iDebate Rwanda: Using critical thinking as a force for positive change
"At university I was involved with a high school debate program which offered training as a means of teaching students to voice their opinions in a society that often silenced them. I started dreaming about doing the same thing in Rwanda."
Jean Michel Habineza, founder of iDebate Rwanda
Jean Michael Habineza, founder of iDebate, has been a passionate advocate for global peace for many years. After growing up as part of the post-genocide generation in Rwanda and witnessing a community still working hard to recover, he dedicated his work and studies to understanding the reasons behind civil unrest. He soon spotted a recurring theme, where autocratic societies more inclined towards obedience were, by design, much less likely to critically analyse decisions made by those in power and therefore could be more quickly incited towards violence.
It was this understanding that sparked Jean Michel to found iDebate, a debate programme for secondary school children in Rwanda and East Africa, which teaches young people public speaking and critical thinking skills, enabling them to discuss public policy issues and issues affecting their communities in a safe and effective manner. The school programme is supported by residential holiday programmes, known as the 'Dreamers Academy' which also provides leadership, digital and public policy training. Monthly competitions and debate leagues encourage students to compete and give them the opportunities to meet new peers and engage with different perspectives. The students themselves are empowered to choose topics and debates relevant to their local communities, with the aim of identifying practical solutions together which are then taken to policy makers.
QCT's funding will allow iDebate Rwanda to expand into Rwanda’s Eastern Province, developing more debate trainers and in turn enabling the organisation to reach more students in often overlooked rural areas. QCT will also work with iDebate Rwanda to provide advice and guidance on organisational areas including safeguarding and financial management.
Continue reading to learn more about iDebate Rwanda, and hear from Jean Michel himself as he talks about starting out, his proudest moments and shares his top tips for young leaders working to drive positive change.
iDebate Rwanda is working towards SDGs 4. Quality Education and 16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
In Rwanda, iDebate asserts that a lack of critical analysis and positive argumentative skills leads to unchecked decisions being made by those in positions of power and influence, to the detriment of local community members and society as a whole.
iDebate Rwanda is equipping students with public speaking and critical thinking skills, encouraging civil argumentation and peaceful debate. These techniques enable young Rwandans to discuss public policy issues and find solutions to problems affecting their communities.
iDebate currently works in 35 schools across Rwanda. Students have gone on to study at prestigious global universities including Harvard and Princeton, and qualitative assesments show students to have increased confidence and better knowledge of local issues.
Getting to know Jean Michel Habineza
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Jean Michel Habineza and I’m a son of Rwanda. Coming from a country that was ravaged by genocide, I have spent the past 10 years working in peace building and reconciliation.
I was one of the founders of Peace and Love Proclaimers (PLP), a youth organization in Rwanda aimed at creating platforms for young people to be able to become change agents in their communities through activities such as the Walk To Remember, Forgiveness a Step to Reconciliation project. I have also been involved with Aegis Trust, a British NGO that works in Genocide Prevention.
I co-founded iDebate Rwanda, a debate organization aimed at creating civil discourse in Rwanda and East Africa after my University education, where I graduated from Towson University with a BA in International Relations and from Pepperdine University with a MA in Social Entrepreneurship and Change.
In my free time, I enjoy reading a good book and listening to music.
Why did you decide to work in this area?
I was privileged to win a debate scholarship to Towson University in the US. At Towson, I was involved with a high school debate program called Baltimore Urban Debate League, a program that worked with children from inner city Baltimore, offering debate-training as a means of teaching them to voice opinions in a society that often silenced them. I started dreaming about doing the same thing in Rwanda, given the fact that in our culture a child is supposed to be seen but not heard. I also thought that debate could be a great avenue for young Rwandans to deliberate and discuss social issues that affect them in a constructive way.
What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?
When starting out, the first thing we did was to build a team of volunteers. Because I had been involved with a good number of youth organizations, I was lucky that I knew a lot of great people. I contacted all of them and shared with them the vision of building a debate organization. Once we had volunteers in place, we then focused on training them in Public Speaking and Debate so that they would be able to confidently facilitate the programs. These sessions were held in the school holidays so that a number of students could attend. These students were aspiring young leaders who wanted to further harness their public speaking skills, and who would ultimately end up becoming ambassadors for us in their respective schools. They went on to build debate clubs within their schools, and then reached out to us at iDebate Rwanda to partner alongside them to offer further support, advice, and guidance along the way.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?
Our greatest challenge was having to build a program from scratch. We had run prior debate events but not within the same vision that we now had, so getting iDebate off the ground needed a new approach. Beyond training students in the art of civil argumentation, we also had to gain the trust of school administrators and parents who thought we were making their kids rebellious. There was also always the challenge of funding, to ensure we had enough income to cover our expenses. All of this had to happen all at the same time, because focusing on just one thing would make everything else fail.
However, these challenges also taught me my biggest lesson, which is the importance of building a great team with a similar vision. I am lucky to be surrounded by a group of great people that not only worked hard and took risks, but who also trusted me and believed in the vision enough to give up their time and work for free as a volunteer. Without them I wouldn’t be here now, and although I know that the work of social change is filled with frustration, betrayal, fears and uncertainty, I also know that if you remain consistent in your beliefs, and keep a strong team around you, then great things happen.
What has been your proudest moment with this work?
In 2018, iDebate Rwanda was invited to compete at the Rollins Cup in Florida. The Rollins Cup is a prestigious trophy awarded to the winner of the annual "Great Debate", traditionally contested between the American Rollins College debate team and a debating society from the international community. The Rollins Cup, being in its 11th edition, has seen past contestants from the world-renowned universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in England, but now iDebate was to be the first African team to participate in this contest. Our team won the debate. This was my proudest moment because it confirmed what I had always believed: that given the right environment and resources, our students could do wonders.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
The most important thing that I have learned on this journey is that “Things are always harder than you think”. President Obama used to say that ‘If it were that easy, it would have already been done’. But even with the understanding that the work is always hard, I always hold on to the words of my mentor that say: “ When you show up, magic happens - so make sure to SHOW up”. I have learnt that showing up is a sign of courage and that it is “the man in the arena” that will always count.
What are your future goals for your organisation?
Over the next 10 years, we are planning to expand our program from having just one debate league of 35 schools in Kigali, to having more than 600 schools active across all provinces in Rwanda.
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?
I would give them advice found in the bible:
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12
Understand that you are the expert in whatever you are doing, and no one can take that away from you.
What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?
1. Get started. There’s no time like the present – so if you have an idea, go for it, start working on it - TODAY. There’s no blueprint as to how you should get your idea off the ground, just go ahead and do it.
2. Fail as fast as possible. My debate coach used to tell us at the beginning of every season to take big risks and fail when it’s still early, so you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Failure is painful and sometimes heart-breaking, but it also allows you to see which of your assumptions are true.
3. Ask for help. Seek people who are doing what you want to do and ask them for help and for counsel. There is no such thing as a self-made man/woman. We are all a result of the sacrifices of many people, so therefore do not be scared to ask for help from your friends, family, neighbors or even strangers. The worst that could happen is that they would say “no” and you will still be fine.
What does working with QCT mean to you?
Working with QCT is a great opportunity for iDebate. It will help us to increase our impact, as the funding that we will be getting from QCT will allow us to increase the number of schools that we work with from 35 schools to 130 schools after 2 years. Their large reach will also help us increase awareness about our work beyond what we could do alone. QCT will also help to improve our organizational skills. Developing systems and processes that allow us to deliver our program in the most effective way.
Article pubished: May 2020
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