Carl Wilkens was the last American to stay in Rwanda during the mid-1990s genocide. Now he dedicates his time to spreading awareness about genocide to students and supporters as a full-time speaker. Earlier this week, Wilkens spoke at UC Santa Cruz’s Merrill Cultural Center about his experiences.
Wilkens was invited to UCSC by STAND, a national anti-genocide coalition with over 850 chapters. The group spreads awareness about Darfur and other genocide-afflicted regions of the world, including Southern Sudan, Burma and the Congo. STAND, which also has an international division that extends to more than 25 countries, has a chapter at UCSC.
Passionate about bringing awareness to places like Santa Cruz, Wilkens shared his experiences in Rwanda with the hopes of not just educating students, but getting them involved in a more direct way.
“If I can just encourage five, six, a dozen [students] to go [to Rwanda], maybe that’s my role right now,” Wilkens said.
In 1990, Wilkens moved to Rwanda and did not return to the United States until 1996. It was eight years before he got involved in anti-genocide work and became an adventist pastor. He was interviewed by PBS’ Frontline for a documentary called “Ghosts of Rwanda” in 2003, and since then has spoken at many events. In January of 2008, Wilkens decided to become a full-time speaker.
Wilkens’ speech included stories about near-death experiences and relationships he built with Rwandans during the genocide. He spoke about how the Rwandan genocide gained attention for a short time and then gradually faded out of people’s minds.
He disagrees with the idea that war or genocide can be viewed as simply a fact of life.
“People think it was inevitable, Wilkens said. “I don’t want to live like that. I would rather live with false optimism. We settle for less, we get less.”
Chiara Cabiglio is the co-president of the STAND chapter at UCSC. Two years ago, Cabiglio saw Wilkens speak at Pledge to Protect, STAND’s national convention, and earlier this year asked him to speak at UCSC.
“He sounded really enthusiastic to come,” Cabiglio said. “It was perfect.”
Cabiglio and her co-president Mollie Murphy coordinated Wilkens’ stay in Santa Cruz to include speeches at Pacific Collegiate School — a local charter school — and a UCSC psychology class called Children and War, along with his presentation at Merrill.
Wilkens’ presentations were funded by a donation from the national STAND organization, of which financial advisor Nicole Pokojny was in charge.
“We put on events so that people will become more aware and maybe get involved themselves,” Pokojny said. “It’s an outlet for people who are interested in anti-genocide movements.”
The local chapter of STAND holds weekly meetings consisting of a group of eight to 10 regular students. Last year the chapter was inactive, but this fall, co-presidents Murphy and Cabiglio started it up again.
To conduct outreach for this event, STAND at the UCSC campus made flyers and banners, created a Facebook event page and talked to local newspapers.
Sangetha Komar, a second-year student at UCSC, attended the event and has been trying to become more engaged with STAND’s organization.
“A lot of the members are graduating seniors, and I hope to get involved,” Komar said. “Coming out and spreading awareness is key.”
Third-year Yaneli Torres also attended the event. Both Komar and Torres planned to “like” Wilkens’ Facebook page for his organization, World Outside My Shoes.
“I wanted to learn more,” Torres said. “I learned a lot and I’m really happy I came.”