t armed with guns or machetes, they were armed with stories, the most powerful things we possess,” he continued. Wilkens also spoke about two people that he employed in his house who suffered from the genocide. He said that they were one of the main reasons that he stayed. Wilkens said, “It starts with what’s closest with us, the people who are closest to us. It starts with relationships, with the heart.” “[Genocide] really comes from thinking that says, “‘my world would be better without you,’” he continued. Wilkens said that he travels around the United States giving talks specifically to dispel this method of thinking. “This thinking is all over the planet, ‘us or them.’ “It’s only through stories that we realize it’s ‘them or us’ instead of ‘us or them’,” he said. Wilkens brought in a recent high school graduate to also speak during his presentation. The student, Jordan Hattar, invited Wilkens to come to his school to speak and traveled to Sudan to work with charitable organizations in Africa. Ben Manuel ’12 said, “Wilkens was very down to earth and knowledgeable on his subject. He told stories that we could relate to and he even had that high school graduate with him which really shows how everything is connected in a way.” Phillips Academy’s anti-genocide club, STAND, was able to bring Wilkens to campus through an Abbot Academy grant. Matt Lloyd-Thomas ’12, Director of Education for STAND, said, “I think he was different from a lot of All-School speakers. He didn’t necessarily focus on anything specific, but I think he brought up a really good message and reflection of ‘non sibi’ to All-School from a very different perspective.” STAND first heard about Wilkens when members of the board attended the national STAND conference in Washington D.C. After the board members listened to his speech at the conference, they thought he would be a good speaker to bring to campus. Many students thought Wilkens was an interesting ASM speaker. Alex Nanda ’11 said, “I think the ASM showed that we too often equate an Ivy-League education with an ability to do the greater good, but his story provided a compelling example of why we shouldn’t always think that way.” Terrence Arjoon ’12 said, “I was really moved by the All-School Meeting because he really felt all the emotions that he told us about, especially when he started crying.” Wilkens is now the director of World Outside My Shoes, a non-profit educational program.